Christmas at the Ivanovs - | - Edible Woman - | - The Good Life - | - The Lost Boys - | - I, Claudia - | - Lettice and Lovage - | - Les Derniers Devoirs - | - The Pirate Widow Cheng

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The Lost Boys
by R.H. Thomson, directed by Jonas Jurasas
Canadian Stage Company, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto February 7-March 9, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Missing in Action"

The Lost Boys," written and performed by R. H. Thomson, is one of the more tedious evenings I've spent in the theatre. The idea of making a play from the correspondence of one's family during World War I might seem like a good idea at first glance. But Thomson can't overcome the blandness of his material or make it even vaguely dramatic. What is worse, if Thomson has not sufficiently shaped the script, director Jonas Jurasas has done nothing to shape the production.

"The Lost Boys" premiered at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa in 2000. The current production, a co-production between the Manitoba Theatre Centre and Canadian Stage, played in Winnipeg in November 2001 before transferring to Toronto. R. H. Thomson is one of Canada's finest actors, but someone should have said before the play reached this stage, "Sorry. It just doesn't work."

Thomson had had the idea for 20 years that he should make something of one of his family's treasures--the letters from five of his great-uncles who fought in World War I written to their mother back home. Four of the five would die in battle or of its consequences. Thomson initially thought of making them into a television documentary, and indeed that's what he should have done. The letters could have acted as a Canadian family's voice in the Great War.

Instead, Thomson was encouraged to write a play foregrounding the letters themselves. The overriding difficulty is that the letters are not inherently interesting and even less dramatic. As Thomson admits in Act 2, Anglo-Canadians of that day, like their British, were trained not to express emotions, especially when they might distress the people back home. As a result the letters put a brave, even jolly, face on the war without describing its horror or verbalizing reactions to it. As Thomson told the Toronto Sun about the letters, "They were hard to figure out, because they were so trivial." Thomson notes this in the play by quoting one letter: "The mud is awful. Could you send me some socks?"

To shape this unpromising material, Thomson frames the play with an account of a vigil he held as a teenager in Belgium for these great-uncles he thought he should feel something for but knew, except for one, only through half-read letters. The intent is to make the play seem like one long vigil itself and to construe the action as Thomson's own discovery of the realities that lie unspoken beneath the letters' surface. Unfortunately, if the letters themselves are trivial the context he finds for them is little more than what one might read in any encyclopedia and his conclusions on the order of "War is hell" are clichéd. Thomson's attempts to give his private ruminations greater resonance by contrasting the "evolution" of Einstein's theories of the universe with the "devolution" of the generals' approach to the war are too forced to seem like more than inept stabs at profundity. The low point of the show is Thomson's detailing of his obsession with and success in finding the physical spot where his father died in a car accident. A play that has seemed extraordinarily self-indulgent finally slips into the confessional and becomes embarrassing.

The play vaguely follows the chronology of the war but Thomson's introduction of characters and themes is confusing. While he physically distinguishes the five brothers--Art, Joe, George. Jack and Harold--he does not successfully do so by voice so that we often are not sure which one is speaking when or whether it is Thomson speaking now or Thomson as a teenager. With the great-uncles undercharacterized and with little of interest to say, we can't become involved with them, their fate or Thomson's quest to understand them. When we find Thomson re-enacting emotions he had to real events, his very acting undermines the "realness" it's meant to convey. Where he is most effective is in mime as when he enacts the "dance" of skeletons as they are pushed to the earth's surface. Recorded voices--Nancy Palk, Kate Hurman, Danielle Gregoire, Welcome Ngozi--are used to play the women the boys knew and an African Art speaks with. Palk is particularly moving as the "lost boys'" mother, Elizabeth Stratford.

The show needs to be rethought and cut by at least a half hour. It also needs a director far more incisive than Jonas Jurasas, who does nothing to focus the work. He illustrates but does not illuminate the text. Thomson mentions a bomb; we hear a bomb. Thomson mentions rain; we hear rain. Thomson mentions singing; we hear singing, and so on. He has Thomson move all over the stage and up a flight of stairs. But for long periods he has him sit still listening to the recorded voices reading. For all its surface motion the play is static.

The production's most notable aspect is its design. Astrid Janson has covered the otherwise bare stage with dirt and added a trench whence Thomson produces hidden props. Behind are three gauzy panels in front of a screen. Janson thus recreates the structure of the painting "La Rêve," owned my Mrs. Stratford, depicting soldiers asleep on the earth, their dreams appearing above the clouds in the background. To create this background lighting and visual designer Martin Conboy has done an extraordinary job of combining a wide range of lighting effects with projections, sometimes altered to create the illusion of motion, of facsimiles of letters, telegrams and other documents and portraits of the Stratford family along with archival photos from World War I on and off the battlefield. This and Duncan Morgan's vivid soundscape are ultimately more involving than any of Thomson's text.

As it is, "The Lost Boys" is rather like watching home-movies for two hours of people you don't know. They may be fascinating to the person narrating them, but if he can give no reason to be interested beyond his own fascination, they will seem pointless. It is dramatic truth, not fact alone, that makes a play.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Mojo
by Jez Butterworth, directed by Daryl Cloran
Theatrefront, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Toronto March 8-23, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"They Got Their Mojo Workin'"

Following its highly successful production of "Our Country's Good" last year, Theatrefront brings us the Toronto première "Mojo" by British playwright Jez Butterworth. After its world première at the Royal Court Theatre in 1995, Butterworth won at least three major awards for Best New Playwright and the play won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy. The play has since influenced such Guy Ritchie films as "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch" with its mixture of macabre humour, violence and expletive-laden language among low-life criminals. But "Mojo" is theatrical not cinematic and in conjuring up so forcefully a world of impending chaos, we feel tragedy peering through the mask of comedy until suddenly the mask drops.

