A Christmas Carol- | - The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi - | - Plan B - |- Portia Coughlan - | - The Qualities of Zero - | - The  Attic, the  Pearls and Three Fine Girls - | - Giulio Cesare in Egitto - | -Orpheus Descending - | - Salome - | - Snow White and the Magnificent Seven - | - Il Viaggio a Reims - | - The Lonesome West

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A Christmas Carol
adapted and directed by Michael Shamata
Soulpepper Theatre Company, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto
December 16, 2001-January 6, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Dickens Without Wonder"

In Soulpepper's production of "A Christmas Carol," director Michael Shamata tries to treat the story's sentimentality the same way that Thornton Wilder treats it in "Our Town"--by exposing the workings of the theatre to undercut it. Unfortunately, his approach is not consistent enough and contrasts too much with John Ferguson's detailed designs to succeed. What saves the show are a number of fine performances, but overall one has the feeling that it is just not as effective as it should be.

Shamata's adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1843 tale begins with John Jarvis as the Narrator explaining what a "ghost light" is in the theatre, removing it because this play intends to conjure up ghosts not keep them at bay. >From that point on Shamata attempts to emphasize the play as theatre. Two actors called "harlequins" (though never costumed as such) move props on and off. Flying is represented by their moving characters about on a ladder with wheels. The London skyline, built on a series of wagons, is pulled by like a toy train. Except for Scrooge, the main actors play from two to five roles. While this procedure does well in undercutting the sentimentality in the scenes with the Crachit family, it also undercuts the magic in the scenes with all four ghosts. Shamata needs to use more extensive repertoire of techniques à la Andrei Serban or to cut back to the bare essentials à la Peter Brook if he wants theatricality to evoke the wonder of Dickens's narrative.

John Ferguson's set is symptomatic of the problem. As a three-sided box with nine doors used for interiors and exteriors, it might seem minimalist but its detailed moldings and panelling work against that idea. Ferguson's costumes, too, are all too varied and realistic if theatre-as-theatre is really what Shamata is aiming at. Graeme S. Thomson's lighting achieves a number of good effects but is not as imaginative as it could be.

Shamata's adaptation consists almost entirely of Dickens's dialogue taken verbatim from the story. Divorced from Dickens's extensive narration, this dialogue gives us only the bare bones of the story. It's rather odd, then, that having begun the play with a Narrator, Shamata does not use him again until the conclusion. The play is only an hour 45 minutes long including intermission. More of Dickens voice via the Narrator would not only be useful for creating the right mood but would heighten the play's theatricality.

Luckily, Shamata has assembled a generally fine cast, most notably with Joseph Ziegler as Scrooge. Ziegler succeeds in the difficult task of making this over familiar character a person not a caricature. Private woes not greed have led this Scrooge to his present rigor, but when he kicks off his slippers in joy at the end we, too, feel his release. Oliver Dennis's main role among five is Bob Crachit and he is perfect for it, showing him as a good, decent man whose inherent optimism withstands many trials. Patrick Galligan makes a positive impression as Scrooge's well-meaning nephew, but is especially effective as the young Scrooge, whose loss of his only love has made him bitter old man we know best.

The main liability in the show is John Jarvis. Among his five roles, he is fine as the Narrator and imposing as the silent Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. But the accent he gives the Ghost of Jacob Marley would seem to locate him in Louisiana not London, and he employs varied gaits alone to differentiate the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Past while neglecting to give them any character, ghostly or otherwise. Young and slim, Kevin Bundy does his best at being old and jolly, but anyone familiar with John Leech's original engravings will find him miscast in his main role as Mr. Fezziwig.

In contrast, Tanja Jacobs, among five roles, is just right as the genial Mrs. Fezziwig. Susan Coyne gives us a Mrs. Crachit much more forceful than usual. Deborah Drakeford is especially good in the key role of Young Scrooge's fiancée Belle, a woman who knows Scrooge better than he does himself.

Among the four children, Henry Ziegler (a relation, I assume) is delightful as the Boy Ebenezer and as Tiny Tim. Ross Ward at only 13 already shows more authority in his two roles, Tim's older brother and a Boy, than many an adult actor.

One of the few scenes in the production where all the elements come together is in the extended wordless sequence of Mr. Fezziwig's ball, cleverly choreographed by Timothy French. Here the onlooking Scrooge is gradually drawn into the lively dances in spite of himself. We see both how isolated he has become and the potential for a renewed connection to society and its celebrations. If every scene were like this one, combining theatricality with real feeling and insight, then this "Christmas Carol" would be a triumph. As it is, you may very well feel like turning back to the source to recapture the mystery and wonder that too often are missing.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi
by Larry Tremblay, directed by Kevin Orr
Odonata and Solar Stage, Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto
January 9-27, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Maudit Anglais"


"The Dragonfly of Chicoutimi" is a play in English by a French-speaking Québecois playwright. If that were not odd enough, playwright Larry Tremblay has deliberately written the play so that it sounds like a literal translation from French, adhering closely to French grammar and sentence structure and often using English cognates for French words. The point of this exercise is to present us with a twofold mystery: What really happened when our narrator was a boy that still haunts him? And why is he speaking for the first time in his life in a foreign language? The questions are potentially intriguing but despite the best efforts of all concerned the play is never fully engaging and its subtext rather more simplistic than mysterious.

"Dragonfly" had its première at Montreal's Festival de Théâtre des Amériques in 1995 presented by the Théâtre d'Aujourdui. Despite the company's apprehension about presenting a play in English as a French play, it became the most successful production in that company's history and went on to tour parts of North America and Europe. Odonata and Solar Stage in association with Factory Theatre are now giving the work its belated Toronto première.

The sole person in the play is Gaston Talbot, a soft-spoken man in his late 50s and native of Chicoutimi, Quebec. Although the fact has been mentioned in preliminary news articles about "Dragonfly", we do not learn until the very end that until now Gaston has not spoken for 40 years. Speaking in a halting, childlike way, Gaston initially tries to pass himself off as a man of the world with a vision to communicate. "Keep in touch" is his motto. Soon enough he reveals this as a lie. He has never been outside of Chicoutimi--all the more wonder then that he should have had a series of nightmares in English, a language he does not know. In the course of relating these dreams, it becomes clear that Gaston is haunted by an incident in his past. While playing cowboys and Indians with his twelve-year-old friend Pierre Gagnon near his "rivière aux roches", Pierre died. Was he murdered or was it an accident?

There have been rather too many plays and films recently, like Michel Marc Bouchard's "Down Dangerous Passes Road" that played in this same venue just two months ago, for us to be very curious about the answer. After all, why should Gaston still be haunted by the death if he were not in some way involved? The more interesting question is why Gaston is speaking in such a bizarre fashion. A monolingual French-speaker suddenly speaking in English is one component, but we also wonder why this middle-aged man is speaking as if he were a child and why is it he is so given to lying to us about himself.

Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is that Tremblay, like Bouchard in "Passes", is presenting us with an allegory not a real character. Written as if to please academics riding the current vogue of post-colonial studies, Tremblay presents English as the language of the oppressor and French as the language of the oppressed. While French is the language of nature ("rivière aux roches") and song ("Tout va très
bien" and "J'attends le jour"), English is the language of Gaston's nightmares and Pierre's sadistic commands. Tremblay has Gaston label the English language as "shit" and to demonstrate how unattractive it is he has Gaston utter a series of English words, like "Popsicle sticks", emphasizing their consonant clusters. Needless to say, this sort of dichotomy may go over with some French-speaking audiences, but it will hardly wash with English-speakers or anyone who realizes that a language's supposed beauty or harshness is subjective. More troubling is the parallel Tremblay suggests between French-speakers and "Indians" as if the two were somehow equally oppressed by English-speakers and as if French-speakers did not also share in oppressing native peoples.

What emerges is a play overflowing with a self-hatred that is unpleasant and unenlightening. Gaston speaks in the nightmare language that guilt has imposed on him. He feels like a dragonfly pinned down in his uncle's insect collection.

