The Battle of Stalingrad: A Requiem  - | - A Chorus of Disapproval - | - Counterfeit Secrets - | - The Gwendolyn Poems - | - Henry VI (Parts 1, 2, 3) - | - Les Pêcheurs des perles - | - Speed the Plow - | - Therac 25 - | - The Turn of the Screw - | - Well - | - The Threepenny Opera - | - All's Well that Ends Well - | - The Scarlet Pimpernel - | - High-Gravel-Blind - | - Eternal Hydra -| - The Two Noble Kinsmen - | -
Richard III - | - Romeo and Juliet - | - My Fair Lady- | - The Terrible False Deception - | - The Winter's Tale - | - Woyzeck

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Other Reviews for 2002 here 

A Chorus of Disapproval
by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Albert Schultz
Soulpepper, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto July 11-August 14, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Chorus of Approval"

Alan Ayckbourn might not seem to be an obvious choice for a company like Soulpepper that gained renown through its productions of Schiller, Molière and Chekhov, but it proves to be an inspired one. Director Albert Schultz does not make the mistake of treating Ayckbourn flippantly. His insightful approach draws fine performances from the entire cast and reveals a comedy of surprising richness.

Ayckbourn has often been glibly called the British answer to Neil Simon. Simon, however, is far more interested in set-ups, punchlines and one-liners than in realistic dialogue or character delineation and has never been preoccupied as is Ayckbourn with the nature of theatre itself. It's true that Ayckbourn began with writing farce, but for some years now his plays have been exploring the question of how theatre represents reality and how reality is theatrical.

"A Chorus of Disapproval" from 1984 is a perfect example. In it we meet a village light opera society as it begins rehearsals for John Gay's "A Beggar's Opera" (1728). Guy Jones, a widower from Leeds, joins the society hoping to meet people and get out more. This he does to an extent far beyond his intentions. He soon becomes involved in several love triangles and the men want inside info from him on whether the company where he works plans to build on an adjoining piece of land. By never saying no to sexual or monetary favours, Guy advances from a one-line part in the "The Beggar's Opera" to the main role of in Gay's opera, Macheath.

Ayckbourn has cleverly paralleled the rise of this innocent with the plot of "The Beggar's Opera" itself, which, like the better-known "The Threepenny Opera" based on it, is a mock-heroic take on the London underworld of thieves and whores. Its satire suggests that apart from its claim to morality mainstream society behaves no differently than the lowlife it despises. As Ayckbourn so wittily demonstrates village life can provide its own parallels. In "Chorus" the worlds of the play and "reality" converge as Guy grows into his true role in both and we see the innocent achieve more by acquiescence than the play's director does by control.

I'm sure the other attraction "Chorus" holds for Soulpepper is its parallel to Chekhov's "Platonov". In both the arrival a new man in town creates chaos in village life. While Platonov is known and Guy Jones unknown to their respective social circles, the intense focus on the newcomer by both men and women suggests an emptiness to their lives that involvement with the newcomer makes even worse by play's end.

Schultz focuses on bringing out this dark undercurrent, treating the play very much as if it were indeed a modern Chekhov. While the show is not as knee-slappingly funny as it might be and while the pace could be more lively, what comes through is a warm sense of humour and a delightful sense of atmosphere. Schultz makes Ayckbourn's portrayals of amateur theatricals so accurate they will bring a broad smile of recognition to anyone who has ever taken part in them.

The performances are excellent from top to bottom. Most notable is Ted Dykstra in his first non-musical role in Toronto in quite some time. He is hilarious as the Welsh director Dafydd ap Llewellyn, who soldiers on trying to make amateurs create "art" despite disaster after disaster. Dykstra captures perfectly the humour in someone whose enthusiasm seems so out of synch with the reality around him. His self-absorbed brashness is the perfect foil for David Storch's timidly innocent Guy Jones. Storch is exquisitely funny in as the naïve newcomer who has unexpected entered a local minefield and just as unexpectedly negotiates his way out.

The rest of the cast give us a gallery of detailed characters. Susan Coyne's portrayal of Daffydd's neglected wife Hannah is more akin to tragedy than comedy. The emotion she brings to being loved and abandoned by Guy is key to making us question Guy's innocence. In contrast, C. David Johnson and Nicole Underhay are purely comic as the lascivious swinging couple Ian and Fay Hubbard. Underhay is especially good at capturing a particularly British brand of tartiness that make the long scene of double entendre with Guy the funniest in the show. Oliver Dennis and Denise Fergusson are hilarious as the pleasant but totally inept Ted and Enid Washbrook. Fergusson gives Enid the just the right dottiness and Dennis's timing is perfect as a man who misses all his cues. Nancy Palk and Jim Warren are the third couple, Rebecca and Jarvis Huntley-Pike, now separated. Palk's version of Rebecca's cynicism is a bit more generic than it should be, but Warren makes the eccentric, meddler Jarvis distinctive and memorable.

A love triangle that cleverly prefigures Guy's situation involves Patricia Fagan (Linda) and Sarah Wilson (Bridget) as rivals for Ryan Field (Crispin, the young man cast as Macheath). Fagan does not have much to do, but Wilson makes the most of Ayckbourn's dig at loud, officious stage managers. Field is a real find as both singer and actor. On stage at the upright piano for most of the show is Marek Norman as Mr. Ames, able just like his character, to play any tune you wish. His turn as the title character in Gay's opera, stricken with a totally unconvincing lameness, is a moment to cherish.

Guido Tondino's set is simply a modern version of his set for "The Winter's Tale" (playing in rep with "Chorus"). It basically represents the red brick stage/rehearsal space for Dafydd's company, that under Steven Hawkins inventive lighting can become a variety of interiors. Anyone who wonders what lighting designers can do will get a full display when Dafydd haplessly tries to coordinate lighting cues for his show. Schultz has made the blackouts that end scenes into transitions where characters speak in the dark when they enter a room fumble about for the light switch. Victoria Wallace's costumes both capture the time and place of the action and insightfully reflect the personality of each character.

The Soulpepper troupe clearly enjoys this excursion into more recent drama and Schultz knows how to make the most of it. Toronto is rather behind in catching on to Ayckbourn, whose work features regularly at the Royal National Theatre and the West End. Since Schultz and his company have the knack for it, perhaps they'll bring us more from him in the future. Meanwhile, if you are looking for an entertainment as hilarious as it is intelligent, join their "Chorus".

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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by Paul Dunn, directed by Richard Monette
Eternal Hydra
by Anton Piatigorsky, directed by Andrey Tarasiuk
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford July 13-August 10, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Studio Theatre's Mixed Program"

On July 13 as part of Stratford's celebrations for its 50th season, Governor General Adrienne Clarkson officially opened the Stratford's fourth stage, the Studio Theatre. If the space itself is not as pleasant as one might have hoped, Stratford at least has a small-scale venue of its own to showcase new, risky or more obscure dramatic works.

Built in what used to be the scene shop behind the Avon Theatre with its entrance at the corner of George and Waterloo Streets, the Studio seats only 250. The stage is in the shape of the famous thrust stage of the Festival Theatre and includes staircases behind it to a balcony. It is not raised. To fit into the narrow space available the seats are steeply raked not unlike the stadium seating one finds in new Cineplexes. Stadium seating is fine when the audience is meant to be staring straight ahead at an image on the wall, but here the action is on the floor. From the majority of the seats one has to look down on the action. I was in only the fifth row and felt as if I were in a balcony. Since the Festival already has two theatres with thrust stages, I wonder if it would not have been better to have built a more conventional black box theatre that would have allowed a gentler rise in the seating.

The play that opened the Studio Theatre was "High-Gravel-Blind" by present company member Paul Dunn. The words in the title, never mentioned in the play, come from "The Merchant of Venice", Act 2, Scene 2, where Old Gobbo does not recognize his own son Launcelot, who to "try confusions" with him telling him his son is dead. Launcelot says that his father "being more than sand-blind, high-gravel-blind, knows me not." Dunn played Launcelot in "Merchant" last year and the experience has clearly inspired his modern version of the situation.

Lance (viz. Launcelot) is living in Montreal with sculptor Jessica. Both twenty-somethings were once on the street, but Jessica's art now supplies enough income for both since hapless Lance has yet again failed bartending school. In a forced bit of symbolic action, the two put on masks Jessica has made. The effect on the homosexual Lance is to bring out aggressive sexual advances toward Jessica. In the next scene Lance has suddenly struck it rich having been hired by a soap star to be his personal assistant. Lance revels in the thought that now he can start anew and leave the past behind when the doorbell rings. There is his father, Gord, and his new wife Margery. They have come from Calgary to attend a Christian conference in Montreal and Gord has decided to look up the son he hasn't seen since the boy way eight. Lance blurts out that Lance is dead. The remainder of the 75-minutes is taken up with the attempts of Lance, now "Bob", and Jessica to keep up this charade while stricken Gord and inquisitive Margery ask ever more personal questions to understand the son they have lost.

Though the show does not fully avoid the feel of a sitcom, it is genuinely funny and builds in humour until the inevitable discovery of the truth. The middle section of the foursome's conversation treads water a bit when Dunn overuses the technique of one character repeating the final word of another character's speech to prompt a further speech, a lame technique to make a monologue seem like dialogue.

The show is well cast. Damien Atkins is right at home as the flamboyant Lance, making perfect sense of his abrupt swings from bravado to insecurity. Kimwun Perehinec captures the loopiness of Jessica though the whining tone she adopts soon becomes tiresome. Stephen Ouimette is excellent as the taciturn Gord, who as a reformed alcoholic and reaffirmed Christian is, like his son, also trying to put his past behind him. It is Chick Reid, however, who really steals the show as Margery, a woman addicted to verbalizing her every thought. Margery is the one who has reformed Gord and continues in the role of trainer while pretending he is the one with authority. She makes the rich vein of narrow-minded Calgarian in the sin city of Montreal seem to derive from character instead of stereotype. Her performance as Margery becomes increasing more outspoken the more she drinks, while enforcing a ban on alcohol for Gord, is priceless.

Director Richard Monette has given the work just the right pacing. He makes the most of the work's humour without exaggeration and is sensitive to the undercurrent of loss in the characters of Lance and Gord. Lorenzo Savoini has designed the appropriately low-rent apartment for Jessica. Joanne Dente has designed the costumes with especial comic pertinence for the uptight Margery. And Robert Thomson provides the effective lighting.

"High-Gravel-Blind" is a play that will likely go on to more success elsewhere, especially if it is paired with an equally effective one-acter. That appropriate companion piece is definitely not "Eternal Hydra" by Anton Piatigorsky that followed Dunn's play and successfully dampened the mood of the opening day audience.

Though only 90 minutes long, it feels like more than twice that length. It is constructed more to exemplify certain dogmas of current literary theory than to create any authentic dramatic action. We can be sure we live in a time that has moved beyond the vapidity of postmodernism when we encounter a play like this that so uncritically promotes it as the ne plus ultra of literary endeavour.

The play is divided into two parts. In the first we meet the scholar Vivian Ezra, who has discovered the lost manuscript of "Eternal Hydra", the supposed masterpiece that (fictional) Irish modernist author Gordias Carbuncle wrote in Paris in the 1930s. Vivian also rather annoyingly narrates the action including "He said" and "She said" and has conversations with the spirit of Carbuncle, whom only we and she can see. She goes to Randall Wellington Jr., the son of Carbuncle's patron in Paris, hoping he will publish the work. He counters that the present publishing climate will prevent him from doing so since the market for a 999-page work of Joycean difficulty is not large enough. After much abstract debate on the topic of business versus art, Wellington invites best-selling author Pauline Newberry to meet Vivian. Newberry has just written a novel about (fictional) black author Selma Thomas in 1930s Paris in which Carbuncle is a minor character. Piatigorsky gives us a narration within a narration as Pauline proceeds to read a passage of an encounter between Selma and Gordias, Vivian objecting all the while to the portrayal of her hero. Finally, it is decided that Vivian will write an introduction to Pauline's book to create interest him and that Wellington will publish Carbuncle's magnum opus.

Many at the opening assumed that this was the conclusion, but no, Piatigorsky has more to his plodding agenda. Part two shows us the "real" Carbuncle in the Paris of 1936. We see the real encounter between Carbuncle and Selma as well as with his researcher Gwendolyn and his publisher Wellington Sr. Piatigorsky's point is the same one that Stoppard makes much more elegantly in "Indian Ink" (1991)--that people's imaginings or recreations of the past are no more than that. The truth may be completely different and ultimately is hidden.

"Eternal Hydra" is erudite and would be theoretically intriguing if novels like A.S. Byatt's "Possession" (1990) or many of Stoppard's plays had not already covered the same ground for more than a decade and with more liveliness and wit. The play is tedious because the situations are not dramatic. Piatigorsky assumes from the start that we are interested in Vivian's endeavour even though it's impossible to get excited about a work only vaguely described and a character we know nothing of. Debates are presented as debates on topics like the appropriation of voice, cultural construction, essentialism and the dumbing-down of culture while what action there is stops dead. Piatigorsky also can't make an allusion without underlining it and providing a gloss.

The excellence of the cast only shows up the turgidity of the content. Stephen Ouimette captures sense of a man who has created a fictional identity for himself of slightly roué gentility that doesn't quite hide his humble origins. Chick Reid gives as much vivacity as she can to Vivian and Gwendolyn but can't galvanize a lifeless play on her own. Paul Soles has the uninteresting roles of Wellington Jr. and Sr. and does little with them. It is Karen Robinson who injects the most vitality into the play both as Pauline and as Selma, finely distinguishing between the two and finding more detail in them than Piatigorsky provides.

Director Andrey Tarasiuk does not help matters with his torpid pace. Lorenzo Savoini's minimal set of a desk and two chairs requires Robert Thomson's dusky lighting to create mood. Joanne Dente has designed attractive costumes that clearly contrast the two historical settings.

The opening double-bill at the Studio Theatre, the first of three, highlights the flaw in presenting double-bills instead of single shows with separate admissions. If both one-acters are good, there is no problem, but as here where one is recommendable and the other is not, the bad one will drag down the good with it. Who will pay the $50.00 the Festival is charging, higher than any alternative show in Toronto, to see only one of two shows? Far better to lower the price and charge separately for each show. Then the experiments with promise like Dunn's won't be tied to those that do not.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Two Noble Kinsmen
by William Shakespeare & John Fletcher, directed by David Latham
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford July 12-September 29, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Excitement of a Rarity"

Finally, in its 50th season the Stratford Festival has mounted a full production of "The Two Noble Kinsmen", the last play in which Shakespeare had a hand. The rarity of the event alone is recommendation enough for anyone interested in Shakespeare. The production itself is flawed, the director has seriously miscalculated how the subplot should be played and not all the young actors are up to their parts. But the opportunity to see this play at all, and on the intimate Tom Patterson stage, should override any objections.