We first meet Sweets and Potts in a small room above a seedy bar where the latest singing sensation, Silver Johnny, has been packing them in. It's the late 1950s and since the criminals' control of the jukebox trade is slipping they plan to move deeper into the entertainment industry itself. Sweets and Potts are high on amphetamines and thus over-excited by a nighttime meeting in the next room between their boss Mickey, club-owner Ezra and Sam Ross, leader of a rival gang. They mistakenly assume Ross plans to back Ezra and Mickey to make Silver Johnny a star in America. Early the next morning, however, Mickey enters to announce that Ezra's body had been found behind the club in two trash cans and that Sam Ross has kidnapped Silver Johnny. This unleashes a struggle for control of the club between Mickey and Ezra's seemingly psychotic son Baby. Mickey orders the four to barricade themselves in the club while they await an attack by Sam Ross. Meanwhile, the other three scramble to find where to place their allegiance.

The OED tells us that "mojo" means "Magic, the art of casting spells; a charm or amulet used in such spells"; it's given erotic connotations in blues songs from Muddy Waters to The Doors. All the play's characters, caught in the midst of a struggle for power real or imagined, seek that talisman that will bring success, whether it is Baby's clothes that Skinny apes, Johnny's silver jacket or Silver Johnny himself. This power is also sexual as evidenced in the criminals' vast repertoire of homosexual put-downs and come-ons. The comedy of Sweets and Potts is that they think they are deeply involved with the action while in fact they are merely onlookers. The others not so covertly vie for sexual favours.

"We live in a new time", Mickey says, and he's right. All the paraphernalia associated with the club suggests the end is near. The jukebox of Act 1 symbolizing the game these scum are leaving behind; the antique cutlass that is their only weapon until Skinny brings back a tiny Derringer; and the two trash cans on stage through part of Act 1 and all of Act 2, an obvious reference to Beckett's "Endgame"--all these suggest an old system that will soon be replaced just as the music and mores of the time will be swept away in the next decade. But the play is a critique of the 1990s as much as the 1950s. The younger generation destroys the older in revenge for its hypocrisy and corruption. Baby's own story is a perverted version of Abraham and Isaac. But if Baby represents Butterworth's own older generation, it is even more to be feared.

The cast is tremendous. Dylan Trowbridge and Christopher Morris are hilarious as the comic duo Sweets and Potts. Their speed-induced, rapid-fire Cockney dialogue can seem pretty impenetrable especially in Act 1, but what comes through is their personalities along with verbal and physical comedy of hair-trigger precision. Potts is the dreamer of the two, believing the bosses will reward his "discovery" of Silver Johnny and take him to the promised land of America which he seems to know only through Gershwin's "Summertime". Sweets is the dimmer of the two who can't tell when to keep a secret and whom Potts constantly tries to infuse with his optimism. They are Butterworth's equivalent of Shakespeare "wavering multitude" that Rumour plays upon, always ready to side with who they think will come out on top.

Damien Atkins is superb as Skinny Luke, showing a mixture of fear and ineffectual hauteur that is simultaneously funny and frightening. Co-producer Michel Protti literally puts himself on the line for this show appearing though most of Act 2 in a highly uncomfortable position.

As Mickey, Blair Williams shows us a man trying to maintain a façade of strength while crumbling inside. The underlying disquiet we at first assume is fear of reprisal turns out to be a gnawing guilt Mike Shara is truly unsettling as the psychopath Baby. Like the others, we at first assume his swings from sadism and dissociation are due to drugs. When we learn later that he was sexually abused by his father, we take that as the reason. By the end, however, we have to wonder if we've had a glimpse of evil itself.

Director Daryl Cloran's precision and sharp pacing plus the intense performances he draws from the cast insure that the tension never lets up. In Act 2 when the amphetamines have worn off a greater dread takes their place. Everything from pauses to fights is expertly judged to create the greatest impact. Designer Lorenzo Savoini's has caught just the right blend of real and unreal in his sets, in Act 1 through an extremely forced perspective and in Act 2 through "girders" that curve instead of support, enhanced in each case by his edgy lighting. Dana Osborne's costumes are accurate guides to period and character.

"Mojo" is not for the easily offended, though in general the threats and descriptions of violence are worse and anything seen on stage. In its mixture of comedy and horror, "Mojo" is very much like a modern Jacobean drama where the weak search for a talisman to give them power only to finds a death's-head. Acting, direction and design of such a high calibre make this one of the most powerful productions so far this season.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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I, Claudia
by Kristen Thomson, directed by Chris Abraham
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto January 12-February 17, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

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"Child Wonder"

Kristen Thomson's one-woman show "I, Claudia" richly deserves all the plaudits it has received. After premiering at the Tarragon in April 2001, it went on to receive Dora Awards for Best Performance and Best New Play. This year its second run at the Tarragon sold out soon after tickets went on sale. Now word comes that it will be the only English-Canadian work at the international World Stage Preview at Harbourfront this April. How has Thomson's funny-sad portrait of an "official pre-teen" won such unanimous acclaim?