Bilingual actor Dennis O'Connor is an ideal choice to play such a linguistically challenging part. He does as much as possible to humanize the allegory, to differentiate the Gaston of the present from his mother and past self and to bring out the wrenching emotions of the story. O'Connor's performance is in perfect accord with what we learn about Gaston at the very end of the play, but until that time it is hard to decide whether the child-like delivery and emphasis on plosives and sibilants is an affectation or part of the character. Gaston lies to make himself seem better than he is, but by presenting him thus, Tremblay makes it difficult for us get involved with a story so subject to contradiction.

Director Kevin Orr has emphasized the emotions in the play to the extent that Gaston never appears to be free of an agonizing inner turmoil. Yesim Tosuner's minimalist set consists of only a chair and table on a dais in front of three rust-coloured fabric panels. Orr has tried to bring out the aspect of the play-as-theatre by having O'Connor play the first third of the 80-minute show with lights up on the audience level, gradually moving onto the stage and finally seating himself in the chair as if Gaston gradually shifted from an ordinary person entering from the theatre's side door to a character in a play. Unfortunately, this has the undesired effect of paralleling our growing disinterest in our untrustworthy narrator. Steven Hawkins's lighting consists entirely of a beautifully managed gradual fade from the lights up at the beginning to light only on O'Connor's face at the end in the midst of darkness.

Students of Canadian drama will likely want to see this forceful if over-schematic expression of Québecois alienation. Factory Theatre Artistic Director Ken Gass has said he does not think of the play as "anti-English", but I think that is exactly how most theatregoers will take it. Even if this were not the case, most people will not look charitably on such an unmitigated dose of self-loathing that blends two languages for divisive ends.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Portia Coughlan
by Marina Carr, directed by Natalie Harrower
University of Toronto Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama, Glen Morris Studio Theatre, Toronto
November 28-December 9, 2001

by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"A Haunting Irish Mystery"

"Portia Coughlan" is the first full production of a play by Irish playwright Marina Carr ever presented in Canada. Carr was the first woman to become writer-in-residence at Britain's National Theatre and her works have won acclaim in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the United States. Given this and that Modern Irish drama is so popular in this country, it is surprising that Canada has so far ignored her work. Hats off then to Natalie Harrower at the University of Toronto Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama for remedying this situation. On the evidence of her production of "Portia Coughlan," Carr is a fascinating playwright interested in the mingling of myth and history in contemporary life.

Superficially Portia would seem to be well-off housewife, all material needs met by her loving husband Raphael in a marriage that has produced three children. But as we meet her on her thirtieth birthday, she shows the hallmarks of clinical depression. She drinks too much, she feels no love for her husband, children or parents, and she flirts with both her former boyfriend and a local bartender but pushes them away when they want sex--she hates her life and what she has become. Gradually we come to know the cause. Portia is completely obsessed with the death of her twin brother Gabriel fifteen years ago and constantly visits the spot by the river Belmont where he drowned.

Except for the frequent appearances of Gabriel singing the same beautiful song about marriage, the play's procedure is primarily naturalistic in the manner of Tennessee Williams as successive conversations fill in more and more of Portia's background to explain her dangerously volatile state of mind. What is unusual is how extensive the background is that Carr gives us. Portia's longing for death is not merely due to her unnatural closeness with her twin, but to the rift between her parents, the tyranny of her father's mother, to her mother's Gypsy background and to a secret in her grandmother's parents' past. Portia justifiably asks the age-old question whether what we do is determined or just the product of "flitting from chance to chance." When Portia speaks of nature her language leaves behind its rough vulgarity and becomes poetic.

What initially seemed to be a psychological problem gradually takes on philosophical and mythic resonance. As twins Portia and Gabriel would often not know who was who. Escape together to a "place that is not here" was always their goal from childhood on. With Gabriel died everything that was good in Portia, or as she says, "Perhaps God gave us just one soul between us, and Gabriel has it." As it turns out, the apparition we have seen of Gabriel is not just a figment of Portia's imagination as we first think but has been seen and heard by others. Genders reversed, is his a siren song of death? Are they changelings as Portia supposes? Will he, like the river god Bel who gave Belmont its name, sweep her like the witch of myth along with him to the river Shannon and into the sea? Layer by layer Carr peels off any contemporary explanations of Portia's malaise to find an inescapable destiny greater than everyday realism can explain.

Harrower ably brings out all these nuances. It would be better if one scene could flow more seamlessly into the next to bring out the nightmarish aspects of the play. A greater sense of tension would have reinforced the increasingly eerie aspect the play assumes. Tanit Mendes's non-naturalistic set cleverly portrays both of Portia's worlds at once, shading from the beiges of the interior settings to the greens by the fatal spot on the Belmont. Natalie Alvarez's costumes are appropriate to each character, especially humorous for Portia's low-class, kind-hearted aunt and her milquetoast husband. Alexandra Prichard works wonders with the limited lighting board at the Glen Morris Theatre.

As might be expected from a director who so clearly understands the text, Harrower draws fine performances from a cast that includes both Equity member and students. Among the Equity members, Lesley Dowey is excellent at making Portia sullen and mercurial, but a greater intensity underlying her world-weariness would make clearer what danger Portia is in. Christopher Morris (Portia's husband Raphael) creates a very sympathetic portrait of a man trying to comprehend the mental state that has drawn Portia away from him. Ann Holloway (Portia's aunt Maggie) is hilarious, giving us a vivid picture of this reformed prostitute and Portia's most trusted confidant. Only Paula Sperdakos (Portia's mother) seems unable to muster sufficient intensity for the frequent rows with Portia and her mother-in-law.

Of the non-Equity members, Louis Adams (Damus Halion) gives a very fine performance as Portia's first boyfriend who's continued love for competes with his incomprehension at her odd behaviour. Razie Brownstone (Portia's grandmother) makes this 80-year-old wheelchair-bound woman a force to reckon with. We laugh at the outrageousness of her remarks but come to see the real malevolence they carry. Toby Steel (Portia's uncle Senchil) is very funny in his own quiet way as a husband who seems content to be henpecked. Rebecca Burton (Portia's friend Stacia) gives us a glimpse of the normal human life Portia could enjoy. Music student Wayne Gwillim lends his beautiful tenor voice to Portia's brother Gabriel bringing out just the right sense of otherworldliness and melancholy in his song. Peter Higginson (Portia's father Sly) and Andrew Gillis (the local bartender Fintan) are adequate but have not quite mastered the Irish dialect.

Irish playwrights from Synge and Yeats on have explored the myths that express themselves in everyday life. Marina Carr adds a new variation to that exploration by a kind of excavation of the everyday to discover the mystery beneath. "Portia Coughlan" is both funny and disturbing. Harrower has taken the first step in making this play and this playwright known to us. Let's hope others follow her lead.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Qualities of Zero
by Jacob Richmond, directed by Michael Kessler
Jack in the Black Theatre Inc., Tarragon Theatre, Toronto November 28-December 16, 2001
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"The Qualities of 'Qualities'"

"The Qualities of Zero" marks the debut in Ontario of an exciting new playwright. This, Jacob's Richmond's first play, had a trial run in Montreal in 2000 that earned it the Montreal English-Speaking Critics Award (MECA) for Best New English-Speaking Play. It is at once a hilarious satiric farce and an exploration of the conflict of intellect and emotion in the pursuit happiness. It shares some of the same themes as British playwright Terry Johnson's "Hysteria," but, though it could stand further revision, Richmond's play is ten times funnier, more engaging and much more inventive.

"The Qualities of Zero" traces the experiences of neurochemist Dr. Roland Welby as he attempts to come to terms with the death of his mother. He is a highly self-conscious genius whose hyperrational view of the world prevents him from telling or understanding jokes without explaining them. At career day at a kindergarten, Welby, still stricken with grief, strays from his topic to explain why happiness is impossible to beings who must die. His summary equation is T + EOE = PD, that is "Time plus expectation of euphoria equals perpetual disappointment." The fiasco at the school leads him to test a new drug he has developed on himself. The drug can completely block the emotional highs and lows produced by the limbic system, "happy-mad-sad land" as he calls it, thus allowing him to feel "zero" when confronting the world around him.