When the Festival was founded "Kinsmen" did not appear in editions of Shakespeare's collected works. Now, largely through a greater understanding of the Bard's late plays, "Kinsmen" is listed as the fifth of Shakespeare's Romances, a group that includes "Pericles", "Cymbeline", "The Winter's Tale" and "The Tempest". That we have come to see them as a group at all is due in no small measure to the work of Northrop Frye, who saw in all of them the forces of comedy overcoming tragedy with the aid of magic or through divine intervention. "The Tempest" is often taught as Shakespeare's "farewell to the stage", but in fact Shakespeare went on to collaborate with John Fletcher, the most popular playwright of the day, on at least two more extant plays, "Henry VIII" (1612) and "Kinsmen" (1614). When we read in program notes that Shakespeare is thought to have written only Act 1, Act 3, scene 1 and most of Act 5, we have to realize that Shakespeare has also collaborated with Fletcher on the overall course of the action.

What emerges is a fascinating play. The story for the main plot comes from Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" in his "Canterbury Tales". During a war that Theseus of Athens is waging against Thebes, two Theban cousins, Palamon and Arcite are captured and imprisoned. Their lifelong friendship is disrupted when first Palamon, then Arcite, sees and instantly falls in love with Emilia, sister to Theseus' wife Hippolyta. Meanwhile their jailer's daughter has fallen in love with Palamon. When Arcite is freed and exiled, she helps Palamon to escape. Lost, knowing the hopelessness of her love and fearing the consequences of her actions, she goes mad. The conflict of the two kinsmen eventually is resolved by Theseus' decree that the two will fight a public duel. The winner will receive the hand of Emilia; the loser will be executed.

What lovers of Shakespeare will relish is the reappearance of situations and themes from the whole of Shakespeare's canon. The authors revisit "Two Gentlemen of Verona", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", "Twelfth Night", "Hamlet", "All's Well That Ends Well", "Measure for Measure", "Macbeth" and "Coriolanus", just to name the most obvious cases, as if they intentionally fashioned the plot to reflect Shakespeare's past achievements.

I first encountered the play in a production at Sheridan College in Oakville in 1997. Using only student actors that production proved to me how powerful this rarity can be in the right hands. Director David Latham's production simply does not dig deep enough into the play. The pity is that newcomers to "Kinsmen" will assume the superficiality lies in the work and not in the direction. In the main plot he has misunderstood the character of Emilia. She is not a nun, but like Isabella in "Measure for Measure" she has no desire to marry. She seeks female company not male. Yet, in Latham's production she acquiesces without demur when Theseus decides to make her the prize in the kinsmen's duel. As I saw at Sheridan her lines can be read with great bitterness and resentment showing that the kinsmen's tragedy has now become hers.

Worse, Latham launches the subplot involving the Jailer's Daughter, the prime female role in the play, in precisely the wrong direction. In his notes Latham says that the "Daughter's madness is a dark stand" and "we can't make it funny", yet that is exactly what he does. The Jailer's Daughter is a more extended look at Ophelia and poses the question of what would happen if Ophelia had been rescued from drowning. The answer is that she becomes a constant reminder of fate's injustice. By trying to make her funny Latham removes this pathos and muddies the parallel with the main plot. When he cannot avoid the text's serious portrayal of her in the latter acts, Latham tries to make her father comic even though he ought to be distressed by what has happened. Latham has not coordinated his view well with choreographer Donna Feore, who allows the Daughter to execute complicated dance steps flawlessly when she becomes a last-minute recruit to entertain Theseus, even though she is mad and has only just joined the dancers.

The cast is composed entirely of past participants in the Stratford Festival Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. The "Henry VI" plays were largely populated by them and it is to Latham's credit that they all give much finer performances in "Kinsmen" than they did under Leon Rubin in the "Henrys". The smaller roles are all well cast. Michael Therriault makes a genial Speaker of the Prologue and Epilogue and tries on different hats (literally) as the comic Schoolmaster and the serious Doctor who devises the means to cure the Jailer's Daughter. In the main plot Jonathan Goad is a commanding Theseus and Jane Spence is an imposing Hippolyta. Both are excellent at showing in different ways that might should be tempered by mercy. Haysam Kadri gives Theseus' friend Pirithous a nobility that makes him much more than a subsidiary character. Ieva Lucs, Tara Hughes and Samantha Espie are all effective as the three widowed queens.

The difficulty lies with three of the four main roles. As Palamon, Rami Posner is very forceful but he doesn't seem able to make sense of what he is saying. On the other hand, Brendan Murray has excellent diction and speaks his lines with intelligence. What he needs is better voice control and should work at creating a more resonant tone. Together they make the scene where they arm each other before their duel one of the emotional high points of the drama. Michelle Giroux has not been directed to find greater depth in Emilia, but that doesn't explain why she seems to sleepwalk through the role.

In the subplot Thom Marriott is excellent as the Jailer. It's a pity Latham does not allow him to give the character a greater emotional arc since it's clear Marriott could do it. Michael Schultz makes the role of the Wooer something special. He creates a gentle comedy about the character as if he were the one always chosen last for the team and who knows his meekness is what makes his love for the Jailer's Daughter unrequited. It is this kind of detail that is required in all the roles to show the play in the best light. As the Jailer's Daughter, Deborah Hay has the most coveted role in the play. The wavering, childlike voice she uses would seem perfect for a character who is mad for most of the action. How sad then that Latham should constantly seek laughs at her character's expense without allowing Hay to arouse the sense pain and pity that give the play its depth.

In 1986 the RSC opened its new Swan Theatre with its first-ever production of "Kinsmen" and set it in samurai Japan. Now for Stratford's first-ever full production designer David Gaucher does the same. The notion seems to be that the samurai are the only warrior culture a Western audience understands. For me the more logical approach would be to research the warrior culture in ancient Greece where the play is set. To be fair Gaucher's design references range far beyond Japan to China, Tibet, Mongolia and the Middle East. And his costumes are spectacular. His set makes the upstage area a forest of spears that serves as the prison, the woods and Athenian bastions. Downstage is a pool from which a statue of a horse emerges halfway on land, an allusion to the legendary founding of Athens.

Michael J. Whitfield has lit the show with great sensitivity to the mood of each scene. His effects for the responses of the gods Mars and Venus are dazzling. Too bad Latham did not choose to show Diana's response also as a lighting effect. Keith Thomas has composed the highly effective music with influences from China and Tibet that does as much as the costuming to exoticize the action.

My great fear is that having at last presented "The Two Noble Kinsmen", Stratford will let the play sit on the shelf for another 50 years. It shouldn't matter that Shakespeare did not write every line but that he saw fit to collaborate on the work at the end of his career. The current production, lavish as it is, does not plumb all of the play's depths and it would be good to allow future directors a chance to do so. The role of the Jailer's Daughter is such an amazing showpiece, it would be a pity to deny future young actors the chance to play it. Let's hope that Stratford schedules "Kinsmen" as least as often as Shakespeare's other romances to give more people a glimpse into this dark meditation on human will and destiny that may be Shakespeare's final farewell.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Winter's Tale
by William Shakespeare, directed by Joseph Ziegler
Soulpepper, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto July 10-August 15, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Mingled Yarn"

"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together." So says a minor character in "All's Well That Ends Well". He could well be speaking of Soulpepper's production of Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" that opens its fifth season. Both acting and direction are so uneven that the Bard's late romance is never magical and seldom involving.

The main problem with the show is evident within the first fifteen minutes. Tony Nardi, who made such a splash last year as the jealous Spaniard in Feydeau's "A Flea in Her Ear" and as the tyrannical Teacher in Ionesco's "The Lesson", is badly miscast as Leontes. The comic exaggeration and emphatic delivery that were so perfect in the earlier roles could not be more wrong for a character who is unaccountably struck down with jealousy as if it were a disease that rages until it causes the deaths of his wife and son and the abandonment of his infant daughter. Instantly jealous characters are a staple of farce, but any whiff of farce would ruin a role that Shakespeare clearly has written as tragic. It's an unusually difficult test for an actor but actors have met the challenge. Colm Feore did so at Stratford in 1986 as did Wayne Best there in 1998. Nardi was clearly restraining himself, but reducing his gestural vocabulary to about five generic movements only makes him less effective. He delivers some of Shakespeare's most complex verse as if it were prose and not the heightened expression of man in torment. Such a superficial reading of Leontes as "the jealous husband" caused line after line to win unintended laughter.

Leontes' sickness, penitence and cure form the overarching plot to which all else is connected. But if we are not afraid of his anger, we can't pity him when he realizes his folly and we can't be amazed by his cure. There are several excellent performances in the show, but none can overcome this fatal flaw.

The one who comes closest to redeeming the show is David Storch as the con-man Autolycus. It is the best performance of this role I've ever seen. And director Joseph Ziegler (who played the role at Stratford in 1986) has made this wildly comic figure fit better into the play than any I've seen. Too often the scenes in Bohemia are played simply as the comic contrast to the tragedy of Sicilia. Ziegler realizes that Autolycus as a conscious spreader of lies is the parallel figure to Leontes, an unconscious spreader of lies. The two themes come together at the end when something that only seems to be real actually becomes real. Like Autolycus's ballads, the life in Hermione's statue depends on the belief of the audience.

Storch has achieved the perfect level to play this part too often taken over the top. He makes it clear that he views all men a as fools and if he deceives anyone it's because he deserves it. Storch accomplishes this with an amazing mastery of physical comedy. In a tragic role he was the best thing about CanStage's "The Lonesome West". In a comic role he is the best thing about Soulpepper's "The Winter's Tale". This man is one to watch.

Among other fine performances is Nancy Palk as Paulina. Palk does not give us the harridan as the role is often played but rather as a woman who harps on Leontes' fault because she has faith her patient will recover. Susan Coyne is an excellent Hermione, seeming physically to weaken under Leontes' every accusation and using every effort to gather her strength to defend herself at her trial. The moment of her awakening as the statue is marvelous because she gives the sense that this wonder is also a wonder to her. William Webster gives one of his best ever performances for Soulpepper as the Old Shepherd, making us feel his character's joy. And Patricia Fagan gives grit to the role of Perdita that makes sense of her upbringing and, importantly, makes sense of her often glossed-over lines.

Other fine work comes from Oliver Dennis as Antigonus the earnest servant Leontes banishes. As Polixenes, C. David Johnson shows such nobility in Sicilia and such irrational anger at his son in Bohemia that one wishes he had been assigned Leontes. In contrast, Robert Haley is ineffectual as Camillo, the wise counselor Leontes ignore. Christopher Morris tries but can quite make Florizel seem a milksop. And Paul Thomas Manz never got the knack of delivering the Young Shepherd's numerous comic lines so that they were funny.

Joseph Ziegler shows a great understanding of how the play works and has the courage to present it uncut (unlike Brian Bedford's abridged version for Stratford in 1998). His direction, however, is a mixture of good and bad decisions. From the moment Leontes is stricken with jealousy, events should hurtle towards the deaths of Hermione and Mamillius in Act 3. Here the pace is leaden throughout and lacks any momentum. Some scenes seem almost listless. He attempts to avoid comedy when the bear pursues Antigonus but also avoid clarity. He ruins the wonderful speech by Time by having Nancy Palk play it upstage on stilts behind a scrim and distorted through a microphone so that nothing is understood. His best invention is to have Paulina toss the baby Perdita at the raging Leontes, who catches it. It's a brilliant way to show how she proves he still has the natural instinct in him even if he won't acknowledge it.

Guido Tondino has designed a very attractive set, modern in look with classical references for Sicilia that are removed for Bohemia. His method of distinguishing the two worlds of the play is not original but is well executed. The Sicilians are all in black Victorian costumes; the Bohemians wear earth-toned peasant outfits in a Slavic style. Steven Hawkins' lighting makes Sicilia look cold and Bohemia warm, but there is little variety within those two settings. Ted Dykstra has written the pleasant but not especially memorable music.

When this play works we feel all the wonder the characters do. Here, David Storch's heroic effort in enlivening the Bohemian scenes cannot overcome the deadening effect of Tony Nardi's performance. And a play that can be marvelous becomes as tedious as rewinding a tangled skein.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Richard III
by William Shakespeare, directed by Martha Henry
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford July 13-November 3, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Richard III: Reign of Error"

On July 13, the Stratford Festival celebrated its 50th season with the opening of "Richard III", the play that inaugurated the Festival in 1953. After a long rousing ovation when Festival-founder Tom Patterson appeared on stage, the audience at the Avon Theatre in the presence of the Governor General was treated to the worst production, professional or amateur, of "Richard III" that I have ever seen. The responsibility lies entirely with director Martha Henry, who managed to draw truly awful performances from nearly the entire cast, and with an administration that allowed this to happen. What better demonstration of how far Stratford has fallen than this?

Tom McCamus, Wayne Best, Lally Cadeau, Diane D'Aquila, Sarah Dodd, Peter Hutt, Seana McKenna, Scott Wentworth, some of Canada's finest actors, would seem to be a solid, exciting cast for this play, yet all are made to look bad. The only explanation is that Henry, disregarding her vast experience, has seriously miscalculated how the play should be presented. Despite the pointlessly appended subtitle, "Reign of Terror", the most terrifying aspect of the production is how Henry has trivialized the action. For a start, Henry has directed the last of Shakespeare's First Tetralogy of history plays as a slapstick farce. We hear the famous opening soliloquy first as a voice-over until Tom McCamus as Richard climbs down a tree (must be difficult with a withered arm) before he walks a step and falls flat on his face before continuing the speech. Tripping over steps and furniture soon becomes an unfunny running joke that does not exclude his coronation. After Louis Applebaum's Festival Fanfare is played, he, arrayed in a gold brocade robe, takes a step and again falls face first on the floor as the orb and scepter go flying. Is Henry deliberately making a fool of the Festival?

In her director's notes, Henry refers to Richard as a Vice figure and Richard does share many aspects of that morality play character--direct address to the audience, stage-managing the action, narrating his intentions and commenting on their outcomes. The comedy comes from our foreknowledge of the events the frisson of being in league with evil. Henry has mistaken the nature of the Vice's comedy and made Richard an outright clown forgetting that the key to the Vice's and to Richard's effectiveness is that they must seem to be in complete control of the action or their overthrow is meaningless. Henry's klutz of a Richard inspires ridicule, not fear.

As if this were not enough, Henry gives Richard's withered hand a Dr. Strangelove-like twitch that he subdues by stabbing it. When he leads a group in marching and stops, the men all bump into each other as if they were the Three Stooges. When his mother curses him, they repeat his every gesture. Richmond delivers Richard his fatal blow by stabbing him with a tiny dagger up the battle-skirt (balls or rectum, you decide).

The crudeness does not stop there. Henry has encouraged everyone to give unbelievably exaggerated performances with virtually every line shouted, screamed or barked instead of projected. Scott Wentworth brings in a rare bit of quiet as the dying Clarence, but in a bizarre move immediately reappears as the dying Edward IV using the voice of the Ghost of Christmas Past to disguise himself. Sarah Dodd (Anne), Seana McKenna (Elizabeth), Lally Cadeau (the Duchess of York) and Diane D'Aquila (Margaret) all seem to be competing for the Coarse Acting Award by a Female in a Shakespearean play. Their extended vowels, semaphoric gestures, melodramatic expressions make the show seem like an episode of "Blackadder" but without the laughs. Peter Hutt reprises his overheated performance as Chauvelin from "The Scarlet Pimpernel" in the guise of playing Buckingham.

