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 Absolutely Chekov - | - The House of Bernarda Alba  - | - The Fellini Radio Plays- | - Bereav'd of Light - | - His  Majesty - | - Detective Story - | - The Old Lady Shows Her Medals -|- The Maids -|- The Return of the Prodigal - | - Merrily We Roll Along -|- Miss Julie -|- Walk Right Up-|- Shadows -|- King Lear -|- Brachetti

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Other Reviews for 2002 here  here here

The Old Lady Shows Her Medals
by J.M. Barrie, directed by Todd Hammond
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake August 17-September 21, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Masterpiece in One Act"

J. M. Barrie is forever identified with his most famous creation, "Peter Pan." But he was the author of 20 other plays and known as a master of the one-act play. "The Old Lady Shows Her Medals," currently running as the lunch-time show at the Shaw Festival, is acknowledged to be his masterpiece in this genre. The Shaw's excellent production clearly shows why. Barrie creates such a complete emotional bond with the audience that its 40 minutes have a depth and effect beyond many a full-length play.

The plot concerns a charwoman, Mrs. Dowey, toiling in the London of 1916. She and three friends, also charwomen, meet regularly in Mrs. Dowey's flat for tea. Since the three all have sons away fighting in the Great War, the constant topic of conversation are the battles and what news each has heard from her son. Indeed, there is a lively competition about whose son has higher rank and is more heroic. The view of the three is that no woman can understand the suffering of the war unless she has a husband, brother or son actively fighting in it. Mrs. Dowey actively joins in these discussions because she, too, she says, has a son in the war, in the Black Watch in fact. To everyone's surprise it happens that Kenneth Dowey is back in London on leave and meeting Mrs. Dowey's friends, impresses them all.

To discuss the play further I have to give away some information that potential attendees may prefer not to know. So know that I give the production my highest recommendation, read no further and go to see it.

For others, I will reveal that once mother and son are alone, we discover they are no such thing. To avoid shame, Mrs. Dowey picked out a young man she had read of in the newspapers who had the same last name. She also sent him presents regularly under the name of a well-known socialite. For his part, Kenneth, an orphan, visits to see what kind of woman it is who claims to be his mother. Since he has nowhere else to go Kenneth stays with his "mother," but this stay lengthens to the whole period of his leave, and when he must go back to fight the two have in all but name become mother and son.

Barrie originally wrote the piece for amateur groups to raise money for victims of war. Yet, Barrie's dramatic instincts take the play far beyond its original purpose. While the period setting is important modern audiences will be intrigued by the interplay of fiction and reality and moved by Barrie's sensitive examination of human relations.

Director Todd Hammond has drawn committed, highly detailed performances from the whole cast. Jennifer Phipps is wonderful as Mrs. Dowey. She is expert at conveying complex mixtures of emotions such as the bewilderment, joy for the sake of her friends and fear for her own sake, on seeing her "son' for the first time. The happiness she shows when her "son" treats her to nights on the town is always tinged with the knowledge that this pleasure is the exception not the rule in her life. Phipps makes Mrs. Dowey's tattered belief that she is worth something despite years of loneliness and lovelessness the link that makes you care about her character and understand how Kenneth can come to love her.

Pete Treadwell is well cast as Private Dowey. In his brief period on stage he charts this stranger's change in attitude from anger at a presumptuous old woman to pity for her to a real enjoyment in her happiness to filial love. Treadwell is always aware that his character is not naturally communicative and can show his emotions only under the guise of brusqueness. But Treadwell finely gradates his portrayal so we see how his mock-sternness with his "mother" at the end completely contrasts with his real indignation at the beginning.

Maria Vacratsis, Wendy Thatcher and Donna Belleville are all excellent as Mrs. Dowey's cronies. They use their small period on stage to create vivid individual portraits of these working women. Douglas E. Hughes is also excellent as the well-meaning minister who brings Private Dowey home to his "mother."

Designer Deeter Schurig's simple, realistic set and costumes are important in making ever-present the utter poverty that Mrs. Dowey and her friends live in. This makes it all the more clear why these women should vicariously escape through their sons to the adventures of war. Hammond has used Melinda Sutton's precise lighting to control audience response between the four "acts" that make up the piece and to reinforce the play's unspoken but powerful theme of loneliness.