Madness and attempts to cope with it imbue every aspect of the play. When Welby's father died, his mother became an alcoholic and opened a Christmas store to live the happiest day of the year year-round. Welby's brother Rideau is a schizophrenic obsessed with Charlemagne's cheese-consumption who decides to go off his Thorazine after leaving a mental home. Welby's boss fantasizes that he is a Spanish pirate and when Welby's research proves that his life's work is worthless, he goes berserk and seeks revenge. The boss's wife and CEO of the company both work for is dangerously unhinged after divorcing her husband and throws herself at Welby. The lab partner Welby is attracted to despite the drug's control is a death-obsessed vegetarian who buries all the deceased lab animals in her back yard. Welby's dope-smoking neighbour has a theory about the unity of all religions and harbours a terrible secret. Although Welby's drug controls his emotions, it cannot protect him from those of others and by the end when his supply has been cut off he is entangled in the web his interactions with others has created.

Richmond's script could still use revision. It often seems more like a series of interrelated skits than a full-fledged play. It probably is not necessary to show us the before and after every time Welby injects himself since we do gather what the drug's effect is after its first few uses. The characters of Welby's boss and his wife the CEO could do with more depth without sacrificing the humour of their personalities. And the momentum of the first act seems to die out before the intermission. I am also unsure about the locus of the prologue and epilogue. Attention to these points along with a general tightening of the writing would make the play even more enjoyable than it already is.

As actor and commentator on his actions, Scott McCord as Welby is so perfect one would think the part had been written for him. It is a set of variations on emotionless-hyperintellectual-confronts-embarrassing-situation, where Welby is compelled to evaluate everything, even sex and death, in term of advantages versus disadvantages. McCord's makes Welby's non-comprehension of anything that is not strictly logical a rich fount of humour. It's easily the best comic performance I've seen so far this season. As Welby's brother Robert Tsonos avoids cliché and gives Rideau a real warmth and sense of underlying wisdom. Carly Street puts in a winning performance as Welby's potential girlfriend lending her a shyness and sensitivity that make sense of René's funerary proclivities.

The other five roles are really caricatures. Rodger Barton is very funny both Welby's boss Tom and his foul-mouthed landlord Smelsh. Barton probably could do more to make his continual outrage more varied. Barbara Gordon is excellent both as the too-prim Teacher whose class Welby disrupts and as her opposite, the sex-starved CEO. John Cleland makes Welby's zonked out neighbour Danny all too real.

A play like this could easily be ruined by a director who did not trust it and tried to make it funnier. Fortunately, Michael Kessler, in his professional debut, has realized the best way to make this play work is for the characters to take themselves and what they do as seriously as possible. Much of the humour lies in the odd rhythm of the script that continually requires Welby to catch onto things several beats after everyone else. Still, taking this into account, the overall pacing and scene changes could be snappier. The set is grey and very basic as befits the mostly institutional settings. Kessler makes good use of a digital projector to show titles for each of the scenes or "Observations" as Welby calls them. Joanne Dente's costumes are always appropriate and are especially witty for the more stereotyped characters. Given the plain set, Rick Banville's precise, inventive lighting and John Mounsteven's atmospheric sound are crucial in establishing mood and location.

Before the show begins, the projector displays significant quotations from Einstein, Santayana and Pascal all indicating the futility of Welby's experiment. The one by Einstein could be the motto for the whole play: "Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods." A farce that is both intelligent and funny is a rare thing and Richmond's play, with a few adjustments, has so many good qualities it deserves wide currency. I look forward to his next.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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The Attic, the Pearls and Three Fine Girls
by Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross,
directed by P.J. Hammond
Alumnae Theatre, Toronto November 23-December 15, 2001
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"An Empty Attic"

"The Attic, the Pearls and the Three Fine Girls," a collective creation by five women from Theatre Columbus, premiered at the Theatre Centre in Toronto in 1995 and was later remounted at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 1997. The five women--Jennifer Brewin, Leah Cherniak, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alisa Palmer and Martha Ross--have all gone on to greater things and their creation has received numerous productions across the country. Reviews of the original production and its remount always mention how slight the work is: it "doesn't plumb great depths nor scale great heights" as John Coulbourne wrote in 1997. But what made the play succeed was the chemistry among the three sisters. Now in 2001 the play feels slighter still, like little more than extended sitcom episode. And in the revival now playing at the Alumnae Theatre there is no sororal chemistry to redeem it.

The 80-minute play takes place almost entirely in the attic of the Fine family home. Here we see the three Fine sisters--Josephine (Jojo), Jayne and Angelica (Jelly)--in flashbacks playing games with each other as children and in the present playing games with each other as adults. The main theme of the play is how the girls' past perceptions of each other have continued to determine their present interactions. Jojo is constantly putting on airs and throwing fits, Jayne eggs her on and torments Jelly, both treat Jelly as baby and Jelly's job is to reconcile her two older sisters when their fights get out of hand. As they gather for their father's funeral and plan and carry out the party his last wishes dictate, they react to each other just as they did before, but now each has secret anxieties. Jojo, a divorced Brechtian scholar, fears she will remain childless. Jayne, a high-flying stockbroker, is carrying on a lesbian affair. Jelly, an artist, has had to spend six months and the sisters' inheritance in caring for their father at home, and she is pregnant.

The play consists of nothing but the girls' posing, fights, tears and overheard confessions, with no clue whether the three will ever resolve their differences. Then in the final five minutes the authors decide to have the three suddenly recognize the fruitlessness of their quarrels and accept each other for who they are. It feels like a tacked-on happy ending rather than anything rising organically from what has gone before, but that would be difficult since what has gone before has been so insubstantial.

One can believe that the original cast of Martha Ross (Jojo), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Jayne) and Leah Cherniak (Jelly) had the panache to make this bit of fluff a delightful amusement. Sadly the present cast of recent theatre school graduate does not have the technique much less anything nearing panache to make the play seem more than a pointless trifle. The main problem is that the acting styles of the three actors are so different that they seem hardly to be in the same play let alone seem like sisters. Jill Morrison (Jojo) is so mannered and so over-the-top that she seems to be playing a cartoon character and not any person you might know. Erin Shields (Jayne) is the most confident on stage and does project a real, more rounded character, but her interactions with the others too often fall back on techniques more appropriate to sitcoms. The symbolically named Jelly is the quiet one who ultimately holds the family together. This is the most difficult role in the play since the actor has to communicate presence and strength while constantly being ignored by the others. Rather than being the quiet centre of the play, Tina Yeung-Moore pretty much vanishes entirely. Except for two or three key scenes she seems to be sleepwalking through the part disengaged from what she is saying. Only in the various flashbacks to their girls' childhood do the three actors' styles seem to mesh and the play to work as it should.

After the finely detailed work she produced in "Talley's Folly" last year, I am surprised that P.J. Hammond could not coax subtler, more integrated performances from the cast in "The Attic." She rises to the occasion in the play's final minutes, but the previous 75 would have had to be toned down considerably for the ending not to feel as artificial as it is. She does make sure that the authors' (rather obvious) symbols carry their full weight, but given the performances they seem like islands of meaning in a sea of noise.

Hammond has assembled the same team that made "Talley's Folly" such a success and their work is equally successful in "The Attic." The play has an ideal venue in the Studio situated in the real attic of the Alumnae Theatre. Stewart Vanderlinden has struck just the right balance between enough clutter to suggest a storage space of forgotten relics and enough organized space to suggest the girls' oft-used retreat. Michael Spence's lighting is not really dim enough to suit an attic with a single window, but he does clearly signal which scenes take place outside the given time and place of the main action. Dorothy Wilson's costumes are excellent in defining the personalities of Jojo and Jayne, but she gives little visual expression to Jelly's artistic temperament.