Keeping the actors' decibel level high through the three hours is not only tiring but ensures that the actors have no way to make sense of the lines. Falling in with Henry's bigger-is-better school of acting are Wayne Best (Hastings), Robert King (Second Murderer), David Francis (Cardinal Bourchier) and Keith Dinicol (Lord Mayor of London) among others. Only Patrick Galligan (Catesby), John Dolan (Stanley), Aaron Franks (Tyrrel) and Graham Abbey (Richmond) seem to resist. Henry's disregard for clarity is evident in the scene with ghosts in Act 5. The ghosts appear via film projected on Richard's and Richmond's tents, the curses to Richard and blessings on Richmond overlap so nothing is understood. It's a surprise to see the ghosts of Rivers, Grey and Vaughan appear when Henry has cut Vaughan from the play and omitted the scene where the three are led to execution.

The action takes place on Allan Willbee's unattractive, ill-conceived set. It features unrealistically gnarled trees bound with steel reinforcement rods. These frame a bridge and a partially constructed battlement of more reinforcement rods that lead to a stairway ending in a large dais in the centre of the stage. Willbee's note claims this is to represent the conflict between nature (Richard) and civilization (everyone else), but the result looks more like an abandoned construction site. The dais inhibits the free flow of traffic across the Avon's proscenium stage, so that the actors are blocked exactly as if the central dais were the Festival stage leaving the space on neither side of it unused. To fill it Henry has actors stand about in decorative groups not even pretending to have conversations while actors on the dais play scenes that logically should take place in private. The height of this folly occurs during the climactic battle between Richmond and Richard. Henry has a semicircle of men from both camps stand side by side and watch without intervening or displaying any emotion as the struggle to the death between king and pretender unfolds before them. At other times she encourages distraction by have scenes changes or other stage business occur during play's most important passages. While Richmond's makes the final speech of the play downstage, we focus on actors upstage struggling to undress the body of Richard for what turns out to be another pointless effect.

Just as the volume level remains high, so does Louise Guinand's lighting which, except for blackouts, seldom varies. Henry uses Stephen Woodjetts's would-be scary movie music so often it further cheapens the already trivialized action.

After the show an elderly couple from New York who had overheard me speaking with friends came up to share their views. They had been coming to Stratford for 13 years and had noticed the general decline in Shakespeare productions. This "Richard III" had convinced them that if they came to Stratford again, since they love the town, they would not see any plays to spoil the experience. Not exactly the legacy Tom Patterson had in mind.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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My Fair Lady
by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe, directed by Richard Monette
Festival Theatre, Stratford May 28-November 24, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

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"My Fair Higgins?"

The Stratford Festival production of "My Fair Lady" is an enjoyable show that is sure to be the hit of the season. The musical numbers have a verve and panache that match some of Stratford's best musical productions of the past. Weak direction, however, permits a major imbalance between the two lead roles that distorts the emphasis of the plot, destroys interest in the two main characters and makes nonsense of the ending.

"My Fair Lady" is one of the most resilient musicals ever written. One much-loved song follows another with much opportunity for spectacle. Based as it is on George Bernard Shaw "Pygmalion," even the dialogue is witty. Alan Jay Lerner's decision to alter the ending of Shaw's play is the main source of difficulty. In Shaw, the story is clearly that of the pupil surpassing her master. Like a child to a parent, Shaw's Eliza is indebted to Professor Higgins only up to a point after which she has to be considered a free agent able to move beyond her master's narrowness. Shaw's Higgins like Pygmalion may fall in love with his "creation," but Shaw's point is that this is a human being not a lump of marble. Shaw's Eliza's leaves Higgins, marries Freddy Eynsford-Hill and sets up her shop.

In the musical, however, Eliza seemingly allows herself to be convinced by Higgins's rant against Freddy and returns to the master who is still dominated by his mother, as egotistical and full of tantrums as a child, hates women and shows Eliza nothing but abuse. To top it all off, Higgins's demeaning response to her return, the last line of the show, is "Eliza, fetch me my slippers." To make the musical's ending palatable, a director has to set the groundwork early on that despite all his bluster Higgins has fallen in love with Eliza and Eliza knows it before he does.

In Stratford's previous production of "My Fair Lady" in 1988, John Neville as Higgins was more than twice the age of Lucy Peacock as Eliza. When Jean Gascon directed Eliza not merely to fetch the slippers but put them on Higgins, the effect was more than vaguely sickening. Here with Cynthia Dale as Eliza and Colm Feore as the first of three Higginses (Geraint Wyn Davies and Richard Monette will follow), the closeness in age goes a long way to making the two a more probable romantic pair. Unfortunately, Colm Feore's overacting undermines this possibility and creates an imbalance. At first it seems exciting to have a young, energetic Higgins for a change. Gradually, however, it becomes clear that director Richard Monette has allowed Feore to steal the show. Feore bounds up and down stairs, prances all about the stage striking poses, all the while Dale's movement (except in musical numbers) is limited. Except for James Blendick as Eliza's father and Joyce Campion as Mrs. Higgins, Feore gives focus to no one but simply takes and takes. Feore's self-involved performance means there is absolutely no chemistry between Higgins and Eliza. His arrogance makes it impossible to understand Eliza's return to him and distorts the show by making it seem Higgins not Eliza is the central character.

Dale seems to bide her time during the dialogue while Feore shows off until the musical numbers when it's her turn to shine. She is much better as Eliza after Higgins's make-over than before, failing to make the flower-seller as "deliciously low" as she should be. Being the musical star at Stratford for four of the last six seasons seems to have taken a toll on her voice, but her accustomed energy and enthusiasm come through in every number.

For me James Blendick as Alfred Doolittle is the chief joy in the cast. He makes this lovable old rogue into the most believable character in the show. He delivers his two famous songs with style, brings off his dance steps with aplomb and exudes a kind of warmth otherwise absent in the production. Barry MacGregor is perfectly cast as Colonel Pickering, more befuddled than Higgins but kinder. Laird Mackintosh, suitably bland as Freddy, sings "On the Street Where You Live" in a noisy tenor.

In smaller roles Joyce Campion is a delight as Higgins's mother and it's a treat to see her character repeatedly put her conceited brat of a son in his place. Susan Gilmour doesn't make as much of Higgins's proper housekeeper Mrs. Pearce as she could. Raymond O'Neill's Zoltan Karpathy is so bizarre it's hard to know what he saying. Barbara Fulton has the right sense of dignity as Freddy's mother.

Designer Debra Hanson's faux-marble set is quite attractive, but as was the case in "Fiddler on the Roof" she seems unwilling to break down her costumes even when the text demands it. Except for three picturesque holes there's nothing to suggest that Doolittle wears the same outfit every day. When Eliza visits Higgins in her best dress, one that Higgins sends out to be burnt, Hanson doesn't get the joke and gives Eliza a costume that looks far too expensive. Eliza may have grime on her face but there's none on her clothes. Hanson does the Ascot scene in the traditional black and white, but she has each woman wear so many patterns it looks as if they all wearing parts of each other's ensembles.

The real star of the show is Donna Feore's spectacular choreography. She draws on a wide dance vocabulary from musical hall to ballroom to ballet and creates such complex patterns of movement the Festival stage seems much larger than it actually is. Kevin Fraser draws on a wide range of lighting techniques but I could have done without the projected race horses before the Ascot scene (the point is we don't see them) and the starry lights on either side of the stage that make a scene kitschy whenever they're used.

After the Embassy Ball, Pickering congratulates Higgins with "You Did It." Feore's aggressive scene-stealing and Monette's passive direction seem to support this view contrary to the text. Let's hope Geraint Wyn Davies who takes on Higgins (July 14 to September 14) and Monette himself (September 18-November 24) give more gracious performances that restore the show's balance. Let's also hope that the sound engineer turns down the volume of the amplified music. My ears hurt after the show and throughout the next day--not the best reminder of a musical at Stratford.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

"Quite a Fair Higgins!"

What a difference a cast change makes! Much of my criticism of Stratford's production of "My Fair Lady" centred on the imbalance in the show created by Colm Feore's hyperactive characterization of Professor Henry Higgins and his unbridled scene stealing. Now with Geraint Wyn Davies in the part the balance is restored, the show has a warmer feel and the contrary ending is much better prepared.

The infamous last line of "My Fair Lady" is Higgins's command, "Eliza, fetch me my slippers". Whether through error or intent what Wyn Davies said the night I attended was "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" For me this change encapsulates Wyn Davies general softening of the part. As I mentioned in my previous review, the greatest difficulty with the Lerner and Loewe musicalization of Shaw's "Pygmalion" is that having Eliza fall in love with Higgins makes no sense. To make the musical work the two principals have to lay the groundwork early on to make the unlikely outcome plausible. Colm Feore's aggressive tactics only made it more impossible to swallow. In contrast, Geraint Wyn Davies makes Higgins more absent-minded than intentionally hurtful. Feore sang "Never let a woman in your life" and "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" as if they were the professor's personal creed. Wyn Davies, however, makes them seem like the bluster his character resorts to when things don't go his way. His Higgins seems far less the tyrant but for the same reason is all the more lovable.

Wyn Davies makes use of four key moments in the show to that Higgins does have feelings for Eliza even if he doesn't understand them. When Wyn Davies' Higgins leads Eliza out to the embassy ball, he gives her an unmistakable look of admiration. When he dances with her at the ball before turning her over to other dance partners, he shows her the kind of support a friend might give to someone facing a great challenge. He delivers "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" as a real personal conflict rather than, as Feore did, another chance to show off. And in the final moments of the show (for those fortunate few lucky able to see his face in the shadow of his hat brim), Wyn Davies gives Higgins a wonderful expression of gratitude at Eliza's return as if he can't believe his luck that she would come back to him. When as carefully prepared as this, Lerner's romantic conclusion can finally seem credible.

To have one actor hog the spotlight is a great strain on everyone. With Feore gone, and Wyn Davies in the whole mood of the piece is changed. Unlike Feore, Wyn Davies gives focus to the other actors and as a result we enjoy their performances all the more, giving the show a greater richness and warmth. The chief beneficiary of Wyn Davies' graciousness is Cynthia Dale (Eliza) herself, who seemed under duress the entire show with Feore. Now she takes her rightful place as the central figure, breathes more easily, sings more clearly and glows with a radiance that never showed itself when Feore was on stage.

Wyn Davies allows the humour of Barry MacGregor's Colonel Pickering to burst forth as it should. Now we get to see mastery of this old hand at comic timing. James Blendick (Alfred Doolittle) and Joyce Campion (Mrs. Higgins) are still wonderful. This time I appreciated more how David Hogan and Kyle Blair as Doolittle's fellow imbibers amplify the humour of his scenes.

Not everything improves on second viewing. I might have hoped that Laird Mackintosh (Freddy) and Susan Gilmour (Mrs. Pearce) would find more in their roles, but they haven't. To have Raymond O'Neill play Zoltan Karpathy as a fool is clearly a mistake. If Karpathy seems like an idiot his verdict on Eliza means nothing.

Seen again the flaws in designer Debra Hanson's costumes are more obvious. Tiny decorative patches substitute for actually breaking down the costumes of the lower-class characters. Women accompanying me have told me that all of Hanson's costumes for Eliza make her look frumpy, including her gown for the embassy ball. The pastel summer dresses she has created for other women at the ball look more appropriate for Midwestern picnic than for the high society affair of the season.

Donna Feore's choreography is still as intricate and exciting as the first time. One needs at least two viewings to take it all in. But the wide range of dance forms she uses only shows up the lack of imagination in director Richard Monette's blocking of the scenes of dialogue. Here he falls back on his familiar pattern of lining up actors on only two axes so that anyone sitting on or near the two vomitoria (the entrances to the stage from under the seats) will see overlapping figures and obscured facial expressions. While the sound engineer had the volume turned up too high again for the overture, making it sound as if a mono recording were being blasted through the theatre's speakers, this time the volume settled to a more comfortable level during the first scene and remained so for the rest of the show.

Anyone who has hesitated in seeing Stratford's "My Fair Lady" should hesitate no longer. Now that Geraint Wyn Davies has restored the show's balance, its many virtues triumph over its flaws. Wyn Davies performs in the role until September 14. When Monette himself takes over the role (September 18-November 24), let's hope he can maintain the balance that makes the show click.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare, directed by Miles Potter
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford May 31-November 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Sacrificed Children"

I know I wasn't the only one who looked at Stratford's 2002 season line-up and thought, "Not 'Romeo and Juliet' again!" Stratford did the play just five years ago in 1997 making the present production the eighth in fifty seasons. Fortunately, director Miles Potter has a new take on the play that many will find intriguing: he does it as it's written. For the first time in twenty years at Stratford the action is set in Renaissance Italy with the actors in period costume. More importantly, Potter has Graham Abbey and Claire Jullien play the star-crossed lovers as the ages specified in the text. This has the beneficial effect of changing how we view these familiar characters and clarifying the themes of the play.

The best "Romeo" I've seen is still Stratford's production in 1984 starring Colm Feore and Seana McKenna. There the couple was played as intelligent if impulsive twentysomethings whose verse expressed their thought and inklings of doom. It's true that people were pushed into adulthood at a much earlier age in Shakespeare's time, but Shakespeare deliberately lowers Juliet's age from 16 in his sources to only 13 and emphasizes throughout that Romeo is only a "boy." Juliet's father knows that his daughter is of the minimum age to be legally married and advises her and Paris against it: "And too soon marr'd are those so early made." Therefore, Potter does have a case in portraying the couple as physically but not necessarily emotionally mature.

This naturally changes our perception of the play. For one thing, it means that Romeo and Juliet are not fully aware of the implications and ironies of what they say. Both appear as fantasists, more involved in the image each creates of the other than the reality of the other person. Their image-making out of love becomes the parallel of the Montagues' and Capulets' image-making out of hatred and thus ties in more clearly with Mercutio's Queen Mab speech about imagination.

Yet, there are risks in this approach. When characters don't fully understand the implications of what they say, the result can be unintentional comedy instead of irony or portent. Abbey and especially Jullien do not entirely avoid this problem. Potter brings out their youth by giving both tantrums, Romeo sobbing uncontrollably in Friar Laurence's cell, Juliet screaming at the her parents. This also makes them both seem more childish than tragic. Nevertheless, one wonders if that isn't closer to the truth of the story that the "stars" bring about the sacrifice of the youngest of each family to end their families' enmity.

Shakespeare gives Romeo more insight into his fate as he tumbles headlong to his doom and Abbey fully communicates the dawning of this awareness. He is more successful than Jullien at making Romeo appear youthful without appearing foolish. As Jullien delivers them, Juliet's soliloquies capture no genuine sense of foreboding, sounding more like overexcited imaginings.