The most obvious answer is through Thomson's absolutely truthful characterization of a schoolgirl trying to cope with puberty, her parents' separation and her father's impending remarriage. It's simply the most accurate and detailed portrayal of a child I've ever seen on stage. The awkward gestures, the speech rhythms, the experimentation with new vocabulary, the conflict of wanting the comfort and protection she is used to as child with the desire to rebel against the hypocrisy of adults, all this complexity Thomson captures in text and performance and renders as completely natural. She shows the child uncomfortable with becoming a woman, the pre-teen who outfacing adults but inwardly is riddled with self-doubt. We see Thomson change costumes and don the half-mask that makes her Claudia, yet she so fully inhabits her character that she instantly calls forth memories in us of that awkward time of life we thought was forgotten.

If Claudia were the only character Thomson played, the show would be tremendous enough. But her assumption of three more fully realized characters makes it amazing. We first meet Drachman, the custodian at Claudia's school, who allows her to keep her sanctuary of saved objects in the boiler room. He was a theatre manager in his homeland of Bulgonia and has made Claudia's hideaway into a kind of theatre. We also meet Claudia's grandfather Douglas, lonely now as he cares for his bedridden wife. Finally, we meet Leslie, the business manager who wants to marry Claudia's father. Her hard-edged party-girl persona hides her fear that this marriage is her last chance to prove to herself and her parents that she's got her life together despite her doubt and their ridicule. Thomson gives each a distinct voice, rhythm and gestural repertoire from the heavily-accented Drachman, to the incredible slow Douglas to the hyperactive Leslie. As with Claudia, the humour comes not merely from what they say but from the accuracy of Thomson's portrayal. Unlike so many new playwrights, Thomson has left it up to us to see the parallels among this group. Like Claudia, Drachman and Douglas are coping with the loss of home and youth; like Claudia, Leslie is undergoing a major change in her life. All use self-deprecation as a form of self-defense. The three help to universalize the Claudia's own crisis by suggesting that transformation is part of living.

Thomson wrote "I, Claudia" by transcribing hours of improvisations she did using copies of four masks from a set of 26 introduced to the National Theatre School by famed instructor Pierre Lefevre. These beautiful masks also universalize the action and are linked to the underlying theme of the play of individuality hidden by perceived stereotyping. All aspects of the Chris Abraham's insightful production support this. Behind the flimsy red curtain of Julie Fox's set is what looks like a pile of miscellaneous junk. This pile, like Claudia's own secret box, is in fact a treasure trove where all the props for the show are magically produced or hidden. Thomson's change from one costume to the next is not instantaneous, but the fact that we see her change in front of us underscores the theme of transformation. Rebecca Picherack's lighting can spot-light symbols like the goldfish bowl or appear from hidden sources like the junk pile or inside a hat.

One could say that the play's main images--a butterfly, fish in a bowl, a rainbow--are hardly new. But those are images Claudia uses to express her situation and they are new to her and she makes them new to us. Claudia would like things to stay the same, but time and circumstance are forcing her to leave behind the life she knows. We have more faith than she does that she has enough spirit and good humour to cope with this change no matter what hurt she may feel now. The show is heart-warming in the very best sense. You will never have felt so protective of a character on stage as you will of this plucky little girl facing so much disillusionment.

There are no tickets to be had for "I, Claudia" for the rest of its run at the Tarragon. But it can be seen next as part of the World Stage Preview at the du Maurier Theatre Centre April 17-21 of this year. If you have not seen this wonderful show, don't miss it in April.

 

©2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Edible Woman
by Dave Carley, directed by Timothy Bond
Canadian Stage Company, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto February 21-March 16, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Marian McAlpin Show"

"The Edible Woman," a co-production between CanStage and the Vancouver Playhouse, is like a two-and-a-half hour pilot for a sitcom that never made it. Every aspect of the show-the writing, direction, the acting-is geared to show Margaret Atwood's breakthrough novel as negligible bit of 1960s fluff.

Atwood's novel, written in 1965 but not published until 1969, tells of Marian McAlpin, a young woman with friends, a lawyer for a boyfriend and a job at a consumer survey company. Her normal life begins to crumble when her boyfriend Todd asks her to marry him. She begins to drop items from her diets until she virtually stops eating. Meanwhile, she strikes up an acquaintance with angst-ridden graduate student Duncan and cannot reconcile her attraction to this hapless loser with her impending marriage. Atwood's tale proposes Marian as a woman who senses her own oppression without the benefit of a feminist movement much as Ibsen had viewed Nora of "A Doll's House" 90 years earlier. Unlike Nora who has her awakening while already trapped in a marriage with children, Marian has her awakening in time to fend off marriage.

Not all novels make good plays, especially a novel like this one where the narrator's point of view is all-important. Atwood has called the novel "anti-comic" because although Marian's world is filled with events that are humorous, Marian's alienation from them is not. In his stage version author Dave Carley has totally reversed the focus and priorities of the novel. Yes, he has Marian act as a narrator of her own story, and yes, he preserved the shift from first to third person when Marian is at her most dissociated except that this doesn't work on stage where the actor/narrator is physically present. Carley foregrounds the comic events of the book since they are the most dramatic but this simultaneously backgrounds Marian view of them. Marian's narration is adapted directly from Atwood's prose, but the dialogue veers in quality from the workmanlike in setting scenes and moving the plot from A to B to the awkward where better-known lines of the book are crammed into people's mouths regardless of how unnatural they sound. "I see myself mirrored in your eyes, small and oval," he has Marian tell Todd.