Since "The Attic" was written there have been a number of far more substantial plays dealing with the relation of sisters. Most notable among these is British playwright Shelagh Stephenson's "The Memory of Water" (1996) seen in Toronto in 1998 and 2000. A comedy covering much the same ground as the authors of "The Attic" (albeit with six characters), Stephenson is able to extrapolate larger themes concerning the passage of time and the erosion and creation of memory. "The Attic," by contrast, seems to have been created primarily as a vehicle for the comedic talents of three of the co-authors. Without those three and without any larger resonance, "The Attic" seems very empty.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Giulio Cesare in Egitto
by Antonio Sartorio, directed by Tom Diamond
Canadian Opera Company, Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, Toronto, December 3-9, 2001
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"A Rare Gem Shines Again"

Highlights of the opera season in Toronto are the performances by the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble. These are the young singers in training at the COC who move from their comprimario roles in the mainstage productions to star in a production built around their talents. Lately the Ensemble has alternated between modern chamber operas and those of the Baroque, having scored major successes with two by Francesco Cavalli (1602-76), "La Calisto" in 1996 and "Giasone" in 1998. This year the COC Ensemble presents a real rarity, "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" by Antonio Sartorio (1630-80), for what may be the first time in over 300 years.

The title, of course, is the same as one of Handel's greatest and most popular operas that the COC will be mounting in April 2002. Few people know that Handel's opera of 1724 is based on a revised version of the libretto originally written for Sartorio. The COC's thoughtful programming allowing patrons to compare the earlier and later works should be enough enticement to see the Sartorio. What audiences will discover is an opera completely different in style and intent from Handel's, fascinating in its own right, beautifully directed and performed. In the fictionalized history of Giacomo Bussani's libretto, Giulio Cesare has pursued his enemy Pompey to Egypt to find him already slain by the Egyptian king Tolomeo in an effort to gain the Roman emperor's favour. The Egyptian general Achilla and the Roman general Curio fall in love with Pompey's widow, Cornelia, but she her son Sesto pledge themselves to vengeance. Even Tolomeo himself based on Achilla's report vows to add Cornelia to his list of conquests. Meanwhile Cleopatra, Tolomeo's sister, plans to make Giulio fall in love with her in an effort to wrest power from her brother and become sole ruler of Egypt. She woos and conquers him disguised as her own serving maid "Lydia." Cornelia's attempt at revenge results in the capture of her and her son, but with the help of Cleopatra's unsightly nurse Rodisbe and her maid Nireno, the two escape, Cornelia disguised as a soldier and Sesto as a woman. An intricate series of plot twists results in the defeat of the tyrant Tolomeo and a double wedding. What suited Sartorio's Venetian audience of 1676 did not suit Handel's London audience of 1724. The ideal of "opera seria" required the elimination of all comic elements. The plot was simplified and most of the multiple disguises removed. While Handel's version is a masterpiece, Sartorio's has its own virtues. Handel's "opere serie" can often seem like stroll through a portrait gallery as we view characters fixed in one pose after another. In Sartorio we feel more as if watching a motion picture. In Handel recitative serves to move us from one pose, or da capo aria, to the next. In Sartorio recitative can shade into arioso before crystallizing briefly in an aria only to dissolve again into recitative.

Venetian audiences praised libretti for their intricacy and "brio nell'equivoco." In Sartorio we feel that Cesar's arrival in Egypt is a descent into a world of deception where nothing is what it seems. On its own terms this makes sense of the use of multiple disguises and of the scene that closes the first act where the ancient Rodisbe tries to repair the ravages of time with Cleopatra's makeup. Where Cavalli carnivalizes mythology, Sartorio does the same for history giving the work a comic undercurrent that moves from the mourning of Pompey to the weddings of Giulio and Cornelia after the villain has been trapped in his own net.

Director Tom Diamond has taken his lead from Tolomeo's central aria lamenting his subservience to two blind gods, Cupid and Fortune. Diamond has the brilliant idea of showing us that Cleopatra's servants, Nerino and Rodisbe are really those two gods in disguise. This interpretation does not seem forced because Nerino (Cupid) and Rodisbe (Fortune) do perform the roles of intriguer in love and politics, respectively, throughout the opera and their efforts are what help defeat Tolomeo. Diamond at one stroke gives a modern audience insight into the Baroque opera's structure and links it back to gods-in-disguise of his previous productions of Cavalli. The frequent whirling and circles of choreographer Paula Thomson's dance reflect the themes of intrigue and reversals of fortune.

Phillip Silver has created an elegantly simple set of a pentagonal marble floor as a thrust stage and a linen backdrop, both sandy beige, onto which lighting designer Bonnie Beecher projects lines of hieroglyphics and creates a wide range of moods. Wendy White's costumes are appropriate but not quite as witty as the rest of the production. The singers playing Cornelia and Sesto struggle constantly with the unfastenable robe she has given them.

As with other Ensemble productions, this "Giulio Cesare" shows what fine young singers Canada has been producing. Roger Honeywell (Giulio Cesare), fending off some hoarseness, has a heroic dark-toned tenor and an acting ability honed both at Stratford and the Shaw festival. His mourning for Pompey and his realization of Cleopatra/Lydia's love are particular high points. Former Ensemble member Krisztina Szabó (Cleopatra) returns to give a magnificent performance. Her mezzo voice has grown so rich and clear and her presence so commanding she is vocally and dramatically seductive throughout. The night I attended the alternate Cornelia, Colleen Skull displayed a powerful, dark soprano, her finely nuanced reading of the music compensating for rather generalized acting. Shannon Mercer (Sesto), a woman playing a boy who then has to play a woman, has a bright, clear soprano and fine acting to bring off this complicated role with panache.

Among the other singers, tenor David Pomeroy (Tolomeo) does not yet have the richness of Honeywell, but he delivers Tolomeo's important Act 2 aria about Cupid and Fortune with great dramatic power. Bass Olivier Laquerre (Achilla), effective despite a silly costume and wig, makes a strong impression as does tenor Peter Collins (Curio). Mezzo Andrea Ludwig (Nireno/Amore), sprightly of voice and acting, is a constant delight, while veteran tenor John Kriter (Rodisbe/Fortuna), returning for another Baroque role in drag, is funny in his main scene of Act 1 but is otherwise too distracting.

We owe a debt of thanks to the late Peter Sandor, whose Baroque opera Fund has promoted this genre at the COC, and to conductor Gary Thor Wedow, who discovered Sartorio's work among other forgotten 17th-century operas at the Julliard library and recognized its worth. He gives the score an ideal pacing and brings out Sartorio's many contrasts of rhythm and orchestration, from passages of languor or mourning to martial music and the four rousing "trumpet arias."

Experts see Sartorio as the link between Cavalli and Handel. Wedow's warm advocacy of the score, the Ensemble's exuberance and Diamond's insightful staging make this a rare gem that will appeal to more than fans of the Baroque.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Snow White and the Magnificent Seven
by Malcolm Heenman, directed by Glen Kotyk
Ross Petty Productions, Elgin Theatre, Toronto December 6, 2001-January 6, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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Ross Petty has single-handedly made the British pantomime tradition an integral part of Toronto's holiday theatre scene. Last year he brought us "Peter Pan" with a much tauter script than usual and specially commissioned songs by Judy and David Gershon. The main problems were that the music never really soared and the script minimized the chances for the improvisations and audience participation that make pantos so much fun. With this year's "Snow White and the Magnificent Seven," Petty has brought us a more traditional panto with a ramshackle script, borrowed songs and audience participation at every turn. The main problem is that the script adapted by Malcolm Heenman simply doesn't tell the story well.