While Potter brings out a freshness in the two leads, he allows two other important characters to wallow in cliché. The normally dependable Keith Dinicol plays Friar Laurence with such exaggeration and such a plummy voice he seems to be parodying the role. Friar Laurence should be a highly ambiguous figure--after all, all of his help merely helps the couple to their doom. Not to suggest some of this ambiguity is a serious flaw. A different problem plagues Lally Cadeau's performance as the Nurse. Cadeau puts on an old woman's voice and the all-purpose Irish accent she uses for lower class characters. The overlay makes half of what she says incomprehensible. Often we know what she's saying is supposed to be funny, but we shouldn't have to guess.

Other roles fare better. Wayne Best's Mercutio, who seems too old to be friend to this especially young Romeo, has just the right combination of vigour and fantasy. When he delivers the Queen Mab speech he seems to get caught up in his own imaginings and thus provides a powerful example of how Shakespeare views the Veronans (read humanity), including the young lovers.

Patrick Galligan makes Paris a decent, worthy young man. His sincerity is so real it makes Juliet's disdain seem all the more willful. Scott Wentworth is a strong presence as Capulet, his anger at Juliet not cruel or impulsive but rather the natural reaction of a thwarted father. In contrast, Julia Donovan's impression of Lady Capulet as a modern socialite seems quite out of place.

Raymond O'Neill is a resonant Chorus but does not bring out the weakness in Escalus, who is so unsuccessful in quelling the feud in his own city. Shakespeare doesn't give Montague and his wife much to do but express anger or sorrow and John Dolan and Sarah Dodd don't do more to make them distinctive. Courtenay J. Stevens, as the Nurse's servant Peter, has a good comic sense. As Tybalt, Nicolas Van Burek can't seem to express anger without losing voice control and with it effectiveness. In contrast, Caleb Marshall makes the role of Benvolio much more substantial that it usually is, making the point that Romeo has more people he could rely on than Friar Laurence.

Stratford has set "Romeo" in so many different times and places Patrick Clark's handsome Italian Renaissance costumes have the effect of novelty. With a minimally dressed Festival stage, Steven Hawkins's moody lighting is chiefly responsible for sustaining a tone of ill omen. John Stead's fights, especially the central one between Mercutio and Tybalt looks so dangerous you'll cringe at every blow.

Miles Potter's "Romeo" shows what new ideas can arise simply by a closer examination of the text. Even if the cast is uneven and cannot make everything in the play work as it should, Potter's interpretation is clear and will challenge assumptions about how the title characters should be portrayed. Stratford often appears to view interpretation of Shakespeare solely in terms of costume design. Let's hope for more text-based explorations of Shakespeare like this one in the future.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Battle of Stalingrad: A Requiem
written and directed by Rezo Gabriadze
Rezo Gabriadze Theatre-Studio, du Maurier Theatre Centre, Toronto May 1-4, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Requiem for All the Dead"

The first World Stage Preview closes with a puppet play from the Republic of Georgia, "The Battle of Stalingrad: A Requiem", written and directed by Rezo Gabriadze. Artists like Felix Mirbt and Ronnie Burkett have helped Canadians accept that puppets and marionettes can communicate complex emotions and themes that appeal to an adult audience. Gabriadze's "Stalingrad", written in 1996, presents through a riveting collage of images, realistic and fantastic, a moving portrait of life and death during war.

The historical Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942-February 1943) was a turning point in World War II. The Soviet victory at what is now Volgograd halted the advance of the German army and initiated a series of offensives that would take the Soviets into Germany. The battle claimed more lives than any single conflict in the war--over 800,00 German soldiers and 1.3 million Russians. Gabriadze's "Stalingrad" is a requiem for all the dead--German, Russian, Georgian, Jewish, from insect to angel, beggar to general.

"Stalingrad" is performed in Russian with English surtitles to a prerecorded soundtrack of a wide range of music, vivid sound effects and eighteen voices from an Odessa-based troupe of actors. It cover a period from 1937 to 1943 and moves from Stalingrad to Kiev, Moscow and Berlin. Unifying the fourteen scenes of the play is the central image of a fine white sand that in different contexts can appear as snow, dust or ashes. In the very first scene a skeletal man slowly rises from a plot of this sand, finding a flag, a red star, a helmet and a cross in it, setting the helmet on the cross before he begins to bury himself. This first powerful image reflects not just of the effects of a particular battle but the transitory nature of life and of all bonds.

Several stories and characters weave through the various scenes. We follow the a horse Alyosha searching for his beloved Natasha, a circus horse. When they finally meet, absence has made her love wane. We meet the boy Yasha, first as an ice-cream vendor then as a gunner. He comes across a Jewish wedding where his beloved is marrying someone else, she says, because she couldn't find Yasha. He takes out his anger in reckless gunning and is gunned down himself. In a café in Berlin we meet a dandified artist Molder, who perhaps because of contact with a spy, is killed in the street, his paintbrush and red hat falling to the ground just like a Russian soldier's helmet and gun. We meet a Mother Ant looking for sugar for her daughter. The play closes with her lament that her daughter has died, that there is no safety above or below the earth. When she buries herself in a mound of sand the play has come full circle.

The subtitle "A Requiem" is important. Contrary to the present mindset that thinks of revenge as the only remedy for past injury, Gabriadze's "Stalingrad" serves as a requiem in honouring the dead and in helping the living come to terms with loss. The inclusion of the horses and the ant places the human conflict in a larger context. Scene 12 when the German commander General Paulus speaks with Alyosha links the two as beasts of burden. The final scene links the dying soldier of the beginning with creatures deemed insignificant. We are told explicitly that as an atom is to the a pellet of shot, so is a man to the earth. And in Scene 2 the impoverished worker Pinchas says that electrons are divided into the Volts

and the Amperes and that it is their conflict that causes electricity. While the play is a visual lament for the dead, it also situates life and conflict between Pascal's two worlds, the infinitely small and the infinitely large, to help us see them from a cosmic perspective.

From this point of view Gabriadze's version of tabletop bunraku seems the perfect medium. The faces of the five black-clad "animators" (Vladimer Maltser, Ketevan Kobulia, Gaiane Taqaishvili, Tamara Amiredjibi, Badri Gvazava) are always visible and some of the characters and props are extremely small. This contrast plus the manipulation already underscores the fact that life is at the mercy of larger forces. This is epitomized in two brilliant scenes. In one a soldier lies in bed held in place by six strings. As he discusses the breakup of water into oxygen and hydrogen, one by one an animator removes each string until he lies crumpled in bed. The scene showing the itself has no puppets at all. All we see is red light on the tabletop stage and while we hear the sound of guns and explosions suddenly the back of the tiny stage drops open to reveal the back wall behind it, momentarily exploding the theatrical illusion.

Art director Revaz Gabriadze has given all the images a distorted look as if in a dream. The scene in the Berlin café alludes to Georg Grosz, the relentless massing of troops to Leni Riefenstahl and the colourful Jewish wedding and ascendance of the various dead characters arcing into the sky to Marc Chagall. Within the confines of the small stage opening, lighting designer Boris Aleksandrov creates a host of cinematic effects.

The show is endlessly inventive using marionettes large enough to need two animators, to shadow puppets, puppets on a single stick and even decorated glove puppets. A train is a revolving green bucket with a light shining through windows, the passing scenery are a sequence of props placed on two revolving turntables. A snowstorm is a thin stream of sand blown on to moving sheets of helmets by a fan. A skeleton of an airplane shot down breaks apart, the sections gracefully gliding through space. The animate creatures are made lifelike with incredibly delicate and precise manipulation--the worker Pinchas reflecting on life, the agile dancer at the wedding, the artist Molder smoking at his table. Such attention to detail in the expression of emotion through gesture is what makes the death of the horse Natasha and the lament of the Mother Ant the most moving scenes in the play.

Gabriadze first built his 48-seat puppet theatre in 1981. After it was destroyed during the Georgian Civil War (1992-94), he rebuilt it to seat about 100. There's no question that at 425 seats the du Maurier Theatre is too large a venue for a show that so often employs such miniscule props and subtle gestures. Nevertheless, Rezo Gabriadze is one of the greatest practitioners of this form of theatre and those intrigued by it should not miss the chance to see his work.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Les Pêcheurs des perles
by Georges Bizet, directed by Renaud Doucet
Opera Ontario, Hamilton Place,
Hamilton April 20, 25 & 27, 2002 Centre in the Square, Kitchener May 4, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Opera Ontario Uncovers a Pearl"

Opera Ontario's first production of Bizet's "Les Pêcheurs des perles" ("The Pearl Fishers") proves that there is more to this opera than the famous tenor-baritone duet "Au fond du temple saint." While only two of the three singers involved in the work's love triangle were in top form, the attractive production and the splendid conducting of Daniel Lipton made an exciting evening of Bizet's "other opera."

"Pêcheurs" was first produced in Paris in 1863 when Bizet was only 25. The influence of other composers is clear. Gounod's "Faust" (1859) has affected the transition from one musical idea to the next, and Wagner is felt in the use of "Au fond du temple saint" as a leitmotiv that recurs in various guises throughout. But there is no denying Bizet's gift for melody and colourful orchestral writing. One memorable tune follows the next all tinged with the dark tonal structure in which Bizet has cast the work. "Carmen" will always be Bizet's masterpiece, but I'd hate to be denied entry to "Pêcheurs" where you can feel the young composer testing his strength.

The opera finds librettists Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré in exotic Temple of Doom mode. In ancient Ceylon Zurga, leader of the pearl fishers, encounters his friend Nadir. Their reaffirmed friendship is tested by the appearance of Léïla, a consecrated virgin, whom both men fell in love with at first sight long ago. When Nadir goes to Léïla to declare his love for her, the High Priest Nourabad discovers them and they are condemned to death by Zurga. His anger abated, Zurga later relents and helps the two to flee.

The action is so swift and so succinct that it does not allow for much character development. The singers therefore have to use each of their limited appearances to give their characters as much shape as possible. Canadians Lyne Fortin as Léïla and Gaetan Lapierre as Zurga are both in top form. Fortin's rich soprano and detailed acting make Léïla not the helpless temple-maiden one might imagine. Rather she is full of strength and we sense that the arrival of Nadir gives her a chance to escape the strictures that bind her. Fortin's sure command of vocal line and of the frequent trills and leaps Bizet gives her is thrilling.

Lapierre is also impressive. His deep, powerful baritone with its Gallic bite is perfect for Zurga. His character is the one who suffers the greatest inner conflict and, as a man who gives up his own happiness for that of his friend, Zurga is one of the rare examples of male self-sacrifice in opera. Lapierre brought all this to bear in "L'orage s'est calmé," which, though not a showpiece, he sang with such emotion it won a well-deserved round of applause. Indeed, the intensity of his performance, like Fortin's, made exoticism secondary to our interest in the characters.

Such is not the case with the third member of the love triangle. As Nadir Spanish tenor Manuel Beltran Gil has the sound of a Domingo but without his power and certainly without his stage presence. His indecipherable French, his use of a small range of generalized gestures and his single multipurpose facial expression set him apart from everyone else on stage. His voice blends well in his various duets but one feels Fortin and Lapierre are doing the acting for two. In Nadir's well-known aria "Je crois entendre encore," Gil makes an awkward transition to high notes meant to be effortlessly floated. In the fourth named part, the High Priest Nourabad, bass Alexander Savtchenko is suitably stern and authoritative.

The chorus prepared by Peter Oleskevich plays a major role representing the strict, religious society against whish the three members of the love triangle stand out. After some insecure attacks in Act 1, the chorus was galvanized for their important outbursts in Acts 2 and 3, the finale to Act 2 being especially impressive.

Opera Ontario has acquired exceedingly handsome sets and costumes originally designed for the Opera Municipal de Santiago by the Argentinean team of Roberto Oswald and Anibal Lapiz. Ignoring the references to Hinduism in the text, Oswald's sets conjure up the ancient ruins where the action takes place with increasingly dominant statues of Buddha in each act, thereby physically suggesting both the fate looming over the characters and the need for mercy. Lapiz's attractive, predominantly off-white costumes give the work a look at once fresh and authentic. His vestigial veil for Léïla, however, though one solution to the problem of the fully veiled singer the librettists ask for, is distracting. Lighting designer Michael J. Whitfield, always adept at recreating natural lighting effects on stage, gives a us closely observed sunset and sunrise timed perfectly with the music and growing storm with lightning and racing shadows of clouds that enhances the drama of Act 2's exciting conclusion.

Stage director Renaud Doucet's clear, straightforward direction gives the work vitality. The libretto calls for a scene change in Act 3, but it would have been wise for Doucet to have ignored it or somehow managed a scene change without lowering the curtain and halting the momentum. As choreographer Doucet has devised an imaginative series of dances, all gracefully executed, by adding movements from East Indian dance to traditional balletic vocabulary.

Much of the evening's success is due to conductor Daniel Lipton. He draws committed playing from the Hamilton Philharmonic. His precision and alert tempi maintain a sense of urgency that sweeps the audience into the action from the beginning and doesn't let it go.

Opportunities to see "Les Pêcheurs des perles" on stage are unfortunately few and far between. There is so much right about this production that anyone interested should not hesitate. It augurs well for Léo Delibes' "Lakmé," another rarely performed French orientalist opera, that Opera Ontario has scheduled for winter 2003.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Therac 25
by Adam Pettle, directed by Jordan
Pettle Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto May 1-19, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Love in Face of Death"

It's not very often that a living playwright has two shows running simultaneously in Toronto--but 29-year-old Adam Pettle does. "Zadie's Shoes", his 2001 hit, is still running at the Winter Garden Theatre in its Mirvish remount. The Factory Theatre has just opened a fine new production of Pettle's first play "Therac 25". One can already see in that 50-minute play the same characteristics that would make "Zadie's Shoes" a critical and popular success.

"Therac 25" was first produced at the Halifax Fringe Festival in 1994 and first seen in Toronto at the SummerWorks Festival in 1997. It concerns two cancer patients who meet at the Princess Margaret Hospital between sessions of Therac 25 computerized radiation therapy. Alan, like Adam Pettle in real life) has had an operation for a tumour wrapped around a vocal cord and has had eleven lymph nodes removed. Moira has an inoperable medulloblastoma (a cancerous tumour near the pineal gland). Despite a wariness on Moira's part, they both fall in love.

>From the plot summary alone, the play sounds like the typical subject for an emotionally manipulative movie of the week. The surprise in Pettle's play is that he avoids any of the clichés or heartstring tugging of the genre. He does this primarily by focussing not on the characters' struggle with cancer, although they do, but rather on their struggle to accept each other's love. In this way the play gains resonance. The particular disease is not the question. Rather we two young people who have had to confront their mortality earlier than most people ever do and have to decide whether further involvement with the world or another person makes any sense. A scene in a church where Moira curses God for his indifference only to throw up in a font reinforces the existential theme Pettle has brought out from a realistic situation.