Material where point of view is all requires an expressionist adaptation or failing that an expressionist staging. The imagination for such an approach is far beyond Canadian director Timothy Bond. Since 1982 Bond has concentrated his efforts on directing television movies or series with the occasional break for the odd junk film. It's not surprising that his reference point for a script filled with comic situations should be the situation comedy. From the actors' mugging to their exaggerated gestures, staccato line delivery and deliberate pauses for laughs, he has molded Carley's script into a live sitcom with no thought as to its inappropriateness for Atwood's story.

The final point where this adaptation could be given some depth would be in the actor's performance of the play's central character. Unfortunately, Jillian Fargey as Marian seems to have modelled her interpretation on Marlo Thomas in "That Girl." She is so pert and perky throughout you would never know she was suffering from mental distress or an eating disorder until she mentions them after which she immediately bounces right back. Her line delivery and gestural repertoire like her upbeat attitude remain uniform no matter what the situation.

The rest of the cast has to be judged according to how well they suit the sitcom Bond and Carley have made for them. Todd Talbot fits the bill as a stereotype, Marian's male chauvinist fiancé. Lynne Cormack does clearly distinguish her two roles as Marian's boss, the "office virgin" Lucy, and Marian's crotchety Landlady, but both are caricatures. The scenery-chewing award goes to Alec McClure as Marian's friend Len, a pseudo-British virgin-hunter. Michael Rubenfeld does nothing to suggest the obsessiveness we hear so much about in Duncan's roommate.

The only two actors able to enliven the material are Tara Samuel as Ainsley, Marian's roommate, and Darren Keay as Duncan. Although Samuel is given to stock gestures, she does succeed in making the fun-loving Ainsley into a living, breathing character with a wider range of emotion than Fargey's Marian. Keay gives Duncan such intensity he steals every scene he's in. He is perfect in portraying this scruffy character's anomie and making it a natural source of humour. Duncan is the oddest character in Atwood's novel, but due to Keay's refusal to follow the sitcom mold he becomes the most believable one in the play.

As if to reinforce the superficiality of Carley's and Bond's conception, Charlotte Dean's sets are literally two-dimensional and brightly coloured. Large panels fly down from above as if for a skit on "Laugh-In." Her costumes suit the period and the characters but I don't see why they are so exaggerated for Lucy and Landlady. Given the minimally occupied stage, Adrian Muir's lighting is unusually inventive in establishing the play's numerous changes of locale.

If you are a real fan of Atwood's novel, this production will likely cause anger and resentment. One cannot escape the fact that Carley and especially Bond have completely trivialized the book and with it its protofeminist critique. Better to reread the book than see it dumbed down. Indeed, why leave the tube if the theatre serves the same pap?

 

©2002 Christopher Hoile

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Les Derniers Devoirs
by Louis Calaferte, directed by John Van Burek
Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkley Street Theatre, Toronto
February 15-March 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Banal Satire or Satire of Banality?"

Though the plays of poet and painter Louis Calaferte (1928-1994) have been popular and highly acclaimed in France since the 1970s, they are virtually unknown in North America. To remedy this situation the Théâtre français de Toronto is presenting the first production of any play by Calaferte in Canada. Director John Van Burek has chosen one of the playwright's later works "Les Derniers Devoirs" ("Last Rites"), one of Calaferte's works that Comédie Française in Paris has produced. Now and then one catches glimpses of what might have attracted Van Burek to this play and the French to Calaferte, but the overall impression is of an incredibly insubstantial piece of theatre. Only hindsight suggests that there might be more to "Les Derniers Devoirs" than the production has brought out.

This impression comes from both a difference in how the French and Canadians approach comedy and from a deficiency in the production itself. The 75-minute play shows a typical French bourgeois family, Henri, Juliette and their daughter Sylvie, as they prepare for the funeral of the mother's father who died two weeks ago and is now laid out in the front room of their apartment. The conversation is utterly banal. There are no jokes per se, no one-liners, gags, put-downs, or exaggerations that would signal to a North American audience that this is a satire or even a comedy. Large swaths of conversation are taken up with "What do I wear?", "Where is it?", "How do I look?", "Who is coming over after the funeral?", "Did you buy enough food for the guests?", "What did you buy?", "Where is it?", and so on, on this mind-numbingly though realistically trivial plane. I frequently asked myself what the point of all this could be other than depicting a slice of life until the surprise of the play's final line put everything into perspective making clear the play is indeed a satire.

While I won't reveal the final line, I can say that the play is built on the tension in the family, felt most keenly by Juliette, of trying to make the day of her father's funeral a consecrated time to which all things mundane and irreverent must at least for one day be obliterated. The comedy derives from the difficulty the family has in keeping even 75 minutes sacrosanct much less an entire day. The point of Calaferte's satire is that the lives of his typical bourgeois family are so steeped in trivialities that even a death cannot shake them from their preoccupation with minutiae. In France Calaferte is famed for satire that is as trenchant as it is subtle. One reviewer of his collected plays calls him a "Virulent portraitiste des vies minuscules". It is very likely that for cis-Atlantic dwellers like us this satire is far too subtle. Yet, once you catch on to what Calaferte is doing, which may be only after the play is over, then you can see how devastating his critique of the bourgeoisie actually is.

Difficulty in cluing in to Calaferte's brand of satire is one problem with "Les Derniers Devoirs". The other is the miscasting of the central character of the play, Juliette. It is her father who has died, it is she who is most insistent that the family change their mode of behaviour for at least this one day and it is she who reads signs of disrespect for the dead into whatever Henri and Sylvie happen to say or do. Deborah Grover does not have the presence or command to bring the role off. Not being word-perfect further undermines her portrayal. Grover is good at communicating Juliette's fragility, but we would have a greater indication of the play's satiric bent if she had made clear that Juliette's fragility were not her nature but an affectation. Indeed, another actor could have made clear that nearly everything Juliette says is affectation. Without an authoritative performance at its centre much of the play loses its point.