The overlong first act is frequently in danger of retelling the story of Cinderella not Snow White, dwelling far too much on how Snow White's evil step-mother Queen Lola wants Prince Don (Squeeze the) Charming to marry her not Snow (as she's called) and banishes her to do the cooking in the palace's pizza kitchen. Setting up the characters of Prince Don and his comic would-be rival Muddles takes too long as it does for Snow to get lost in the forest to be discovered by the Magnificent Seven. Act 2 begins with a time-consuming, totally irrelevant encounter between Snow and a band of gypsies. And the scene with the poisoned apple happens so near the end that Snow is "dead" for less than five minutes (no glass coffin here) before she is revived. Books like the "Harry Potter" series have shown that children can handle "darker" subject matter and that it may be beneficial for them to do so. Were there more mourning for the dead Snow White, saving her would have more impact.


The show begins with Allan Redford (one of the Seven) imitating Ed Sullivan introducing his "really big show." Fred Penner, making his first panto appearance, sings his signature song "The Cat Came Back" and the story proper doesn't get going for about 15 minutes. This is fitting since this "Snow White" works much better as a variety show than as a story. The interludes in front of a drop to cover the frequent scene changes are consistently funnier and the performances of the borrowed show tunes more exciting than the lame story-telling of Heenman's adaptation.

The show would not work at all if Petty had not assembled one of his finest casts ever. Stratford star Graham Abbey (Prince Don) shows more ease and good humour on stage than has been evident in his Shakespeare performances. And who knew he had such a fine singing voice? I had to wonder whether comedy and musicals might rather be his forte. Melissa Thomson (Snow White) makes a welcome return after her success in "Cinderella" in 1999. She delivered all four of her songs in bright pop voice, and makes "Cookin' with Gas" the musical highlight of the show. Eddie Glen (Muddles) frequently steals the show with perfect comic timing and spot-on impressions from James Cagney to Mickey Mouse. Without doubt the comic highpoint of the show (for adults) is his impersonation of TV's manic Steve Irwin ("The Crocodile Hunter") encountering a fox--truly laugh-till-you-cry hilarious. Peter Deiwick (Lola's feline servant, Howler) brings energy and a quirky personality to an underwritten role and proves himself better at interviewing children than most of the guest stars I've seen over the years. Fred Penner's fine voice and engaging presence makes him best as the singing Narrator, though he does make an enthusiastic stab at his other roles as Oswald the Obvious, Lola's PR man, and Bongo Beanie the Gypsy. The Magnificent Seven--Allan Redford, Joey Beck, Peter Corneil, Jackie Goodwin, Rich Howland, Jordan Prentice and Nikolai Tichtchenko--could still improve their timing, but do give a rousing rendition of a traditional chain-gang song.

Last, but far from least is Ross Petty (Queen Lola), reveling in the opportunity to play both villain and dame. His ad libs are always funnier than the material, his timing and delivery are perfect and he can make you laugh just with a grimace, sashay or fling of the hair. This seemed to be his most boo-provoking performance ever causing my 10-year-old associate critic Ryan to choose him as his favourite character in the show

Director Glen Kotyk seems content to let the show take on a lackadaisical pace and his choreography is not particularly varied or inventive. The sets and costumes of unknown origin don't really go together, the sets looking like pleasant children's book illustrations while the costumes, except for Lola's arachnoid outfits and the dazzling curtain call dress-up, throw colour-coordination to the winds. Steve Ross provides the suitably unsubtle lighting.

No matter what my objections, what counts most in a panto is the child's reaction. For Ryan, this show was "definitely better" than "Peter Pan" because it was funnier. Because of its higher level of audience participation, the show even gave me an epiphany of sorts. Petty as Lola provoked a loud chorus of boos merely by walking on stage. Here, I thought, is a forum where kids can voice their contempt of adult vanity and presumption. When Lola as the Old Lady offers Snow White the apple, I heard the loudest chorus of "No!" and "Don't do it!" I've ever heard. When Snow bit in and fell to the ground the audience fell absolutely silent. How wonderful to be so involved! How good to try so hard to ward off disaster! When I asked Ryan if he liked this scene with Lola, he surprised me by saying "No." Why?--because "she was too cruel." Aha, I thought, so there still is hope for humanity.

© 2001 Christopher Hoile

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Plan B
by Michael Healey, directed by Richard Greenblatt
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto January 8-February 10, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"The Best Laid Plans"

If the best laid plans "gang aft agley" as Burns has it, the worse then for poorly laid plans. So it is with Michael Healey's follow-up to his enormously successful "The Drawer Boy" of 1999. "Plan B," a satirical comedy about the separation of Quebec, runs out of breath about 15 minutes before the end of Act 1. Act 2 remains on life-support throughout until Healey decides he can no longer eke out his concept and pulls the plug. Fine acting, design and direction only emphasize how inadequate Healey's plan is for "Plan B."

The premise of the action, set in the near future, is that a referendum in Quebec has produced a 53% majority for separation. While the real negotiations for the separation of Quebec go on in secret, a second set of negotiations are held purely for show in a fully-bugged meeting room in a hotel in Hull. We watch the latter set as two officials from Quebec and two from the Canadian government try to keep up the pretense of having meaningful debates while they co-ordinate their schedule of leaks. This highly orchestrated plan goes awry when Michael Fraser, the Federal Finance Minister, gets the hots for Lise Fréchette, the Quebec Intergovernmental Affairs Minister. Soon the political negotiations for separation are intercut with the couple's not-so-private negotiations for getting together.

Up to this point the show has been a lot of fun, quick paced and filled with trenchant humour, though rather more like an extended comic sketch than a play. Having taken the private affair to the stage where the other two negotiators are reasonably comfortable with it, Healey doesn't know what to do next. So he calls up a "diabolus ex machina" in the form of the United States, which has massed troops along the Quebec border set to invade to protect its interests in "la belle province" should it separate. All deals in both sets of negotiations are off and Michael, becoming more of a loose cannon, tries to persuade both Lise and Quebec to stay. Once we enter this all-too-familiar territory, the laughter has already died down and we start to wonder how Healey is going to fill out the 70 minutes following intermission.

The answer is with lots of padding. Luckily, there are surtitles to watch so that one can pass the time by comparing the dialogue in French or English with the projected translations. This is quite useful for learning the equivalent swear words in each language. Healey's dialogue, so biting through most of Act 1, becomes so tentative I thought several times the actors had lost their places. But, no, a glance at the surtitles showed that this inconsequential word-spinning was really what Healey had written. Scene after scene goes nowhere as we watch Michael and the Quebec premier watch television, as we watch Michael and Lise watch television, as we watch Lise wake up after falling asleep on the conference table. The low point of Act 2 is surely when the Senator from Saskatchewan, who has previously been presented as solely Anglophone, unaccountably delivers a long, pointless address half in English, half in fluent French to the remaining bugs in the empty meeting room (I guess), chronicling how English Canada has screwed French Canada through the decades. When he later asks about the negotiations, "Quand est-ce que ça va terminer?," he pretty much sums up our thoughts about the play. Eventually, we find Michael on the phone to his daughter. After that his attempts at speaking French and sympathies for Lise and Quebec are over, and so is the play. Was it this sudden reminder of his family back home that changed him? Conversations overheard assured me I was not the only one who found the ending disappointing and unclear.

After the fluffy first act, Healey tries to bring up deeper topics in Act 2. Canadians in general are motivated by fear. They hate the outdoors and Canada is mostly outdoors. English Canadians share the fear of having to act. French Canadians fear only one thing less than staying in Canada, and that is leaving it. Yet, by Act 2 we don't really care about the characters anymore or what they think. Healey brings up the possibility that the affair is just another part of the couple's political strategy, but he never follows through on it. Nor does he pursue his repeated MacLuhanesque idea that more than anything else we are united by television.

A lot of talent has been expended on this insubstantial material. It's good to see Peter Donaldson in a contemporary play. He makes Michael a pleasantly quirky character, his unconventionality knocking against his conventionality and trying to get out. Marie-Hélène Fontaine makes Lise appealing through the sheer force of her personality, a woman who walks into an affair with no illusions but is still betrayed. At the performance I attended Peter MacNeill as Senator Colin Patterson, fluffed a fair amount of lines, but he is very good at giving some individuality to what is otherwise a caricature of a redneck. John Dolan is well cast as Mathieu Lapointe, the nonentity who is the Quebec Premier, though he generally did not lend either his French or English lines a Québecois accent.