The play is not gloomy. Rather we see how both have developed ways of coping with the pain of their conditions. Moira sings the Cat Stevens song "Moonshadow" during her treatments or when afraid. Alan has developed a kind of gallows humour and thinks of writing a book on "100 Ways to Pick Up Cancer Patients": "I don't want to brag, but I've got the lowest blood count on the ward." A sense of humour is what causes them to link up. But each has a private rule. Moira can't be asked "How are you feeling today?" Alan can't be touched. The reality of love in the face of death makes gives them the courage to break their rules.

The acting is excellent. The playwright playing essentially himself shows a young man who uses his wry humour as a cover for immense loneliness. Alan's joking may suggest he is outgoing but his body language shows how restricted he feels. Patricia Fagan is a mercurial Moira. It may have been the idea of director Jordan Pettle (Adam's brother) to make Moira emotionally labile, but I think Fagan's performance would be stronger if she could show Moira's emotional state less sequentially and more simultaneously as she does so powerfully in the last moments of the play. There is a palpable tension between the Alan and Moira that grows from merely playful to highly charged.

Jordan Pettle's direction is straightforward and unfussy and shows an excellent sense of pace. Few one-act plays are blessed with as handsome a design as this. For a play that requires both indoor and outdoor scenes, Vikki Anderson has created a non-realistic set for the small Factory Studio space. Two greenish walls, each with two nondescript doors face each other at an angle opening at the back onto a stand of leafless trees suggesting both confinement and freedom. With the aid of Andrea Lundy's inventive lighting and Derek Bruce's soundscape, this wedge of space becomes various rooms in the hospital, Alan and Moira's separate apartments, a church and a park.

This is a one-act play that doesn't feel slight at all. The strength of its impact may take you by surprise. Its resonance and compassion for its characters take it out of the ordinary.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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by David Mamet, directed by Jeff Seymour C.O.R.E.,
Jane Mallet Theatre, Toronto May 3-17, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"The Prison or the Bridge"

David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow" from 1988 is a wicked satire of greed and amorality in the Hollywood film industry. It's a lighter work than "Glengarry Glen Ross" but like it focuses on power games among men in business. This low-budget production which has already played in Vancouver is, though flawed, still highly entertaining.

Robert Gould has just been promoted to Head of Production at a film studio giving him the option of greenlighting one project of his choice per year with a budget over ten million dollars. His friend Charlie Fox, lower on the corporate totem pole, comes to him with a gift project. The star Douglas Brown, the current flavour of the month, has come to Charlie to say he wants to do a prison flick with their studio. Out of loyalty Charlie brings the project to Robert and they dream of the fame and fortune they'll accrue as producers of a sure hit. A sense of power so goes to Charlie's head that he bets Robert $500.00 that Robert can bed his new temp Karen that night. As a ploy Robert gives Karen a high-brow novel to read and says they'll discuss it back at his place. To his great surprise Karen loves the book and recommends that Robert option it for a film instead of the mindless Doug Brown shoot-'em-up. She tries to persuade Robert to do something right that will make people think for a change and instead of pandering to their baser instincts to line his pockets.

Despite the play's realistic setting and Mamet's highly naturalistic dialogue with its repetitions, self-interruptions and overlaps, the play is in fact a satiric morality play. Robert is torn between Charlie, a venal toady for whom lucre is the highest goal, and Karen, naive and sincere, who wants Robert to lift head out of the slime to see he can use his power to do good. Mamet makes the battle ironic by making the high-brow novel "The Bridge" as loony as the Doug Brown script is inane. In fact, the Doug Brown script where the hero goes over to the side of his would-be prison rapists is closer to the reality of Charlie and Robert, who both call themselves "whores", than the apocalyptic novel which claims God has put all form of radiation on earth to mutate human genes in order to raise mankind to a higher level.

L.A.-based actor Jeff Seymour is excellent at showing us a young man basking in his new promotion but he is still able to suggest an insecurity underlying the bravado. He is hilarious in the scene at Robert's Malibu home where the drunken Robert can't get Karen to stop enthusing about the book long enough to notice he's trying to make a pass. Canadian-born Bill Elliot as Charlie is the perfect foil for Robert, a yes-man willing to contradict himself in a second if he thinks it will get him ahead. As he says, "It's only words, unless they're true". His best scene is the final one when Charlie allows his anger to burst out proving that he thinks all people are as unscrupulous as he is and that anyone who is not is a fool.

The role of Karen is a major problem. The character is really a blank and proof for some that Mamet doesn't know how to write roles for women. In some productions Karen has been played as if she knows when Robert gives her the book to read that this is her big chance to grab a little power. This production's interpretation is probably closer to Mamet's intention by making Karen truly naïve, deriving humour from her obtuseness to Robert's come-ons. Making her Toronto stage debut, Canadian-born Joely Collins (who happens to be singer Phil Collins's daughter) does her best with the underwritten role but still can't give Karen much individuality.

There is no credit for the sets and costumes. We see Robert's office on one side and his home's living room on the other with rather too large a gap between them. Jeff Seymour, also the director, has emphasized the awkwardness of the set by having scenes played in the extreme corners of each location. He always insures that he is facing toward the audience but this means that Fox and Collins have to deliver too many of their lines not just in profile but actually facing away from the audience. Seymour may be the star but a little more generosity in blocking would have increased the tension and made more lines more intelligible. He encourages rapid-fire line delivery but occasionally a slower pace, would be welcome, especially at the end when Robert has to make his choice between good and evil. Sandra Marcroft's lighting is unremarkable.

The phrase "Speed-the-Plow" does not occur in the play. Those familiar with arcane proverbs will know that it is a short form for "Godspeed the plow", a blessing on a farmer's labour. The title is clearly a criticism of the present-day "work" as nothing but deal-making benefiting no one but the deal-makers.

Though this may typify the work of the characters is does not reflect the work of the actors. All proceeds from "Speed-the-Plow" will go to C.O.R.E., the Centre for Opportunities, Respect and Empowerment, a group that help individuals with severe mental or developmental challenges make the transition from institutional to community living. Even if altruism is derided in the Mamet's cynical movieland, it's good it still exists somewhere in the real world. Robert Gould has the symbolic choice of the prison movie or "The Bridge". Even if he chooses to stay with the prison, you can choose the bridge.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Counterfeit Secrets
by Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, directed by John Van Burek
Pleiades Theatre, Artword Theatre, Toronto May 7-26, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Starry Marivaux"

Pleiades Theatre's enlightening Marivaux series continues this year with "Counterfeit Secrets" ("Les Fausses Confidences") from 1737. As with Pleiades' past two Marivaux productions, John Van Burek is the translator and director. There are deficiencies in both acting and direction that prevent the play from being as clear as it should be. But these should not prevent anyone interested from experiencing what is often considered the greatest play of this master of psychological comedy.

As usual Marivaux uses a complex plot to create a conflict within his characters of what is known versus what is felt, head versus heart. In "Secrets" Dubois, a servant in the household of the wealthy widow Araminte, has thought of a scheme to help his penniless friend Dorante win the hand of Araminte, whom he has long loved from afar. Dorante will not have to be far off long, for Dubois has arranged for him to become Araminte's steward. In addition to the difference in their wealth and social status, many circumstances bar Dorante's way. His uncle Monsieur Rémy engages him to Araminte's maid Marton. Araminte's domineering mother Madame Argante hopes to persuade her daughter to marry the wealthy Monsieur le Conte and takes an instant dislike to Dorante. And Dorante's own sense of propriety prevents him from confessing his love for Araminte for fear of ridicule and offense. But Dubois is a master of psychological manipulation and like the playwright himself knows exactly when to add new pieces of information to affect the interplay of tensions in the household to achieve his end.

In "The Game of Love and Chance" seen here in 2000 and in "The Triumph of Love" in 2001, the schemers are also the main characters of the play and find themselves ever more firmly caught in the web they spin. In "Secrets" the relationship of the central characters is manipulated by someone outside it, making the play itself into a metaphor for the theatre and throwing into relief the question of how to judge truth or falseness in a world of artifice.

Van Burek's translation is bright and clear, giving Dubois the most modern colloquial language for comic effect. The one flaw is his use of "intendant" for Dorante's position in Araminte's household. Yes, it's the word Marivaux uses in French, but it does not have the same meaning in English and it sounds too much like "intended." Much of the play revolves around whether Dorante who is Araminte's "intendant" is also her "intended." Much better to avoid such confusion and use the word "major-domo" or the period word "steward" which is Malvolio's title in "Twelfth Night" and Antonio's in "The Duchess of Malfi."

Since Marivaux is so concerned with subtle changes of mind, reason versus emotion, a director of "Secrets" has to decide when Araminte falls in love with Dorante and when she knows it. Van Burek's solution is to have both moments coincide with Araminte's declaration of love at the very end of the play. In doing this he misses out on much of the play's humour that should come from Araminte's growing difficulty in understanding the attraction she feels. As in the previous two Marivaux, Andjelija Djuric is the set and costume designer. In "Secrets" Djuric's very modern rectilinear set in grey, black and red represents a kind of puzzle, the pieces only fitting together at the very end. Up until then, Van Burek directs the cast to move these pieces about not just to changes scenes but also in the middle of them and so frequently that the practice is distracting.

Djuric's again provides very modern interpretation of 18th-century clothing, giving the women dresses of several semitransparent layers to suggest the various layers they present to others. Marivaux's men have layers too, but Djuric doesn't reflect this in their more traditional garb. Paul Mathiesen is always apposite and effective, but Justin Haynes's music, which in past shows has played with 18th-century forms, here sounds mostly like static mixed with feedback. The weak link in the previous two Marivaux has been the casting of the lead female role. This is true again in "Secrets." Beirut-born Arsinée Khanjian as Araminte is best know to Toronto audiences for appearing in 13 of husband Atom Egoyan's films. English is her fourth language and it is remarkable she is so fluent she can act in it. Her accent is unusual but charming; the real difficulty is unclear diction. Though "Secrets" is in prose we must know every words in Marivaux to judge a character's state of mind. One can tell that Khanjian's main medium is film since she acts primarily from the neck up. Her limited range of inflection, movement and gestures inhibit communicating the nuances of Araminte's suffering and dawning awareness.

Fortunately, Khanjian is surrounded by an excellent cast. Andrew Pifko as Dorante is sure to have many more leading roles come his way. He knows exactly how to make clear the finely gradated series of conflicting emotions that Marivaux demands. Xuan Fraser is an inspired choice as Dubois, the servant who is the master puppeteer behind the scenes. His classical training shows in his expert timing and delivery of his frequent deadpan asides with such aplomb. Julie LeGal as Marton is also a constant pleasure. Like Pifko, LeGal has mastered all the emotional subtleties Marivaux asks of her. She gives us a woman so sensitive and vivacious we are torn as to whether Dorante should pursue her or Araminte. Dawn Greenhalgh makes Madame Argante into a kind of French precursor to Wilde's Lady Bracknall. Her characterful voice makes her every word a weapon to protect her preeminence in the household. William Webster is hilarious as Monsieur Rémy the materialistic lawyer (if that's not redundant). He makes Rémy's blithely narrow view that people are motivated only by money into the play's most surefire source of humour. Peter James Haworth could stand to make Monsieur le Conte a bit less bland and more pompous. Thomas Hauff's performance as Harlequin needs to be tighter. Spencer Haworth as the Jeweller's Boy shows amazing assurance in one so young.

Until the Stratford Festival or Soulpepper catch on to Marivaux, Pleiades Theatre has the field all to itself. The production has sufficient strength, despite its flaws, to convince you that "Counterfeit Secrets" is a masterpiece and to make you hope Pleiades bring us more Marivaux in the future.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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by Jonathan Wilson, directed by Chris Abraham
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto April 30-June 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

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"Well, ... What?"

"Well," (the comma is part of the title) is about as iffy as its title. The story is interesting, the acting varies from good to excellent and the production is clever. The problem is that playwright Jonathan Wilson has chosen a story with the potential for multiple meanings but has done nothing to bring them out. Instead, Wilson seems more content to develop the superficial aspects of the tale without plumbing any of its depths.

Willie escapes from a mental health facility in Alberta where he has been for nearly 17 years. Accompanying him is Charlotte, an imaginary friend about his age that only he can see and talk to. His one goal is to return to the rural hamlet of Mayfield where he was born. Seventeen years ago the three-year-old Willie, rather like Baby Jessica in 1987, became a celebrity in Mayfield when he fell headfirst down a well. His plight and subsequent rescue by his uncle Rodeo Ray put Mayfield on the map for the first and so far only time in its uneventful history. He became a kind of good luck charm for the town and people lined up to touch a person they felt had been "touched by God." One of these people was Carol Dawson, now a news reporter for Channel 83 who is contemplating joining the Weather Network where the news would be more exciting than in Mayfield. She's been having casual sex with her oafish videographer Quentin, who would like Carol to stay with the station and stay with him despite her desire to leave both behind. When Quentin suggests they do a story for the 20th anniversary of the rescue of Wee Willie, the story they uncover is not as simple as everyone thought.

Wilson compares Willie's rescue to his breach-birth delivery. His is in the well two days before he is miraculously saved. His being saved makes the whole town feel saved. He hears voices. The story competing with his on the news is the birth of a two-headed lamb. If Wilson had been reading his Joseph Campbell or Northrop Frye, he'd know how much mythic significance there is in such a story. The fact that none of the things people prayed for when touching Willie ever happened could make the play an interesting commentary on this myth and say something about Canada at the same time.

Instead far too much of the play's 90 minutes is devoted to the sitcom-like relationship of Carol and Quentin. The comic writing is strictly hit-and-miss. The wordplay on the three meanings of "well" soon becomes tiresome. Wilson allows character about-faces for effect. And after the dénouement when all is revealed, Wilson tacks on a feel-good finish as if he wanted to back away from the various issues he'd raised. It doesn't help that the event that precipitates Willie's fall into the well doesn't actually make sense given all we're told.

The production includes a number of fine performances, most notably by Richard McMillan as Rodeo Ray. Only when he's on stage does the show gain any sense of focus and urgency. His classical background shows in his ability to show nuances of emotions, anger, discontent, bitterness, beneath the bravado of a short-lived hero now reduced to selling curios and collectibles.

Aaron Willis, a recent graduate of the George Brown Theatre School, gives a very believable portrait of a young man who tries hard combat the trauma of his unusual background in order to seem "normal" but is all-too-conscious of his every failure. Holly Lewis as Willie's invisible companion makes much of every look and gesture, but for a voice that Willie can't get rid of it is odd that Wilson has given her so little to say.

Melody A. Johnson is excellent as bringing out the forced sincerity of television newspeople and showing Carol's frustration with her situation. But when Willie re-enters her life I hoped for more emotion from her and variety in her line delivery. It doesn't make sense that Carol, who is looking for a story, doesn't realize what a story there is in Willie once she recognizes who he is. Paul Braunstein is very funny as Quentin, a kind of amiable bear whose brain has been fried by too many drugs.

Director Chris Abraham has shown that he has a knack for bringing out the subtleties in complex works, but in this case he can't be expected to bring out subtleties where there are none. His direction is clear and with the help of Victoria Wallace's set, creates a number of striking visual images. Wallace's set is a slaty incline behind which various signs and even a bed can suddenly appear. Glenn Davidson's lighting and John Gzowski music played live supply the aura of mystery that Wilson's words never do.