TfT Artistic Director Guy Mignault as Henri and newcomer Kim Bubbs as Sylvie gives us glimpse of what the show might have been. Mignault is a masterful comic actor, his timing is impeccable and he knows how to give Henri just the right satiric edge without descending to caricature. Bubbs is a delightful presence throughout even though she plays her character straight without the slight satiric spin of Mignault.

The main sign that the play is a comedy is Glen Charles Landry's handsome set with five doors placing Calaferte's mundane dialogue within a structure associated with farce. His lighting remains naturalistic except for that important final line. Nina Okens's attractive costumes are key in indicating the family's status ands obsession with appearance.

It's not surprising that John Van Burek, whose Pleiades Theatre has brought Toronto audiences a series of Marivaux plays, should be interested bringing us the work of another subtle French playwright. Given the plainness of Calaferte's dialogue, its humour can come out only through the manner of its delivery. It may well be that here Van Burek has been over-subtle himself since his naturalistic direction does not give enough point to Calaferte's satiric intent.

I do hope the TfT's experiment with Calaferte leads to the production of another of his 22 plays. Only then will the troupe and the audience gain more experience in coping with a playwright whose modus operandi is so different from what we think of as satire. If this production does not wholly satisfy, it does pique one's curiosity about this unusual writer.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Christmas at the Ivanovs
by Aleksandr Vvedensky, directed by Aleksandar Lukac
Talk Is Free Theatre, Poor Alex Theatre, Toronto February 14-March 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Merry Anti-Christmas"

One of the good things about living in Toronto is the presence of so many small theatre companies willing to wrench little-know works from obscurity. Such is the case with the new Talk Is Free Theatre who bring us Aleksandr Vvedensky's 1938 comedy "Christmas at the Ivanovs", subtitled "An Anti-Christmas Anti-Play". I saw the play during its short run last year at the Robert Gill Theatre and was delighted to glimpse something of Russian Absurdism, a movement previously unknown to me. Director Aleksandar Lukac has now brought his production with many of the same actors to the Poor Alex Theatre and to a potentially larger audience. Check your reason at the door because Vvedensky makes Ionesco look as staid as Ibsen.

Aleksandr Vvedensky (1904-1941) was a member of OBERIU, sometimes called Russia's "last avant-garde movement". (The name is an acronym for Obyedineniye Realnogo Isskustva, "The Association for Real Art".) Vvedensky and the better-known OBERIU member Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) wrote "real art" based on the premise that the world is absurd. They satirized literary conventions and did away with logic since they did not reflect this reality. Needless to say, this idea clashed with the Stalinist view (later to become "Socialist realism") of what literature should be. OBERIU members were not allowed to publish or perform their works and were assigned jobs in the children's literature departments of state publishers. Eventually Vvedensky and Kharms were arrested and died in prison. Only in the 1970s and '80s were their works assembled and published prompting their current wave of popularity.

To reflect the absurdity of the world "Christmas at the Ivanovs" is built on internal contradictions. Thus, despite the title the play is not about the Ivanovs but the Puzyrovs. On Christmas Eve, while cooks are slaughtering chickens and suckling pigs, the Nurse Adelina Schmetterling is bathing the seven Puzyrov children who range in age from 1to 82. One child, Sonia Ostrova, 32, becomes so obnoxious in bragging about her breasts and in insulting the Nurse's private parts that the Nurse in fit of rage beheads her with an axe. Will the Puzyrovs be able to have a happy Christmas despite this tragedy? Will the Nurse be brought to justice? These are the questions the play nominally pursues though in fact they simply provide a framework for a series of sketches satirizing the police, doctors and judges and along with them reason, language, sentimentality, story-telling and the theatre itself.

Lukac's concept is to present "Ivanovs" in the form of an improvisational cabaret. The play itself is only about 25 pages long, but Lukac has lengthened it to two hours through the insertion of musical numbers, some of Kharms's mini-stories and extended improvisations on the play's view of human interactions as game-playing. He introduces a Narrator to read and embellish the stage directions. Kurt Smeaton makes him hilariously officious, incompetent, not especially articulate but ruthlessly dictatorial. A kind of sadistic game develops between him and the cast as he deliberately narrates actions he knows they cannot perform. The two policemen are not prominent figures in Vvedensky's text, but thanks to Philip Riccio and David Dodsley they become the most memorable characters in the play. Their two main scenes--a Möbius-like intragastric quest to find the map the captain has swallowed and their insistence on interrogating the Nurse despite her willingness to confess--are side-splittingly funny and bring to mind the best of Monty Python.

Michelle Polak and Darcy Murphy are very effective as Mother and Father Puzyrov who blame their evening at the ballet for Sonia's death. In one remarkable scene their grieving becomes a competition leading to their sexual arousal and coupling over their daughter's corpse. Keith Barker is excellent as the precocious one-year-old Petya, who already can speak his thoughts and is traumatized by the scene above. As one might expect the character who seems the least insane is the axe-wielding Nurse herself. Michaela Hayek gives her great intensity despite her character's increasingly bizarre situation. The Nurse's momentary fit of madness comes to seem minor compared to the institutional madness around her.

Julie Dumais does fine job in the more than six roles she plays. Tim Gentle is best as the zealous would-be king of the gastric parasites, but his tendency to shout all his lines undermines his effectiveness. Mima Vulovic could make more of her role as the paranoid doctor running an insane asylum.