Director Richard Greenblatt's abilities are best seen in the first act where he has something to work with. His pacing is expert with the punchy comedy. In the second act he has to fall back mostly on creating mood and interesting stage pictures. Luckily, he has Glen Charles Landry handsome and ingenious set to use. Christina Poddubiuk's costumes are attractive and appropriate, and Andrea Lundy's lighting is subtle and effective throughout.

One can see why Healey should wish to turn his hand to something completely different from the keenly observed human drama of the "The Drawer Boy" that made him famous. But why he should turn to such a hoary old theme and why he should embody it in such a clichéd way (Anglo man falls for Québecois woman) is surprising in a playwright who previously could find so much in the everyday. Having tried "Plan B," let's hope he returns to Plan A.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Il Viaggio a Reims
by Giacomo Rossini, directed by James Robinson
Canadian Opera Company, Hummingbird Centre, Toronto January 22-February 3, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Journey of Pure Delight"

Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims" ("The Journey to Rheims") is a huge musical feast. For three hours, you are served one exquisite confection after another so cleverly ordered that the palate never tires. The opera may have only the bare bones of a plot, but the variety of Rossini's musical invention and of James Robinson's witty staging are so delicious you may not even notice. The word on everyone's lips at intermission and afterwards was "fun" and that's just what this opera dishes out in abundance.


"Viaggio" is Rossini rarity only recently uncovered. Rossini wrote it to celebrate the coronation of France's Charles X in 1825 with no intention that it would live beyond that specific occasion. That's why he immediately mined it for music used in later operas, most notably "Le Comte Ory" (1828). The work languished for almost 150 years until Janet L. Johnson and others assembled a performing edition in the 1970s leading to a revival at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 1984. Claudio Abbado's recording, taped during the run, was Gramophone's recording of the Year in 1986 and brought the work to a larger audience. "Viaggio" is now regarded as one of Rossini's masterpieces. One reason why it is still seldom performed is that it requires a cast of 18 soloists, ten of whom have virtuoso bel canto arias, plus a chorus.

The prime concern for librettist Luigi Balocchi was not plot but rather manufacturing situations to showcase the talents at the Théâtre Italien in Paris then headed by Rossini. As a result he gives us a day in the life of Il Giglio d'Oro ("The Golden Lily"), a fictional spa in France, where aristocrats from all over Europe have been stranded on their way to Rheims for the coronation. We see various struggles among the staff, difficulties between the staff and the guests and rivalries and love affairs in progress among the guests. In many ways, Balocchi's avoidance of the typically complex plots of the day, not to mention the theme of waiting for something which never takes place, makes "Viaggio" feel more modern than many of Rossini's other operas. The personalities of the 18 named singers are so vivid one can easily miss the fact, admirably elucidated by Janet L. Johnson in her program note, that the action of the opera is also a clever allegory of international relations in 1825.


Richard Bradshaw has assembled an excellent cast featuring a large number of young Canadian singers and several Eastern European singers making their COC débuts. Among the women Russian soprano Elena Voznessenskaia (Madama Cortese, the Tyrolian-born owner of the spa) is a constant delight both as singer and actress. Russian coloratura Ekaterina Morosova (the Contessa di Folleville) is hilarious throughout as an egocentric, fashion-mad Frenchwoman. Despite a tendency to go sharp on sustained high notes, her power, vivacity and great abilities as a comedienne are sure to make her name better known. Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin (the Polish Marchesa di Melibea) uses her velvety voice to give us a comic portrait of a seductive woman who enjoys playing off a doting Russian and Spaniard against each other. Statuesque Henriette Bonde-Hansen (Corinna, a Roman poetess) is an expert actress and has a rich, clear soprano voice that makes the long, harp-accompanied ode to Charles X the most beautiful passage in the opera.

Canadian tenor Michael Schade (the Russian Conte di Libenskof) outshines most of the other men in the detail of his acting and singing, making comically believable this aristocrat as obsessed with Melibea as with his hobbyhorse. Former COC Ensemble member Michael Colvin (the French Cavaliere Belfiore) gives one of his best performances ever. His comically overconfident pursuit of the poetess Corinna won him well-deserved bravos. American bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi (the German Barone di Trombonok) gives us a winning portrait of this genial, peace-loving major who loves his tuba above all else. Present COC Ensemble member Olivier Laquerre (the Spanish Don Alvaro) is vocally confident but paints his character in broader strokes than the others. In contrast, Armenian bass Ayk Martirossian (the English Lord Sidney), though powerful of voice, never bothers to create a character at all, maintaining a blankness of expression no matter what the situation. Slovak bass Gustav Belácek (the Italian antiquarian Don Profondo) has an unusual timbre and captures his character's eccentricity but he certainly does not make as much of his big catalogue aria as Ruggero Raimondi does under Abbado. Standouts among the supporting roles include Alain Coulombe, hilarious as the Molièrean doctor Don Prudenzio, Sonya Goss as the demanding hotel housekeeper Maddalena, Gregory J. Dahl as Antonio the maître d'hôtel and Roger Honeywell in fine voice as Zeferino the courier. The performance I attended was the only one where Sandra Horst replaced Richard Bradshaw at the podium. Horst's tempi were always crisp and her pacing precise. Somehow it seemed appropriate to have a chorus master in charge of this opera where the competing individual voices must be kept in line for the frequent choral sections like the wonderful a capella "Ah! A tal colpo inaspettato" for 14 voices.

James Robinson's production (originally created for the New York City Opera) is the wittiest production of a comic opera the Hummingbird stage has seen since Stephen Wadsworth's "Xerxes" in 1999. Robinson has made life as the Giglio d'Oro vivid by bringing out innumerable details implied by the historical and physical setting. Complex actions are timed precisely to the music whether it is Don Prudenzia's examination of the guests' chamber pots in the morning, the duel between Libenskof and Don Alvaro first with toy ships then with toy soldiers or the setting out of the guests' trunks for Don Profondo's inventory. He also requires the kind of detailed, individualized interaction of characters one seldom sees in plays much less in operas. Allen Moyer's sets both conjure up the tiled rooms of the spa and are humorous in themselves, presenting us with a wall with nine numbered doors for each of the star guests/singers and painting the walls with admonitory Latin phrases like "Mens sana in corpore sano". Anna R. Oliver's imaginative costumes carry us from the starched black-and-white of the staff uniforms and guests' dressing gowns at the beginning to the colourful national outfits the guests don at the conclusion. Mimi Jordan Sherin's non-naturalistic lighting underscores the artifice of the work by changing abruptly as we move from number to number. In one inventive move she has three spotlights wander off on their own after the singers finish the magnificent Sextet.

After the Contessa di Folleville has a fainting fit, the Barone di Trombonok observes "Ma ognun nel mondo ha un ramo di pazzia" ("But everyone in the world has a touch of madness"). This really could serve as the motto both for "Viaggio" in particular and for Rossini's opere buffe in general. His driving rhythms and pyrotechnic vocal writing suggest a world where the energy of egocentric humanity is ever ready to go out of control. In an excellent production such as this, the energy from stage and pit spills out and invigorates the audience. This feast will leave you giddy with delight.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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by Richard Strauss, directed by Atom Egoyan
Canadian Opera Company, Hummingbird Centre, Toronto January 18-February 5, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"A Triumphant Return for Egoyan's Salome"


The Canadian Opera Company's revival of "Salome" confirms how incisive Atom Egoyan's production is. When the production had its première in 1996, most people, myself included, were preoccupied with wondering to what extent the addition of film and live video helped or hindered the production. Now, having accepted Egoyan's use of film as a definite asset, I found I could focus on Egoyan's use of conventional stagecraft in bringing out an extraordinary wealth of detail from the text and music.