"Well," is a pleasant enough entertainment. It tells its story, hints there is more to it but draws back from exploring these implications in favour of an easy ending. Until it is revised again, the hesitant title will be all too suitable.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Gwendolyn Poems
by Claudia Dey, directed by Eda Holmes
Factory Theatre, Toronto May 15-June 9, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Schematic Shadows"

Margaret Atwood has said that a small anthology could be assembled of poems about the tragically short-lived poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-87). Now it seems a small an anthology of plays about her is forming. In 1999 Linda Griffiths presented "Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen" at the Theatre Passe Muraille Back Space. Now on the Factory Theatre Mainspace a production of "The Gwendolyn Poems" by young playwright Claudia Dey has opened. If "Alien Creature" did not capture the poetry of MacEwen, it did capture a sense of her magic and otherworldliness. "The Gwendolyn Poems" captures neither. Though the work includes non-realistic elements, far too often it plays as a series of drearily naturalistic scenes that give little clue why its central figure should interest us.

Both Griffiths's and Dey's work is inspired, often verbally, by Rosemary Sullivan's acclaimed 1995 biography "Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen". Sullivan shows that MacEwen grew up with a great sense of insecurity, of never being loved. This led both to the darkness in her work and to the self-destructiveness and despair in her life. Dey would like to do the same in her play but so emphasizes MacEwen's background that the play becomes a testament more to determinism than poetry.

The play takes the now-familiar form of showing a life flashing before the eyes of a dying person. It begins with the sound of MacEwen's friend Mo knocking to get in to see her and circles back to that moment and beyond. Her life review precedes in a tedious chronological order from her the publication of her first poem in "Canadian Forum" to her death in a basement apartment in the Annex in Toronto.

Her mentally unstable mother Elsie, in a finely detailed performance by Barbara Gordon, is made out to be the dominant influence. Obsessed with chastity and loathing for sex, she wanted MacEwen to be a nun. The strain of madness, the obsession, the inability to accept pleasure, stem from her. Her father Alick, played with great sensitivity by Jerry Franken, is driven to drink by Elsie's condition and by his failure to be an artist, a photographer. These two qualities he passes on to his famous daughter.

The third influence is her first husband, the "People's Poet" Milton Acorn. They married when he was 38 and she 19. As written by Dey and portrayed by David Fox, Acorn is so obnoxious it's impossible to understand how MacEwen could ever consent to live with such an (apparently) foul-smelling brute. Since Dey introduces us to Acorn when MacEwen agrees to marry him, we never do know. After their break-up Acorn tries to have revenge by deriding her poetry and spreading lies about her. Fox's performance may be overblown, but he does give us the sense that under the bluster and outward hatred, there was once a real love.

Dey's idea is that MacEwen is haunted by the ghosts of her past. She shows this rather literally by having them flit in and out evoking sadness (Alick) or hurling criticisms (Elsie and Acorn). The two most grounded people MacEwen knows are her female friend Mo and her second husband, the Greek singer Nikos Tsingos. Tamsin Kelsey brings out the compassion and humour in Mo while Tony Nappo shows the growing fear of seeing someone he loves becoming alien. Franken also plays MacEwen's doctor, taken aback by a patient so bent on self-destruction. Kelsey is a treat as an interviewer totally out of her depth when faced with an oracle. And Nappo, with a swift change of costume and accent becomes MacEwen's lifelong hero, T.E. Lawrence, a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia.

The peculiarity is that these secondary characters are all more interesting than Dey makes MacEwen. In Act 1, while Dey is busy establishing rather too schematically her Three Major Influences, MacEwen seem so passive it's hard to think of her as a major writer much less a visionary. As MacEwen, Brooke Johnson line delivery is so monotone we don't see how there could be any passion behind her writing. In Act 2, however, the further downhill MacEwen slides, the better Johnson becomes, probably because role finally offers some challenges. Johnson is especially good as the loony MacEwen holding court in a donut shop.

Late in Act 2 is too late to awake our interest. Act 1 ends with such a powerful image, Alick and Acorn winding MacEwen up in a sheet to form a straightjacket, that Act 2 seems superfluous. Dey has given us so many clues as to what will happen that there doesn't seem to be much point to spend another hour watching a woman descend into wretchedness. And indeed, there is a certain tedium to repeated pattern of drink, quitting drink, visiting the doctor and relapse, real though it may have been. Ultimately, Dey is too timid with her non-naturalism. In a play like this, Dey should conjure up more stage imagery like closing scenes of each act. She needs to find not just poetic quotations but a dramaturgy that is poetic.

Eda Holmes ably directs but the pacing needs to be tighter and the appearances of MacEwen's ghosts are never as fluid as they should be. More effective than the text at summing up the paradoxes of MacEwen's life is David Boechler's set. There are three walls, none of them touching, the back with two very tall windows, the side walls with one each. These are completely papered over with posters and maps, the back wall with Greece, the stage right wall with Israel and the stage left wall with Egypt. What better metaphor for a poet who wants to shut out the "unwelcome light" of reality with her imaginings, reinforced by travel, of fabled lands of the mind. When transilluminated by Michael Kruse, MacEwen's apartment becomes a kind of chapel with these as self-made stained glass windows. Sand lies in two piles on the floor evoking the summer holidays with her family, sawdust of a cat's litter box and the dunes of her beloved Middle East.

As with Timothy Findley's "The Trials of Ezra Pound" last year, the facts of biography may tell us about the person but can't tell us why that person is a poet let alone a great one. Dey's play will not give anyone who already knows about Gwendolyn MacEwen new insights into her or her poetry. Anyone who does know MacEwen will see a dismal life enacted but will not discover what makes her a great writer instead of a doomed eccentric.


© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Turn of the Screw
by Jeffrey Hatcher, directed by Craig Walker
Theatre Kingston, Tarragon Theatre, Toronto June 13-29, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"They Will Seduce You"

After a week of one overblown production after another at Stratford, what a relief it was to see Theatre Kingston's "The Turn of the Screw" now playing at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space. At Stratford the extraneous ruled--sets and costumes take the place of telling a story clearly or even accurately. Theatre Kingston's minimalist production puts the focus where it should be--on communicating a fascinating story through powerful acting.

Last year Theatre Kingston brought us a highly entertaining version of James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake" in Artistic Director Craig Walker's own adaptation. In "The Turn of the Screw" they bring us another work one would have thought inadaptable to the stage. But as last year they prove us wrong again. The challenge here is not an encyclopedic, mythopoeic epic as with Joyce, but a compact tale whose very strength is its elusiveness and ambiguity.

Henry James's famed novella of 1898 tells the story of a governess hired by a man named Douglas to tutor his deceased brother's two children, Miles and Flora, on an isolated estate. She finds an ally in the elderly servant Mrs. Grose but begins to feel the malicious presence of two former employees, both now deceased--that of her predecessor Miss Jessel and that of the uncle's valet Peter Quint. As the days pass it becomes clear to her that the revenants' goal is to harm or possess the children and that she must do something to stop them.

James's novella has been adapted as a chamber opera by Benjamin Britten (1954) and has formed the basis for several films, the best of which is "The Innocents" (1961) by Jack Clayton. The difficult with these adaptations is that they make concrete what in James's text may be only imagined. Whether the ghosts of Mrs. Jessel and Quint are or are not real is one of the central and most insoluble questions of the novella.

American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher has come up with a brilliant solution in dealing with this exploration of point of view and the indeterminacy. One actor, Michelle Mallen, plays The Governess and another, Craig Walker, plays The Man, who in turn plays the roles of Douglas, Mrs. Grose and Miles. Flora's presence is mimed and whether Jessel and Quint, both mute, also appear depends entirely on whether you think The Man represents them or not. Like Walker's own adaptation of "Finnegans Wake", it's one of the cleverest adaptations of a novel I've seen in a long time. Not only does it keep the ambiguity of the novella intact but, unlike so many adaptations, it works as stage play in its own right. Hatcher gives the Governess a repressive childhood not found in James, but in the play it provides the Man with another sinister aspect as the Governess's father.

Every element of the production works together to produce such a powerful effect it may take you by surprise. Walker as director has chosen an alley staging with the audience split into two ranks of seats on either side of a narrow space running the length of the theatre. A doorway indicated only by curtains lies at one end and a set of carpeted steps leading into darkness lies at the other. More than any proscenium staging ever could, this set-up reinforces the themes of the play. The Governess is trapped with the Other from the outset. The theme of watching and being watched couldn't be clearer as we watch those across the stage watching the actors.

The lighting is superb. Jamie Press has lit the runway with three hooded lamps to make three sharply defined pools of light where the action takes place. The effect can be softened by external lights, but more often we see the actors' faces partially consumed by shadow, a perfect complement to this exploration of moral darkness. Anne Redish's provides Victorian costumes for both. Mallen wears the high-collared black gown for the Governess as if it were a suit of armour to protect her from the world though she is conscious of the long row of diagonal buttons on the bodice as inadequate defense. The looser costume for the Man suits his nature as a shape-shifter. Given the choice between lavish spectacle and a few perfectly chosen elements of production closely tied as here with theme and character, latter wins out every time.

Walker and Mallen are both give finely nuanced performances. They are excellent at bringing out the subtext, and the subtext beneath that subtext, every moment in the play. From the moment of her interview with Douglas when the Governess mistakes the word "version' for "virgin", Mallen shows us a woman whose politeness and restraint thinly veil her inner terrors. Mallen's intensity is key in making us believe, as the Governess does, that she is responding to external forces. Walker distinguishes each of the Man's speaking roles through radical changes of voice and minimal changes of posture to allow for the possibility that they all are projections of the Governess's imagination. Walker shows the malice in Douglas's question "Have I seduced you?" in Miles's supposed innocence and even in strange glimmers that pass over kindly Mrs. Grose's face. They are subtle, involving performances that catch you up right from the start and don't let go.

Walker's direction is taut and economical. His careful pacing allows a tension to build that will have you looking out for Peter Quint or Miss Jessel in the wings even when the play's two actors are on stage. He brings out the sense that what is unspoken overshadows what is spoken and this only heightens the chilling atmosphere. He also fully preserves the crucial ambiguity of the ending. Those who appreciate a great story expertly performed should not miss this dark, multifaceted gem of a show.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Henry VI, Parts 1, 2 & 3
by William Shakespeare, directed by Leon Rubin
Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford June 1-September 28, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Henrys 3, Insight 0"

A person who sees the current Stratford production of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays might well come away thinking that indeed these are "lesser" works and not be surprised they are done so infrequently. That would be sad mistake, for in the right directorial hands and with the right company these plays combined with "Richard III" to make up Shakespeare's First Tetralogy can be exciting, absolutely riveting theatre. This is only the third time in its 50 years that Stratford has deigned to do these plays. The last time was Pam Brighton's production back in 1980 when all three parts of "Henry VI" were squished together into a three-hour play and featured several truly awful performances. The present production by Leon Rubin is far superior to Brighton's but shows little understanding of the themes of the play or its structure.

Between when Stratford last did the Henry VI plays and now, I've seen three further productions of them, two by the RSC and one by Drama Department at Berkeley, all of which were better conceived and executed that the present production. Last year the RSC visited Ann Arbor, Michigan, with Michael Boyd's acclaimed production of the First Tetralogy, the first time the RSC had ever done each of the plays separately and uncut. "Henry VI, Part 1" ran to three hours, Part 2 to three hours and a half hours, Part 3 to three hours and forty-five minutes and "Richard III" to four hours. The production was a revelation because it proved that the more of these plays is presented the most fascinating they are. The entire sequence is governed by recurring patterns of action and image which not unlike Wagner's leitmotifs, gain in significance with every repetition. Radical or insensitive cutting ruins these patterns and their cumulative force. Stratford has combine both parts of "Henry VI" into one play subtitled "Revenge in France" lasting three hours. Henry VI, Part 3" is subtitled "Revolt in England" and lasts only two and half hours. Compare these timings with those at Ann Arbor and it becomes obvious how little of the Henry VI plays Stratford is actually performing. No one can judge their real power when seen in such a butchered form.

Last year when Stratford did the two "Henry IV" plays and "Henry V" casting was continuous from play to play. This year, even though Stratford has given three "Henry VI" plays and "Richard III" the title "The Wars of the Roses", it has not used continuous casting eve though many of the same actors also appear in "Richard III". The future Richard III who has his first major soliloquies in "Henry VI, Part 3" is played by a different actor in "Richard III". Likewise, Seana McKenna who plays Margaret of Anjou in the "Henry VI plays" shifts to the role of Queen Elizabeth. If Stratford were actually serious about presenting the First Tetralogy, it would present them as a unified group as has been done with so much success recently in England, the US, Germany and Italy.

Leon Rubin, in first season directing at Stratford since 1984, has put "Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2" through a shredder, ruining the Shakespeare complex patterning of events. He has shifted the events in France primarily to Act 1 of "Revenge in France" focusing on Joan of Arc and moved the events in England to Act 2. Joan of Arc may be the best-known character in the "Henry VI" plays to a modern audience, but in Shakespeare time she was merely a witch who the fickle French blindly followed to their doom. The real focus of the "Henry VI, Part 1" should be Talbot and his son, who become the first victims of rivalry between York and Lancaster. Shakespeare shifts rapidly between scenes in England and France to show the French coming together as the English fall apart. Rubin's cutting loses all of this. Unlike the two RSC productions he does not have the same actress play both Joan and Margaret (as would have happened in the original). The symbolism is thus lost that the English have defeated one French witch only to invite another into England itself. Rubin has the good idea of having Seana McKenna, the Chorus in last year's "Henry V", repeat that play's closing lines referring to the "Henry VI" plays. But then he cuts the important scene near the end of "Revolt" when Henry VI in prison meets young Richmond (the future Henry VII) and prophesies the victory we will at the end of "Richard III".

Rubin's direction has little to do with illuminating the text. Rather stages most of the dialogue in a static fashion as we works up to visual effects that call attention to themselves more that Shakespeare's ideas. In "Revenge" Duke Humphrey's wife is surprised while seeking advise from witches. Using an Eastern technique of reflected light and shadow puppets, Rubin makes clear that the witches are charlatans. We thus discount their prophesies contrary to Shakespeare's plan, who has structured the plays through a series of curses and prophesies, demonstrates that every one comes true. In "Revolt" Rubin has decided that Henry VI must fall from a height when the future Richard III stabs him. To engineer this, Rubin has a large bed, poorly disguised as a table, moved on long before the stabbing. It is so high that it obscures much important action played upstage like Margaret's reaction to her son's murder. When Henry falls, the result is merely decorative and not worth the awkward set-up. More peculiar is the decision to have what looks like a robot wander the upper runway during the final battle. I assume this ugly creature is supposed to be Death, but it opens up to reveal Michelle Giroux inside. Is the struggle between York and Lancaster supposed to be Joan's revenge on England? If so, Rubin has completely misread the plays.