The play takes place on a nearly bare stage dominated by clock with detachable numbers, cast off one by one as the Narrator proceeds through the story. Andjelija Djuric has caught the deliberately make-shift, deconstructionist nature of Lukac's conception by having the asymmetrical proscenium rise to haphazardly nailed bare boards at the top. Her costumes have an appropriate whiff of fairy-tale about them especially in Mother Puryrov's opulent gown and the policemen's dress uniforms. And she does think of a clever way to dress Dodsley as a future Christmas tree. Sandra Marcroft's lighting underscores the cabaret feel of the show, as does the live music of Dragoslav Tanaskovic and Ilja Lukac. You may find it hard to get the title song out of your head.

As with any show using improvisation, some scenes come off better than others. The first act provides a steady build in inspired lunacy, but the second falls off in interest after the policemen's interrogation of the Nurse. Inserting additional material may not be a good idea in the subsequent scenes in the asylum or in court where similar situations have already been explored to better effect in the police scenes. There were no previews, always a boon to this kind of show, so that opening night had pretty much the rough-and-tumble character of a first preview. Having seen the show last year near the end of its run, I don't doubt it will grow tauter and more confident the more it plays.

Lukac and his company have made sure this nearly forgotten experimental play still has an experimental edge. It reminds us why absurdism, since it holds nothing as absolute, could seem so dangerous to a totalitarian state. Anyone with a taste for the absurd from Ionesco to Monty Python won't want to miss it.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Lettice and Lovage
by Peter Shaffer, directed by Ted Follows
Theatre and Company, King Street Theatre, Kitchener February 21-March 9, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Enlarge, Enliven, Enlighten"

Theatre & Company's fine new production of "Lettice and Lovage" gives local audiences a different view of British playwright Peter Shaffer. Shaffer is best know for such plays as "The Royal Hunt of the Sun" (1964), Equus" (1973) and "Amadeus" (1979), the last two recently presented by the Stratford Festival. Each of these plays focuses on a struggle for dominance between two men in the realms of history ("Hunt"), psychology ("Equus") and art (Amadeus") concluding with the destruction of a youthful visionary by a middle-aged representative of the mediocre. "Lettice and Lovage" (1987) is a welcome change from this pattern. We still have the conflict of the visionary and the mediocre, but this time the main characters are two middle-aged women, this time the two opposites reach an accord, this time the play is a comedy and a witty, warm-hearted one at that.

The play charts the change from antagonism to growing friendship between tour guide Lettice Douffet and Lotte Schoen, her superior from the Preservation Trust. We first meet Lettice in the midst of giving a tour of Fustian House in Britain. To compensate for the fact that nothing of interest ever took place in Fustian House for 400 years, the patter of the highly eccentric and theatrical Lettice has grown so rich with her own elaborate (and quite humorous) invention that it no longer has much semblance to the truth. After one of Lettice's more egregious embellishments, Lotte cuts her off for not following the fact list issued by the Preservation Trust and fires her. Yet there is something about this woman who sees the past so vividly and who refuses to accept the mediocrity of the present that speaks to a side of Lotte long-buried by life as an efficient bureaucrat. Lotte makes a move to help the now-unemployed Lettice and in the process we see how two such unlikely people can become friends and join forces against a common enemy.

The play is not grand or spectacular like Shaffer's three better-known plays, but that makes it all the more suitable for an intimate space like the Theatre & Company's King Street Theatre, configured this time as a three-quarter thrust. There may be less at stake here than in the other three plays, but "Lettice and Lovage" is thankfully devoid of their pretentiousness. Why we are so ready to accept the mediocre in general, the "mere" as Lettice puts it, and modern architectural ugliness in specific are questions that have only become more relevant as we consider more closely the cultural environments we have created.

Shaffer wrote the juicy role of the eccentric Lettice Douffet for Maggie Smith, who, as everyone knows, can make a gripping performance out of the proverbial telephone book. When I first saw the play in London Carole Shelley had already taken over the role and was doing her best to imitate Dame Maggie. Director Ted Follows and actor Linda Bush have wisely taken a different course. Follows and Bush work to make Lettice more of a believable character rather than the wholly fantastical creature I saw in London. What is lost is the overwhelming charisma that dominates everyone she meets. What is gained is a greater sense of vulnerability, as if Lettice uses her theatricality to hide an inner fragility and fear of a modern world she doesn't understand. To have Bush play Lettice in this way means she and Lotte can appear much more as equals and gives greater support to the ending where each sees how she can benefit the other.

Kathleen Sheehy is excellent as Lotte. She shows that Lotte's stern exterior also is a cover for a sense of loss and regret. Lettice's background (her mother was an actor-manager) has nurtured her flamboyance; Lotte's background (her father published art books) has led her to bitterness. In the play's second act it is delightful to see how Bush and Sheehy gradually break the ice between these distrustful women to reveal a common ground between them.

Beside these two there are two other actors not including the four who make up Lettice's tour group and Lettice's cat, Felina Queen of Sorrows. Alison Jutzi makes the small part of Lotte's trepidatious secretary memorable and George Joyce is perfect for the part of Lettice's philistine solicitor who gradually gives in to the tug of Lettice's imaginative world.

Dennis Horn has designed the impressive set, a massive staircase for Fustian House that takes up most of the stage but can easily be transformed into Lotte's office and Lettice's basement flat. His costumes bring out the contrast of the characters particularly when Lettice is in her Mary Queen of Scots mode, but he could have allowed himself a bit more whimsy in Lettice's everyday wear of Acts 2 and 3. Andrew Lakin's lighting is most effective when underscoring changes of mood.