Anyone who has seen Oscar Wilde's 1891 play on its own (which in Hedwig Lachman's German adaptation becomes the opera's libretto) will know how rich a text it is. It is a Symbolist play, like Maeterlinck's "Pelléas et Mélisande", that moves forward through a concatenation of images--beauty, love, death, flight all linked to the moon that looms over the action. Richard Strauss's music adds an infinitely complex layer to the text by its Wagnerian use of leitmotivs which alter, clash and interact not just to illustrate the action but to comment on it. Add to this Egoyan's minutely detailed visual presentation with its contemporary references and we have an hour and 40 minutes so packed with verbal, musical and visual information the experience overloads the senses while it stimulates the intellect.


Egoyan, with great insight into Wilde's text, presents the world of the opera as fragmented and distorted in which the only two characters infused with a vision--Jochanaan (John the Baptist) and, paradoxically, Salome--are destroyed. Derek McLane's set with floor and ceiling askew made more nightmarish by Michael Whitfield's expressionist lighting, Egoyan's film of Salome in a mud-bath broken up on multiple screens, Salome's mother Herodias overturning a bowl of oranges all reflect a world that has lost moral unity and purpose ready to collapse. Wilde world is riven by religious fragmentation. Herod makes his binding oath to the "gods" showing the Tetrarch of Judea has adopted the paganism of his Roman masters. The Five Jews fight over points of theology and Egoyan wisely has had Catherine Zuber costume the two Nazarenes as door-to-door proselytizers to show in their view a diminishment of Jochanaan's vision.

Egoyan has the interaction of the female Page and the captain Narraboth parallel and comment on Salome's first encounter with Jochanaan, the Page lusting after the captain just as Salome does after the prophet. Music and text underscore the parallel between Narraboth's suicide out of frustrated love for Salome and Salome's desire for Jochanaan. Egoyan adds a sexual dimension to this suicide which rightly identifies Salome's ecstatic address to the severed head of the prophet as a perverted "Liebestod". The live video projected on the set's back wall of singer playing Jochanaan singing gives the character more presence that in a conventional production where Jochanaan sings unseen for most of the opera. The video presents a close-up of the singer's lips keeping ever present the focus of Salome's desire.

Egoyan's most important innovation is his staging of the Dance of the Seven Veils where home-movies of Salome as a girl are projected on her enormous dress/veil that becomes the screen. Once the girl Salome reaches puberty Egoyan shifts to the shadow dance of dancer Carolyn Woods in Serge Bennathan's unsettling choreography climaxing in her simulated gang rape by the Five Jews. Egoyan has thus transformed this famous interlude from a strip tease to a depiction of the stripping away of Salome's innocence through abuse both in the past and in the present. This view helps explain why both mother and daughter complain of the way Herod looks at Salome. It also changes Salome's gruesome request into a kind of revenge against her father as indeed Herodias sees it. Salome binds her eyes with the dead Jochanaan's blindfold for both have had a vision of life beyond corruption--he through a life to come, she through death.

Richard Bradshaw has assembled the finest cast ever for this production. In British soprano Helen Field we have for once a Salome who actually seems like a teenager. Her litheness and acting ability make the character all-too-believable and her soft-grained voice gives a sense of vulnerability unlike so many of the Valkyries one hears in recordings. She delivers Salome's long address to Jochanaan's head in a kind of trance as if what she imagines him to be is more important that what he now is. The moment when this trance wears off and the reality of her deed begins to dawn on her is chilling.

Tom Fox is magnificent as Jochanaan, his rich, deep baritone providing the only sense of moral authority in the opera. His intensity ensures that no whiff of cliché can cling to his portrayal. With the great Robert Tear we finally have a tenor who brings out the music in this difficult role. Tenors often bark it out to make Herod seem gruff and authoritative. When sung as intended by Tear it becomes clear how weak in personality and power Herod really is. As Herodias, the one of the ruling pair who has royal blood, Karan Armstrong is suitable imperious of voice and presence. Tear's and Armstrong's performances show us that the clash between male and female is the deepest division in fragmented world of the opera.

There is no weak link among the minor roles. Roger Honeywell as Narraboth and Krisztina Szabó as the Page both produce the clear heroic tone need to ride above the sound of Strauss's massive orchestra. Also effective are Gregory J. Dahl and Olivier Laquerre as the two Soldiers, Thomas Goerz and Niculae Raiciu as the two Nazarenes and David Pomeroy, Robert Martin-Field, John Kriter, Peter Collins and Alain Coulombe in the complex interplay of the Five Jews.

As if an exciting production and a superb cast were not enough, we have at the podium British conductor David Atherton, famed for his interpretation of modern music. By choosing tempi slightly faster than usual and never indulging in effect, Atherton makes the score shine like new in a beauty as sinewy as sensuous. It is, in fact, the wedding such gorgeous music to so gruesome a story that makes the work so unsettling.

Strauss meant "Salome" to provoke and thanks to a production like Atom Egoyan's is still does. I would despair of any opera company that attempted to blunt the opera's impact as much as I would a society that did not find it disturbing. Let's hope for another such stimulating collaboration between Egoyan and the COC in the near future.


© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Orpheus Descending
by Tennessee Williams, directed by Rita Spannbauer
Alumnae Theatre, Toronto January 25-February 9, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Into the Underworld"

Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending" (1957) is one of the American master's lesser-known works. Written between two of his hits, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1955) and "Sweet Bird of Youth" (1959), it has never known the success of either. It is a rewrite of his first Broadway play, "Battle of Angels" (1940), and was made into the film "The Fugitive Kind" (1959) starring Marlon Brando. Now a well-directed production at the Alumnae Theatre featuring two superb performances allows Toronto audiences to judge for themselves whether this neglect is justified or not.

My answer is that it not, though it is not hard to see why theatres balk at producing it. First of all it requires a cast of 18 when there are only three major roles. Its eight scenes already show the diffuse structure that will characterize Williams' later plays. Carol Cutrere, who we are led to believe will be the major female character hardly appears in the second and third acts. And mythological parallels, normally located just under the naturalistic surface of the action, are, as in the title, made far more explicit. The play bears so many similarities to other of Williams' works it is easy to think that the playwright treated the same themes more economically elsewhere.

Despite all this, in the hands of an able director like Rita Spannbauer "Orpheus Descending" proves to be an exciting play. Like so many other Williams' plays "Orpheus" concerns the arrival of a young, handsome drifter in a small Southern town and the emotions and jealousies his arrival stirs up. Unlike Williams' best-known plays, "Orpheus" begins with an unusually long exposition. We are introduced to eight of the local biddies gossiping in the Torrance Mercantile Store as they set up a buffet lunch for owner Jabe Torrance's return from hospital. After the arrival of the local outcast, Carol Cutrere, they become a kind of chorus recounting the past history of Jabe's wife Lady and her father. Lady's father who came to America from Italy set up a wine-garden that local thugs burnt down, her father with it, for his having served liquor to a black man. Now Lady, trapped in a loveless marriage with Jabe, dreams of setting up a "confectionery", her own version of her father's wine-garden, in the mercantile store.

Into this setting of hatred where events seem on the verge of recurrence steps drifter with the highly symbolic name Valentine Xavier. Classical Hades was surrounded by the river Lethe and the Styx. The location of Williams' story is Two-River County. Val is the Orpheus of the title with a guitar instead of a lyre. He has had an affair with Carol but he thinks he has put that "corruption" behind him. In this hell he finds Lady, his Eurydice, the only woman he has ever loved. But as his last name suggests, Val is not merely Orpheus but Christ. Unsurprisingly, the last part of the play takes place on Holy Saturday, the time of Christ's Harrowing of Hell when, according to the Gospel of Nicodemus, he brought salvation to Adam and Eve, the prophets and patriarchs. Val even wears a snake-skin jacket, a symbol of regeneration, that is passed on to another of the "fugitive kind".