The stage is dominated by an industrial metal scaffold that provides a narrow acting runway above the stage. Designer John Pennoyer claims in the program that this "allows more action and a swift interchange of location". In theory that might be true, but in practice Rubin rarely uses it that way. This structure is a major disadvantage for people seating in the front two or three rows who then have to crane their necks to see what's happening on the second level. The structure also disrupts movement on stage since Rubin seldom has action circulate around and through it. Pennoyer's costume, however, are quite attractive and make reference to styles from the Middle Ages to Shakespeare's day. The one oddity is in outfitting Joan of Arc as a samurai warrior.

John A. Williams's lighting seems to have only three settings-on, dim and off, while Michael Viera's music, veering from world beat to film fright music is seldom suits the action. John Stead has given great variety to the many fight scenes.

The cast of 30 is headed by Seana McKenna as Margaret and Michael Therriault as Henry VI, the only two characters who appear in all four plays. Henry VI is an unusual character, a boy-king, son of the hero Henry V, whose piety and pacifism make him unsuited to govern a country faced war abroad and civil war within. Yet he is also the moral centre of the play. The action ultimately bears out his view that in the grand scheme of things earthly power is mere vanity. Since he is primarily a passive character, an actor has to be able to communicate an inner strength of spirit that makes the power-seekers around him appear vicious and benighted. This is extremely difficult but it can be done. I saw Ralph Fiennes do it in London in 1989 and David Oyelowo in an award-winning performance in Ann Arbor in 2001. While Therriault is good at showing the youthful naiveté of the boy-king in "Revenge", he simply can't muster enough moral authority in "Revolt" to prevent the saintly king from becoming a laughing-stock.

Margaret is probably Shakespeare's greatest female character. We see her move from a not-so-naïve 17-year-old in "Henry VI, Part 1" to a mad old woman in "Richard III". Margaret comes to England at the behest of Suffolk to be the king's wife and his own mistress. When Suffolk is killed and she sees the passive nature of her husband, she takes matters into her own hands to lead the Lancastrian forces against the Yorkists. Since the king will not fight, she must. And she fights for power because without it she will be nothing. McKenna is excellent in "Revenge" gradually transforming herself from a seemingly lightheaded teenager to woman fully aware of her perilous situation and driven over the edge by the death of her lover. In "Revolt", however, she never musters a sufficient sense of rage and desperation to live up to York's famous description of her as "a tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide". Far too often she relies merely on derisive intonation to characterize Margaret rather than making her the demon incarnate that I've seen elsewhere.

Only two other actors have a major role that continues through "Revenge" and "Revolt". Deep-voiced Thom Marriott makes Richard, Duke of York, the most powerful of the plays' many tragic figures. His Richard is an opportunist who sees in the weak king a chance to restore the York line to the throne. By making Richard's ambition seem so natural, he makes his humiliation at the hands of Margaret all the more painful and all the more moving. Donald Carrier's tendency to bluster for once suits the character of Warwick, who enjoys his own ability to make and unmake kings. Carrier makes believable Warwick's obliviousness to twice switching sides in the civil war.

Jonathan Goad has major roles in both sections. In "Revenge" he is Suffolk, the lascivious schemer who brings woos Margaret on his own behalf. In "Revolt" he is Jack Cade, the illiterate leader of a peasants' rebellion. While he clearly distinguishes the slick Suffolk from the unkempt Cade, he is more successful at the insinuations of the former than in conjuring up the menace of the latter. His Cade is more a buffoon that the truly frightening character he can be. Brad Rudy shouts his way through the role of Talbot making the English hero seem more rough-and-ready than noble. Rudy is much better and more modulated as Buckingham. Jason Mitchell doesn't bother to distinguish Charles the Dauphin in "Revenge" from Lewis XI, King of France, in "Revolt".

Of actors with principal role in "Revenge", Michelle Giroux gives us a bizarre characterization of Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) as a fashion model. Pacing as if on a catwalk and speaking in a totally artificial style, she suggests neither Joan the peasant girl, the visionary or the warrior. Robert King (replacing Lewis Gordon) plays the impious Bishop (later Cardinal) of Winchester as if he were an inn-keeper losing all subtlety in signalling his slyness with nudges and winks. Jane Spence is good when she is the vain Duchess of Gloucester but doesn't have the resources to convey her utter shame in the scene of her repentance. David Francis is excellent as the Duke Humphrey, a good man who doesn't realize that his protectorship of Henry VI and his wife's ambition will be his undoing. Veteran actor William Needles has only one scene as the dying Mortimer, who passes his claim to the throne to Richard, Duke of York. His performance is a model of clarity and emotion which much the cast should study.

Of actors with principal roles in "Revolt", Haysam Kadri is suitably menacing as the future Richard III. I overheard people say they'd like to see him continue in the role in that play. Rami Posner captures the lustfulness and empty-headedness of Richard's brother, Edward IV, but there is far more to the role than that. Twelve-year-old Andrew Dodd as the Prince of Wales put much of the cast to shame with his clear diction and sense of poise.

Among the many remaining actors standouts include Dan Chameroy (Westmoreland in both parts), Deborah Hay (Lady Jane Grey in "Revolt"), Michael Schultz (Burgundy, Lord Say, Oxford and Iden) and Tara Hughes (Lady Bona). The many other players put in work ranging from poor to merely adequate.

The main reason to see the "Henry VI" plays is that if Stratford follows its past patter they make not reappear for another 22 years. Anyone who saw the RSC do the First Tetralogy last April at Ann Arbor should feel no need to see the Stratford production which in conception and execution looks high-schoolish by comparison. The RSC has agreed to visit Ann Arbor every other year. Ann Arbor is only four hours from Stratford. People are bound to make comparisons. Unless Stratford radically increases its commitment to Shakespeare by assigning his plays, famous or not, to its best actors and most knowledgeable directors, Stratford's claim to produce Shakespeare equal with the world's best will lose credibility.


© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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All's Well That Ends Well
by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 31-November 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"An 'All's Well' That Does End Well"

"All's Well That Ends Wells" is one of the best productions of Shakespeare at the Festival Theatre in the past ten years. Director Richard Monette has
thrown away the various distracting directorial crutches he has used for far too long and used the text alone for support. The result is the clearest,
most involving Shakespeare play he has directed for some time. This is fortunate, since the play itself is one of Shakespeare's most difficult
comedies. By emphasizing key passages in the text and the important parallels in the between the various plots, Monette smoothes away the play's
difficulties and will make one wonder why such an intriguing work is not better known.

"All's Well" is often spoken of as one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" along with such works as "The Merchant of Venice" and "Measure for Measure".
All three have in common a happy ending enforced by law that not only does not resolve the problems the play has raised but, in the case of the last
two, makes them worse. In "All's Well" Helena, a poor physician's daughter, rich in virtue and wisdom, falls in love with Bertram, a young nobleman
devoid of both. He has the title of nobility, she its qualities. What is so perplexing is that Helena goes to such great lengths to pursue and win
Bertram as a husband even though he spurns her and everyone in the play, including Bertram's own mother and the King of France, think Bertram not
worthy of her. To compound the problem Shakespeare shows Bertram as immature and untrustworthy right into the play's final scene, giving him
only a handful of lines to suggest in the play's final moments that he has made a complete about face in his attitude toward Helena.

Monette solves these problems by emphasizing the parallels between the main plots and the subplots. In Helena's view "Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, Which we ascribe to heaven". Helena pursues Bertram to the French court where the King lies ill. At the end of Act 2, Scene 1, before she
even administers the medicine that will cure him, Monette has the King rise from his chair under Helena's influence and walk again. In this simple, brilliant stroke, Monette underlines the truth of Helena's statement and suggests that Helena's semi-magical power includes the ability to see the
good in people that they themselves may not recognize. If so then objections to her pursuit of Bertram fall away since she can see what he
will become not just what he is.

In the same way, Monette stages the exposure of Parolles' falseness in Act 4 and Bertram's in Act 5 in such similar ways the parallel is unavoidable.
Parolles, a follower of Bertram, is Bertram's Bad Angel, Falstaff in the form of a dandy. He persuades Bertram to leave his newly wedded but unloved
wife Helena in France to go to Italy to fight in the wars. There Bertram's company uses a trick to reveal Parolles as a faithless liar in war. In the
next act Bertram is on the spot, literally, just as Parolles was as accusations fly and he is proved a faithless liar in love. The
strengthening this parallel helps us believe that just as Parolles realizes his foolishness and receives mercy, so will Bertram. The main flaw in the
direction it is a lack of variety in rhythm and pace.

The show is anchored by three superb performances that are reason alone to see the play. Lucy Peacock played Helena when Stratford last mounted "All's
Well" in 1988. This time she brings deeper emotion and greater understanding to the role. She shows us a woman who managed to hold on to
faith in herself and in divine providence ("the time will bring on summer") despite the odds against her. Domini Blythe brings out all the warmth and
richness of the role of the Countess of Rossillion, Bertram's mother, with an ability to make clear some of Shakespeare's most complex lines. William
Hutt is wonderful as the King of France, marking such a distinction between the sickly and the healed king that the one seems to arise from the cocoon
of the other.

The actors in the other two major roles don't bring as much out in their characters as they could. David Snelgrove is fine at portraying Bertram as
a proud, callow youth and he makes his repentance in Act 5 seem sincere which is so crucial for Monette's interpretation. It would good, however,
if he could give us some glimmer of the good character Helena sees in him. Tim MacDonald plays Parolles solely as a buffoon which makes it difficult
to see why Bertram should follow his advice. If he could make this braggart bolder and more obnoxious, then his humiliation would have greater weight.

Lord Lafew is one of the characters Shakespeare uses to guide our moral judgment. Bernard Hopkins gives him both sternness and geniality and makes
his taking pity on the humbled Parolles a key moment in understanding the play. Benedict Campbell does not play the Countess's fool Lavatch any differently than other comic characters of Shakespeare he's played except that here he is thankfully more restrained. Brian Tree is hilarious as the
interpreter of the soldiers' nonsense language to Parolles. The three Florentine women (Brigit Wilson, Sara Topham, Sarah McVie) when
played as well as here give the play the right upswing in mood following the bitterness of the French scenes. Topham's thoughtful performance as Diana
immediately reminds us of a younger Helena and makes her agreement to the "bed trick" of Act 4 both more plausible and more ironic. In contrast, lack
of clear diction prevents Evan Buliung and Roger Shank from lending the Dumaine brothers much character.

Ann Curtis's historically informed costumes with their colour linked to the moods of the characters are beautiful to behold. Kevin Fraser's lighting
also reinforces the changing moods of the play, his sudden fades to a pin spot suggesting the ever-present darkness that threatens to engulf the
action. Such a thoughtful production on a nearly bare stage with the emphasis on drawing us into the action by Shakespeare's words and the complex emotions
they evoke reminded me of the kind of Shakespeare we used to see at Stratford in its heyday. It was encouraging that Monette could recapture
that mode of presentation after so many years and thereby make a play as complex as "All's Well" so clear. This production is far superior to last
production Stratford did in 1988. I hope the Festival does not wait 16 more years for another "All's Well", but even so this one will be hard to beat.


© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Scarlet Pimpernel
by Beverley Cross, directed by Dennis Garnhum
Avon Theatre, Stratford May 30-November 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Damned Elusive is Right"

"Is he in heaven, Is he in hell, That damned elusive Pimpernel". So runs the poem foppish Sir Percy Blakeney makes up about his secret alter-ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel. "Damned elusive" pretty much sums up my feelings about the Stratford Festival's production of the work. It's a lavishly accoutered bit of fluff that managed to be not even vaguely entertaining. One leaves depressed by the waste of it all--the waste of talent, the waste of money and the waste of time.

Baroness Emmuska Orczy's potboiler of 1905 is one of those works like George Du Maurier's "Trilby" that has created a famous character without itself being a great book. The story strains credulity. During the Reign of Terror in France in 1792, an English master of disguise calling himself the Scarlet Pimpernel has with his loyal band of followers been rescuing French aristocrats from the guillotine. Robespierre is so angered he sends his agent Chauvelin to England to discover the Pimpernel's identity. Chauvelin finds an unwilling assistant in the form of Marguerite Blakeney, a Frenchwoman, now married to Sir Percy Blakeney, the most fashionable man in England. She is distressed by the continuing coldness of her husband. Only after Chauvelin has blackmailed her into helping him does it dawn on Marguerite that her own self-confessed idiot of a husband may be the heroic Pimpernel, upon which she sets off to warn him of the danger he is in.

The story itself is implausible in many ways. Why should English aristocrats help French aristocrats to escape execution? How do they choose which of the hundreds slated to die they should rescue? How is Sir Percy able to keep his own wife so long in the dark about his exploits? And how much sense does it make for anyone to chose to live a life as a brainless dandy and to be known by everyone in England as such solely as a cover when his exploits are always performed in disguise anyway?

The way to make such drivel work in adaptation is to patch up as many holes in the plot as possible and in production to play the piece with as straight a face as possible so that an audience will be swept up by the action and ask questions later. This is exactly what the screenplay for the classic 1934 movie starring Leslie Howard does. This exactly the opposite of what adaptor Beverley Cross does. In fact, he omits precisely the information that would make the characters and plot clearer. Without knowing the past of Sir Percy and Marguerite it's unfathomable how they should come to be married. He does not tell us why Marguerite's brother goes back to France when everyone tells him it's too dangerous. And his only answer as to why the English should help save French aristocrats is "Sport" and that's it. He adds three songs to Act 1 and none to Act 2 making the show feel like an abortive musical. He changes the Brogard the innkeeper into a one-eyed hunchback so we can have the dubious "fun" of seeing Chauvelin take off his eye-patch and try to remove his hump. For a swashbuckler there is very little physical action and for wit all he gives us are long stretches of very lame dialogue. Did no one read this script before it was chosen for the season?

Dennis Garnhum, otherwise an excellent director, clearly doesn't know what to do with a play of such nonexistent intellectual content and entertainment value. He begins the work as if it was deadly serious but he can do nothing to lighten the dullness of the dialogue. By Act 2 he has decided that the show is really a spoof like "Carry On Pimpernel" so that the Pimpernel's band disguised as nuns twirl their rosaries as a threat and Brogard the hunchback chops up rats to make a stew. Cross's adaptation does not catch the tone of the work and Garnhum can't restore it.

It's not a surprise then that Garnhum draws such poor performances from so many fine actors. Peter Donaldson is miscast since he makes Sir Percy more a befuddled windbag than a dandy and the Scarlet Pimpernel more earnest than dashing. Sheila McCarthy does what she can as Marguerite, but since Cross has omitted crucial information about her character's past, it's impossible to understand her present situation or motivation. Peter Hutt starts his portrayal of Chauvelin at such a high pitch of villainy there's nowhere for him to go. His Chauvelin seethes with evil so much that it seems stupid of the English not to see through him. And whose dumb idea was it that the only words he speaks with a French accent are "The Scarlet Pimpernel"?