Ted Follows' clear direction shows insight into the play and the personality of its characters. He is excellent at making us feel the shifting balance of power between Lettice and Lotte giving the play a tension that compensates for its episodic structure. It also gives focus to a conclusion that has always struck me as too narrow for the themes Shaffer has evoked.

Lettice's motto is "Enlarge, enliven, enlighten". She is theatrical but, as her symbolic lovage-laced quaff indicates, she is also an embodiment of the theatre itself. Her imagination can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. She calls on all she meets to reinvigorate themselves by sharing her vision. Theatre & Company's motto could well be Lettice's. This lively production fulfils all three commands with ease.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Pirate Widow Cheng
by Ann and David Powell, directed by Mark Cassidy
Puppetmongers, Tarragon Theatre, Toronto February 26-March 10, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Hurrah for the Pirate Queen"

When is a piece of wood not a piece of wood? When it's in the hands of a puppeteer. That's what you realize when you see Puppetmongers at work. Anything held by brother and sister Ann and David Powell can become animated, even a plain wooden stick. Puppetmongers are best known in Toronto for their shows for children at Christmastime. "The Pirate Widow Cheng", their first production for adults, premiered last year at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, and played to sold-out houses. The Canadian première now playing at the Tarragon Extra Space reveals the Powells as storytellers of boundless imagination.

"The Pirate Widow Cheng" is based on one of those true stories that are stranger than fiction. The Powells first came across it in Jorge Luis Borges's "A Universal History of Infamy" and further researched it in the work of historian Dian H. Murray. Shih Yang was sold in infancy and raised to become a prostitute. She married a pirate gang leader Cheng I, but after his death, remarkable as it may seem, she was elected to succeed him as Paramount Admiral over a combined fleet of 80,000 pirates who sailed the South China Sea from 1801-1810. Under her tutelage the pirates transformed themselves into a protection and extortion ring thus guaranteeing themselves a more dependable livelihood. The Chinese Empire had no way to deal with them but to grant them amnesty and absorb their practices.

To tell the story Puppetmongers, aided by design collaborator Wendy White, have transformed the Tarragon Extra Space into what looks like a Chinese doll store. The audience enters through a beaded curtain and walks through the set to a room lined with rattan mats and with cushions for seating in the front row. A life-sized puppet of Shih Yang as an old woman looks down on the action from the top row. Ann and David Powell, clad in black, frogged Chinese suits, introduce themselves and then their large cast of characters. According to a kind of puppet hierarchy, the main characters, about one-fifth human size, have moulded faces and rich-looking costumes, but the secondary characters are smaller and have no faces at all, one clearly a former newel post, another a piece of bamboo, until we meet even smaller characters, "the faceless masses", who are truly only a raw wooden sticks with a few rags tied round them.

Unlike Ronnie Burkett, who uses exquisitely carved marionettes, one-third human size, all in elaborate costumes, Puppetmongers clearly want to lay bare, literally, what their puppets are. Their suggestion and manipulation activating our imagination animate what is so clearly inanimate. This also applies to their sets. Two cabinets on casters joined end to end become a ship, side to side become two ships circling and then attacking each other. The Powells' low-key manner taps into our facility for imagining that we might have thought had died out in us with adulthood.

The 90-minute play is for adult audiences because of its language, brutal violence and frankness about prostitution and homosexuality (Cheng I is more devoted to his male lover than to Shih Yang.) The Powells also present the action from a dual perspective that would not interest children. Just as they were the intermediaries for the Powells, Borges and Murray (David and Ann as actors) are our narrators, half human, half puppet, whose views of the action are contradictory, Borges romanticizing it, Murray insisting on known fact and detail.

While Ronnie Burkett's works are really full-fledged plays enacted by marionettes, Puppetmongers practice primarily tabletop bunraku, the larger puppets manipulated on an elevated surface by two puppeteers rather than the three of classical Japanese bunraku. Their work is more related to physical theatre with its emphasis on action over words. The most memorable scenes are the numerous battles like the hilarious parody of the fighting scene atop the bamboo in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", the pirates of Cheng I attacking and boarding a rival vessel and the beautiful use of shadow puppets to show the pirates sacking and burning a village. Puppetmongers play with abrupt changes of perspective as when Shih Yang changes into her tiny acrobatic self and back again. The most amazing example of this comes near the end when on top of a cabinet, the Powells using what are simply stones and blocks of wood, recreate peaceful life in a village before a sudden pirate attack represented by a downpour of chips of wood.

The story is so rich in implications it's no wonder the Powells have been exploring it for more than three years. The cost of survival, the objectification of women, the close relation of capitalism and exploitation, the uses of history are all themes the story raises. While the actions the Powells create are exciting, I would have welcomed more interpretation of the story's many ironies. Shih Yang's reactions to events are shown primarily in silence. The Powells want us to put ourselves in Shih Yang's place, but I would have been glad to learn her perspective more directly from her.

Director Mark Cassidy has given the piece admirable clarity and pacing Yvonne Ng has provided the choreography most notable in the expressive dances the young Shih Yang performs to attract Cheng I. Gareth Crews's evocative lighting along with Darren Copeland's highly effective soundscape help underscore the play's many shifts of time, place and mood.

Anyone willing to try something different should experience "The Pirate Widow Cheng". The show is performed with such gusto I can't help smiling when I think of it. I remember rooms long ago where anything inside could walk or talk if I wanted it to. The Powells bring you into one of those rooms again. Their imagination makes you feel the sense of play in "play".