The linking of Orpheus and Christ is fascinating in itself, but also gives the play a heaviness than only an emphasis on the naturalism of the action can overcome. This is just the course director Rita Spannbauer takes, drawing us in through the immediacy of the characters' emotions. This clear-sighted approach allows the symbolism to amplify rather than crush the reality of the stage action. Williams' stage directions ask for a non-naturalistic set, but luckily Doug Robinson deviates from this to create the feel of a very specific place and time as do Peter De Freitas' costumes with the one exception of Carol Cutrere's that make her seem like a modern woman trapped in an earlier time, a point supported by the text. Michael V. Spence's lighting is best when capturing mood or giving emphasis as in the multiple spotlights used in the early choral sequence.

The cast's abilities range from adequate to excellent. Tricia Brioux gives a powerful performance as Lady Torrance. Brioux is fully alive to the internal conflicts of Lady--duty to Jabe versus attraction to Val, hope for the future versus a sense of sense of doom--whose control over long-repressed emotion becomes ever more tenuous. Carol Cutrere is Lady's opposite. Her open expression of thought and desire has made her an outcast. She seeks a moral focus she thinks she will find in Val. Tracy Rankin masterfully captures Carol's complex mixture of desperation and disdain.

Williams has made the third key role of Val almost impossible to cast. He must seem to have retain his innocence despite having had a lurid past. He must exude an animal magnetism that makes men assume the worst and women feel unsafe if alone him. Yet he must also carry the symbolic weight of a saviour. Other production have foundered here and so does this. Sean Curran is a good actor but is just not right for this role. The innocence and otherworldliness necessary for the symbolism is there but the charisma that everyone speaks of is not. The effect is of a neutral character of whom the others project their fantasies. This is part of what the play asks for, but not all.

Among the secondary figures, Sandi Ross is impressive as the possessed Conjure Woman ("Conjure Man" in the original), and I was glad Spannbauer gave her a song to sing as an interlude to give wider play for her talent. Other standouts include Paul Soren, finely distinguishing the role of the Jabe from that of Carol's brother David; Anne Harper as Vee Talbott, a visionary painter gradually going blind; Martyn Wolfman as her redneck husband the Sheriff, Elaine Lindo as the Beulah, the chief biddy of the town; and Jan Fine and Jabe's Nurse who can barely conceal her disgust at Lady's affair with Val.

No lover of Tennessee Williams will want to miss the chance to see a play of his so seldom performed. It is perhaps his fullest statement on the nature of the artist and his role in society. While not all the demands of the play are fully met, the riveting performances of Brioux and Rankin and Spannbauer's clear direction keep the level of intensity high and bring this nightmarish world to vivid life.


© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Lonesome West
by Martin McDonagh, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Canadian Stage Company, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto January 17-February 9, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Not a Beauty"

After the success here in 1999 of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane", the Canadian Stage Company takes us once again into the pitch black comic world of British playwright Martin McDonagh. Theatre-goers expecting another taut, intense play like "Beauty Queen" will be disappointed by the much looser structure of "The Lonesome West". Difficulties in acting and direction only exacerbate the problem.

"The Lonesome West" (1997) is the third part of McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy. Given that CanStage is showing interest in McDonagh about five years after London, Seattle and New York, one wonders why it couldn't have next presented the second play in the series "A Skull in Connemara" (also 1997). Seattle and New York saw them out of order but that's no reason why we should. Events from "Beauty Queen" and "Skull" are mentioned in "Lonesome West" and obsess one of its four characters. Themes and imagery continues from one play to the next and the destruction concluding "Lonesome West" would have far more resonance if we had seen "Skull" before it.

Regarded in isolation, "The Lonesome West" seems as if McDonagh had relocated Sam Shepard's "True West" (1981) to an impoverished Irish village. Both concern an unending struggle of two brothers for dominance---one neat, one slovenly. Both have associations beyond the story of Cain and Abel in reflecting an irreducible conflict at the centre of a nation's culture. Both feature as a symbol the proliferation of a material object--toasters in Shepard, religious figurines in McDonagh. The primary difference is that Shepard shows how the two brothers change places; McDonagh shows how, despite everything, they stay the same.

The play begins as the two Connor brothers, Valene and Coleman, return with Father Welsh, from the funeral of the brothers' father. We learn fairly soon that the Connors' father has not died in an accident. Rather Coleman admits he shot him because he insulted his hairstyle. This fact links "Lonesome" to that most famous of Irish plays, JM Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World" (1907). The difference is that in Synge Christie Mahon is acclaimed as a hero for being so daring. In McDonagh Leenane has seen so much familial murder that the only one outraged is Father Welsh. Indeed, Leenane is so rife with mortal and venial sin, not to mention an inability say two words without blasphemy or profanation, it has driven Father Welsh to drink and a perpetual state of religious crisis. Meanwhile the Connor brothers have knock-down fights about the most trivial things--crisps, poteen, ladies' magazines--while unphased by murder, suicide, torture until an unexpected event gives them pause.

The prime difficulty with the play is the unedifying spectacle of the brothers' fighting that makes up the entire first act. Despite a certain humour in the absurdity of it all, it rapidly becomes tedious because it is all based on the same formula: important issues are trivialized and trivial issues are magnified. The first act ends without a new plot development and offers little incentive for an audience to return. Luckily, a new tone and a new development occur at the beginning of Act 2 with the conversation of Father Welsh and the local poteen delivery girl Girleen that belatedly puts the constant rowing of Act 1 into a larger, symbolic perspective. We come to se the Connor brothers as two sides of the Irish soul--Valene the iconolater who understands the acquisition of religious figurines but not what they should represent, and Coleman the iconoclast ready to smash any icon, religious or personal, that Valene sets up. The two are inseparable because the one needs the other to give him purpose.

Since the plot only begins to take shape in Act 2, a director needs to help in pointing the way. Jackie Maxwell, normally very sensitive to this kind of problem, highlights only the rough comedy of Act 1. She allows Father Welsh's religious crisis to seem like just another joke, when Act 2 shows otherwise. We have no hint of Girleen's affection for Father Welsh. And worst of all, she gives us little sense, obvious in the title, that the bachelor brothers' constant fighting is related to a deep unhappiness with their situation. By missing the various indicators in Act 1, the act acquires a numbingly uniform tone of pointless brashness. By Act 2 it is too late to generate interest in the characters. The different acting styles of the actors playing the Connors pose additional problems. As Coleman, Randy Hughson gives such a natural performance one might assume the actor was really as grubby and mean-spirited as the character were it not for a certain sense of self-satisfaction that occasionally creeps in to undermines the illusion. As Valene, Benedict Campbell gives a much more restrained performance than usual. He is fine in the quieter passages but as soon as greater emotion is called for he blusters and becomes wholly artificial. Unlike Hughson, the detailed mannerisms Maxwell has given him come off as studied rather than natural. The two thus don't seem as much like two brothers as they should, especially two that have lived together for far too long.

David Storch is excellent as Father Welsh. The sincerity of his emotion is quite moving in the first scene of Act 2 and in his recitation of the letter Welsh has written the brothers. Tara Rosling as Girleen is an intense presence throughout but does not blossom as a character until Act 2.

Sue LePage has designed the realistically unkempt farmhouse room where the action is set, convincing us of the Connors' poverty while still filling the too-large proscenium of the Bluma Appel Theatre. She has the cut of the brothers' outfits show their relation while their differing colour patterns set them apart. The play doesn't give Louise Guinand much opportunity for atmospheric lighting until the quiet scene on the pier that begins Act 2. John Stead has choreographed the frequent knock-down fights making them at once comic and painfully realistic.

Now that we have seen the first and third installments of the Leenane Trilogy, I do hope that Canadian Stage will programme "A Skull in Connemara" so that we can belatedly reconstruct the arc of meaning that McDonagh intended. If CanStage does, it will need more incisive direction and a cast without a weak link. Otherwise, it will be, as in this "Lonesome West" only half as effective as it could be.


© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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