Many of the secondary roles are better played. Ian Deakin suddenly lights up the show as the Prince of Wales, playing the brainless fop with more panache than Donaldson. Sara Topham as Suzanne de Tournai gives the kind of committed performance needed to make this kind of fluff actually work. Keith Dinicol gives a Dickensian geniality to the innkeeper Jellyband. Scott Wentworth shows the unhinged malevolence of Robespierre making one wish he was playing this role in a serious play about the French Revolution like "Danton's Death". And Karen Skidmore has a hilarious turn as the egotistical opera singer Signora Bosca.

The others are either completely wasted in their roles (Graham Abbey unrecognizable as Chauvelin's henchman Lambert, Wayne Best as the Comte de Tournai, Brian Tree as Lord Grenville and Stephen Russell ridiculous as the hunchback Brogard), bland at best (David Snelgrove as Marguerite's brother Armand and Tim Campbell at Lord Anthony Dewhurst) or ineffective due to poor diction and inflection (Aaron Olney as the Executioner and Roger Shank As Sir Andrew Ffoulkes).

In the worst Stratford tradition the real stars of the show are the sets and costumes. Cameron Porteous has designed an ingenious set wherein the central guillotine placed on a tilted revolve can quickly be transformed, say, into the masts of a ship. Elements flown or rolled in allow quick changes from Jellyband's cozy tavern to the glittering ballroom of Lord Grenville to the Brogard's rat-infested inn. Kelly Wolf has created multiple period costumes, all quite gorgeous, for the large cast. All is dramatically lit by John Munro, especially the scenes of execution. It's good that Gregg Coffin has composed such a cinematic score for the show, because without it we wouldn't know what scenes were intended to be exciting. John Stead has choreographed fights which for a supposed swashbuckler are more bizarre than effective. In Act 2 the Pimpernel and his men disguised as nuns seem to be fighting each other instead of the French. And Donaldson and Hutt execute the last fight between Chauvelin and the Pimpernel so methodically it has no tension.

Stratford has billed this show as part of their "Family Experience" though many families will not wish their children to see the five minutes of graphic guillotining that open the show. And if you want your children to have a good experience of the theatre why take them to a show that is both tedious and nonsensical. It would be far better to expose children to "My Fair Lady" of if they are older to "Romeo and Juliet", where at least the work is great and there are issues to discuss. But, if you're set on having them see an adaptation of "The Scarlet Pimpernel", then go for the best adaptation of it and rent the 1934 movie.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Threepenny Opera
by Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill, directed by Stephen Ouimette
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford May 29-November 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Alienation to No Effect"

It was a brave decision for the Stratford Festival to stage Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" to open the "renewed" (i.e. completely remodelled) Avon Theatre. The 1928 anti-opera was written to skewer precisely the bourgeois notion of the benefit of amassing ever more capital, including cultural capital, that the Festival itself is built on. And yet, unsparing though it is, it is most popular work either Brecht or Weill ever wrote. With a mostly excellent cast this show could have given the Festival the tang and edge that it has so sorely lacked for the past ten years, but it requires an experienced director to bring out its mixture of humour and anger. Jean Gascon directed the work on its last Stratford outing in 1972 starring Weill's widow Lotte Lenya. This time the mistake was made to assign it to a first-time director, Stephen Ouimette. Ouimette is justly acclaimed as one of Canada's finest actors, but he proves to be the wrong person to make the show work.

"The Threepenny Opera" ("Die Dreigroschenoper") is Brecht and Weill's adaptation of John Gay's "The Beggar's Opera" written in 1728 to satirize the extravagances of Italian opera, especially those of Handel, then the rage in London. Gay counters the fantasies of the wealthy with an opera written from the point of view of the realities of the poor. Brecht refashioned Gay's work into a thoroughgoing critique of capitalism and bourgeois morality. In place of Gay's ballads, Weill wrote a series of cabaret songs whose jagged rhythms and tart melodies pay homage to popular music even as they send it up. The influence of the kind of smart, satirical musical Brecht and Weill created is still felt in the musicals of Kander and Ebb ("Cabaret"), Stephen Sondheim ("Assassins") and now Hollmann and Kotis ("Urinetown").

Using Marc Blitzstein's 1951 adaptation, Ouimette gets into trouble on several fronts. Like many first-time directors of Brecht, Ouimette is fascinated by Brecht's theory of the alienation effect ("Verfremdungseffekt") whereby the audience is not permitted to identify with the characters by encourage to look at their situation objectively. Brecht's alienation effect is already built in to "The Threepenny Opera"--scenes are titled and announced, the songs illustrate general themes in the action rather than further character or plot and the songs and much dialogue is addressed directly to the audience.

Ouimette adds more alienation devices to the show while approving design decisions that go counter to the show's anti-bourgeois message. He ruins the show's opening ballad and most famous song "Mack the Knife" by having an actor dressed as a homeless person enter from the audience, wrest the mike from the Street Singer and begin singing the song himself. The ensuing staged commotion ensures that the words go unheard even though they are crucial to presenting the central character. The scene titles usually in the form of placards shown to the audience here are flashed to the audience on a lowered pixelboard. The high-tech addition is contrary to the show's conception as an opera by and for the poor. Brecht's principle of non-identification encourages doubling of roles. "Threepenny" can be staged with as few as twelve actors. Here the lavishness of the present cast of 27 contrasts with the work's objectives. Ouimette presents the show on a bare stage with the actions of actor/stage-hands visible, but then the various elements of Peter Hartwell's set are just as often used to hide the bare back wall. Props such as the marriage bed or the rising platform for the King's Messenger are so elaborate they contradict the initial idea of spareness.

Worse than the unclear presentation is the show's lethargic pacing. One need only listen to the classic 1958 recording by Brückner-Rüggeberg with Lotte Lenya, to realize that conductor Don Horsburgh and his 7-man band take most of the songs too slowly and that few of the actors know how to sing Weill with the punch and bite that makes him so distinctive. The main source of humour in the piece is its parody of the music and themes of opera, but except for the "Jealousy Duet" and the Act 3 Finale, Ouimette never brings this out. Even then when a song manages to muster some energy, the energy dissipates in the lassitude of the dialogue. Allowing an intermission between Acts 2 and 3 further destroys what little momentum the show has. Ouimette's direction thus completely misses what should be the sardonic interplay of the serious and mock-serious, the message and the genre.

The three most successful players, both as actors and singers are Sheila McCarthy (Mrs. Peachum), Susan Gilmour (Jenny) and Blythe Wilson (Lucy). McCarthy's rendition of "The Ballad of Dependency" in Act 2, her voice filled with anger and disdain, gives us the first indication of the tone the whole show should have. Gilmour later sets the evening on track again with the authentic cabaret feel she gives to "Solomon's Song". Wilson, clad as a horse-trainer in black leather, does not give us the mock-Wagnerian Lucy of the classic recording. Instead she brings out the bitterness and regret of the "Barbara Song" and the fury of the "Fight about Property" with such venom and vitality she almost single-handedly resuscitates the whole production. In contrast, Diana Coatsworth in the important role of Polly Peachum is not up to the task of bringing out the humour of Polly's incredible naïveté or making her songs anything but bland.

Tom McCamus (Macheath, i.e. Mack the Knife) is good at showing a kind of callous world-weariness but doesn't really give us sense of utter evil lurking beneath cheap elegance. Peter Donaldson (Peachum) focuses entirely on his character's anger and never gets at the humour of his false piety. George Masswohl (Tiger Brown) makes the police chief more oafish than slimy. It doesn't seem that Ouimette has asked much of choreographer Donna Feore. A tabletop hands-in-shoes routine for "The Song about Inadequacy", a tango for "The Procurer's Ballad" and a white-gloves dance for "The Ballad of Pleasant Living" stand out as isolated moments of clever movement in the general plod. More too could have been asked of lighting designer John Munro though his footlights help create a cabaret atmosphere. But this is in general a show characterized by a lack of directorial imagination.

There is always an element of didacticism to Brecht's works but what has made them live is their abundant theatricality. If the Festival does not have enough of the right personnel or a director with the right experience to bring this out, why schedule a show like "The Threepenny Opera" that requires both? If the largest theatre festival in North America can't pull off Brecht's most popular work, how can it hope to move on as it should to the masterpieces that don't have the benefit of Weill's famous tunes?

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Terrible False Deception
by Rafe Macpherson, directed by Vinetta Strombergs
Silly Prat Productions, George Ignatieff Theatre, Toronto July 4-13, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Wonderful True Revelation"

"The Terrible False Deception" by Rafe Macpherson is the kind of gem one hopes to discover along the dusty road of the Toronto Fringe Festival. It is simply one of the cleverest, funniest Canadian plays I've ever seen. Silly Prat Productions in association with the Studio Lab Theatre Foundation give it a stunningly fine production.

During the show I thought this an exciting new voice in Canadian drama and a play that is sure to become a classic. When I turned to the programmed I learned, much to my surprise, that the play is not new at all. Its only previous professional production was its premiere by Buddies in Bad Times at the Rhubarb Festival in 1988. It sank into obscurity until it was published in May this year by Playwrights Press in the anthology "Seven Short Plays for Theatre Ontario--kudos to editors Marian Doucette and Skip Shand.

It is an amazing play that packs more ideas and laughs into 40 minutes than are often found in plays three times the length. The brilliant conceit is that all four 10-minute acts have exactly the same blocking including how each of the four actors delivers his/her lines and their gestures and facial expressions. The only thing that changes from act to act is the content, level of diction and level of metatheatricality. Indeed, the entire play is an experiment examining the question of what theatre is with many nods to Pirandello, Chekhov, Brecht and Stoppard.

In Act 1 the actors in 19th-century costume narrate in first person what they think about their part, the other actors, the stage business they have to do, their problems with the director, as if, instead of saying their lines they are giving a running commentary on them. In Act 2 the invisible fourth wall has gone up and we are in a riotous parody of Chekhov in a terribly stilted translation. In Act 3 we are in what seems to be a teenager's awkward attempt to write a play in the style of both Tennessee Williams and Michel Tremblay. The actors are still in their period outfits on the pretext that they are going to a fancy-dress ball. This is the least successful part of the show (a fact mentioned in Act 4) probably because the author is aiming at too many targets. In Act 4 the author is back on form this time with the actors interacting with each other immediately after a rehearsal of a four-act play just like the one we're watching giving. The mirror is held up to a mirror. Let me repeat that the only thing that changes from act to act is the words the actors speak. You have to see it to believe it.

All of the actors are excellent: Patricia Yeatman as Woman 1, the too-old-for-it ingénue; Angela Fusco, Woman 2, a billowy character actor; Kyle McDonald, Man 1, the young, vapid male lead; and Wally Michaels, an elderly character actor with a drinking problem. They all are spot-on which is necessary since the play demands absolute precision to create its effect. Director Vinetta Strombergs has brought this off with great skill. She has accurately predicted exactly where the laughs will be and worked that time into the universal blocking pattern. Designer E.K. Ayotte chose the highly operatic 19-century costumes ("La Traviata" perhaps?) and, I assume, set up the clever lighting cues.

This is a production that would do very well as a Canadian entry at the du Maurier World Stage festival. According to the programmed Macpherson is at work on two more one-acters to be played with "Deception". Meanwhile, see the show now and hope it comes back after the Fringe to see it again.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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by Georg Büchner, directed by Laura Nanni
One Man Tag, Robert Gill Theatre, Toronto July 4-13, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Strong Woyzeck, Weak Production"

In the Toronto Fringe Festival program for 2002, One Man Tag Productions promises its "Woyzeck" will be "a fresh interpretation of Büchner's nightmarish story through a carnival of sounds and images". If you think that means an exciting multimedia production of Büchner's famous but seldom seen play, think again. I'm happy that this young company is giving Toronto audiences to see the play, but disappointed that the level of acting, production and direction is more like a mediocre student production. It's not remotely carnivalesque and the interpretation is the standard one.

This is a pity because German drama from 1750-1850 in general and Georg Büchner in particular have been sorely neglected by Ontario theatre companies. "Woyzeck" by Georg Büchner (1813-1837) has long been a repertory work in European theatres ever since its author was discovered by the Expressionists and was later proclaimed the "father of modern drama" by Brecht and Artaud. His literary works were ignored in his own short lifetime and for almost 90 years after his death ("Woyzeck" was first performed in 1921). Now they are seen has forerunners of most of the trends of 20th-century drama. If Büchner's tale of a poor soldier driven mad by social oppression is known to North Americans at all, it is most likely through Alban Berg's opera 1925 "Wozzeck" (the name was misspelled in Berg's source) or perhaps from Werner Herzog's 1979 film starring Klaus Kinski.

The best feature of the show is the excellent performance of Jacob Gallagher-Ross in the title role. Woyzeck is already having auditory and visual delusions when we first meet him, each successive wave becoming more unbearable. Gallagher-Ross is able not only to gradate Woyzeck's levels of madness but to sustain his intensity throughout the play's 90 minutes. His Woyzeck's natural expression is of the haunted or hunted. His performance makes clear that Woyzeck breaks because he is searching for morality and meaning in a world that has neither.

Like Gallagher-Ross the rest of the cast and crew are either currently enrolled or have recently graduated from drama programs. To make "Woyzeck" seem like the living nightmare it is, the other actors have to match Woyzeck in intensity and the action, through fragmentary, has to build relentlessly in tension. This is not what happens in One Man Tag's production. Many of the actors are quite good: Matt White as Woyzeck's arrogant, philosophical Captain; Nicolas Carella rather better as the French-accented barker than Woyzeck's tyrannous Doctor; Claudio Chiodo excellent at displaying the Drum Major's bestial, specifically feline, nature; and Katherine Cook, mostly silent but effective as the Idiot in the first half and a Child in the second.

A major source of energy loss is Nicola Correia-Damude as Marie, a prostitute, the mother of Woyzeck's child and lover of the Drum Major. It is to Marie that Woyzeck mistakenly looks for some form of morality though his growing madness does force her to examine the motives for her actions. Correia-Damude is hampered in bringing out any of Marie's complexity by an acting technique indebted, it appears, solely to sitcoms and teen movies. Paul Hardy as Woyzeck's friend Andres and Lara Berry as Margaret fail to make an impression.

Director Laura Nanni discards Scene 26 (in most accepted ordering) that shows Woyzeck alive at the end. She also does not drown when searching for his knife as happens in both the opera and the film. Instead she has the cast sing Woyzeck the same lullaby Marie had sung earlier to her child. Ah, so Woyzeck is a child of society? That's already clear since his madness is induced in part from the experimental diet he lives on from the Doctor to earn a bit more money for his family. This is a play where image echoes image. Woyzeck is said to run through life like "an open razor", but when we see him shave the Captain with a Bic, not a straight razor, it's obvious Nanni is not paying enough attention to details.

"Woyzeck" deserves a fully professional, well-considered production in Ontario. Like Büchner's other plays, "Leonce and Lena" and "Danton's Death," it sadly lies outside the current mandate of the Shaw Festival. It would be a natural for Soulpepper or, if it lives up to its promise, Stratford's new Studio Theatre. I hope one or the other takes on the risk of presenting a play that is still unsettling after more than 160 years.


© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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