 

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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 The Good Life
written and directed by Daniel Brooks
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto March 5-April 7, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Good in Theory"

In Paris last month the Théâtre de la Cité Internationale presented Plato's philosophical dialogue "Gorgias" as a play reasoning that "[l]es hommes prennent plaisir à l'affrontement des idées" ("people take pleasure in confronting ideas"). Daniel Brooks's new play "The Good Life" makes much the same optimistic assumption. Not only is it based on Plato's "Symposium" but it appropriates large swaths from Plato's text. In his director's note Brooks says the play as "an unfinished work of fiction". That's just as well since, although it confronts us with essential philosophical ideas, as drama it is only intermittently successful.

The central question here, as in the "Symposium", is "What is love?" A happily married couple, Gina and Dan, are contrasted with an unhappily married couple, Chris and Mary, who yet again are on the brink of separating. The crisis comes when Dan leaves Gina for a young magazine interviewer Eve. Gina consoles herself with another young interviewer Gord. Paradoxically, the warring couple stay together while the understanding couple do not. Which is the true example of love-a couple who split when love is not perfect, a couple who stay together when love is not perfect or two affairs never expected to last? Unlike the normal procedure of good drama where philosophic questions are implied by the action, here the questions are stated and examined outright while what action there is provides illustrative examples. As a director Daniel Brooks is famous for a minimalist approach that can make a complex epic like Goethe's "Faust, Part 1" absolutely clear and make minimalist works like Beckett's "Endgame" or Pinter's "Betrayal" echo with complex resonance. As a writer in this his first non-collaborative effort, Brooks is also a minimalist, but unlike Beckett or Pinter, he has stripped is drama of so much detail that only the abstract remains. We know virtually nothing of the background of the six characters except their relation to the ideas of the play and thus can engage with them intellectually not emotionally. This may well be Brooks's intention since it follows the model of Plato, who abhorred the emotions aroused by the theatre. Nevertheless, we are in the theatre and it is no accident that the most effective scene in the play is Gina's highly emotional reaction to Dan's announcement that he is leaving her.

As if the question "What is love?" were not general enough, Brooks further expands his theme to include pre-Socratic questioning of the unity of the self and, as the title suggests, the central question of classical philosophy, "What is the good life?" This "good life" ("eudaimonia" in Greek) is far from the life of indulgence in common parlance, but the state of having a life blessed with happiness. Aristotle says it can be achieved through moderation. Plato via Socrates (and Brooks via Chris) says it can be achieved through contemplation, i.e. through philosophy itself. Brooks seems to doubt it exists. While his play owes much to Plato, Brooks also satirizes him through three males characters all more willing to respond to a direct question with abstractions than to give a simple answer.

Brooks's structure is also minimalist. Like Plato's dialogues the play is composed of a series of interviews, some formal, some conversational, nearly all of them in a question and answer format. When characters have a long speech to make, they announce it and use one of the two standing microphones on stage to deliver it. At the central dinner party (that is what "symposium" means), Brooks has two characters at a time use these microphones for their private conversations. By thus emphasizing the nature of the play-as-play, including a discussion of possible audience reactions and references to the Tarragon Theatre itself, Brooks further intellectualizes the already intellectualized proceedings.

Thus it falls to the actors, aided by Brooks's taut direction, to makes these abstractions live in the theatre. Tamsin Kelsey (Gina) gives the best performance of the show. It helps that hers is the most fully realized character, but it is chiefly her intensity, especially in her gradual breakdown after Dan says he's leaving, that engages us with the play and gives us an inkling of what the whole work might have been. Guillermo Verdecchia (Dan) is our wry and witty guide. We suspect that Dan uses his theory of the fluidity of the self to rationalize his attraction to Eve, but Verdecchia's mastery of comic delivery helps make this pompous cad ingratiating.

Bob Martin (Chris) and Tracy Wright (Mary) have the misfortune to play abstractions. Chris, a hyperintellectual, patronizes Mary as if she were a beginning philosophy student while Mary, the frustrated sensualist, rages against Chris despite knowing his nature. The two are linked by a symbiosis Brooks does not delineate. He has made them so different and so antagonistic, it's impossible to see how they could be a real couple-except that they symbolize the conflict between the mind (Chris) and the body (Mary). Martin is able to give Chris enough of the personality of an ivory tower dweller to make him seem real. Wright, however, has the strange habit at smiling at her own lines with the negative result that we can't believe anything Mary says.

Waneta Storms (the inarticulate Eve) and Luke Kirby (Gord) give such fine performances, one wishes their roles were larger. A final tableau linking them is forced since Brooks gives them no interaction beforehand.

Brooks's production team gives the show the cool, spareness we've seen in other of his shows. John Thompson's set extends the black walls of the auditorium to surround a stage occupied only by a sleek bed, dining table and chairs contrasting with older armchairs where most of the dialogues take place. He has brought out more links among the characters through colour and cut than Brooks has with the text. Andrea Lundy's precise lighting frequently calls attention to itself as befits such a self-conscious play. Richard Feren's music conjures up just the right sense of urban anomie.

Accepting that this is a work in progress makes many of the play's problems easier to take. Brooks deserves credit for trying to resurrect the play of ideas in Canada. Yet it is no match for recent successful plays of ideas. Unlike Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen", the play does not have a simple structure that informs the whole. Unlike Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing", the play lacks variety of invention. Unlike both, Brooks wants to deconstruct his play by turning the action into simple illustrations of abstract ideas. Show us the play of shadows; let us find the light the makes them. 

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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