This short play about two people who decide to take the risk of meaning something to each other will move you. Teenagers as well and seniors, men as well as women had tears in their eyes even as they gave the performance a resounding ovation. Make sure this show is part of your visit to Niagara-on-the Lake.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The House of Bernarda Alba
by Federico García Lorca, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake July 4-October 5, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"House on Fire"

The women are to be locked inside the house for a period of eight years as a sign of mourning for the death of their father. When a woman in the village has a child out of wedlock and its body is found by dogs, the villagers take her out into the streets where they torture and kill her. When a woman marries she may speak to her husband only when spoken to and look at him only when he looks at her. Is this Afghanistan or Pakistan? No, it is Spain in the early 20th century and the subject of "The House of Bernarda Alba" now playing in a superb production at the Shaw Festival. Yet the knowledge that women are still subjugated in many parts of the world in the 21st century gives this play relevance beyond the Andalusia that playwright García Lorca portrays

In this, the Shaw's first venture into Spanish repertoire, Bernarda Alba returns to her house after the funeral for her husband. She has five daughters, one the daughter of her husband's first wife and the only one to have her own money. Bernarda's hatred of men has impelled her make sure none of her daughters has contact with any man, much less marry. Now she imposes on them the same eight-year period of mourning that her mother imposed on her. Having rank without wealth she seeks to preserve her family's honour at the cost of stifling her daughters' lives. To maintain order and to fulfill what she sees as her duty, she the matriarch paradoxically imposes the rules of a patriarchal system on her daughters and a hierarchical system on her two female servants. Nevertheless, as the frequent images of lightning and flash floods emphasize, no human system can control the outbursts of nature.

Lorca's is one of the many attempts to re-create tragedy in the 20th century, here by substituting a traditional values system for the will of the gods. Lorca, a Republican, was executed at age 38 by fascists on the rise in Spain. It is not difficult to see in Bernarda's tyranny over her daughters and her daughter's Adela's rebellion against it a parable of the futility of any repressive system, political or otherwise, that seeks absolute control.

The play requires a cast of 15 women. It is hard to imagine any other theatre company in Canada but the Shaw that has the wealth of acting talent at hand to mount this play. Nora McLellan is magnificent as Bernard Alba. Her Bernarda has an imperious façade built of pride and hatred. Gradually, as the strife among her daughters becomes ever more intense and it begins to crumble, we see her rebuild it again and again with increasing effort until at the end all supports fall away. Yet, while McLellan's tyrant seems to make the room turn cold whenever she enters, she suggests all the complexities of background and circumstance that show Bernarda herself as a victim of the very system she imposes on others.

No less marvellous is Patricia Hamilton as La Poncia, Bernarda's longtime servant who knows her mistress better than her mistress does and who has enough cause to care for her as despise her. Like McLellan, Hamilton revels in the complexity of a character who can veer from good humour to invective to concern to self-control within minutes. Their complex interplay makes their scenes together the highlights of the play.

All the other roles are well cast. As in last year's "Picnic", Fiona Byrne plays a young woman, Adela, whose sexual awareness rebels against the restrictions placed on her. But here where the restrictions are harsher, her rebellion is more violent. Byrne makes us see the longing for the freedom of outside world that men represent (even though Lorca portrays marriage as another prison). Adela's insistence on destroying her sister's happiness gives Byrne a rare chance to show how well she can play meanness born of desperation.

For Susie Burnett, Martirio, the daughter with scoliosis, is a breakthrough role. Martirio is perhaps the most complex of the daughters. Wracked with envy of the fairer Adela, in love with the same man who loves Adela, inhibited by her disability yet hoping to triumph over it, Martirio, as Burnett plays her, is seething with contradictory emotions ready to erupt at any time. It is a powerful and disturbing performance.

Lynne Cormack is excellent as Angustias, the only daughter with an inheritance and the only one (given men's greed) with a suitor. Cormack perfectly captures Angustias' physical and mental frailty, the tenuousness of her hope, her inability to believe her "fiancé" may really love Adela. Helen Taylor plays Magdalena, the daughter poised between defiance and obedience, and Jane Perry is Amelia, the daughter only partly aware of the disaster toward which the family is tumbling.

Jillian Cook is truly frightening as María Josefa, Bernarda's mad, aged mother whom, like the past, Bernarda tries unsuccessfully to keep locked away. Like O'Neill's Mary Tyrone she is a kind of living ghost, a portent of the loveless, lonely lives that await all the women of the play. Brigitte Robinson's decrepit Prudencia shows that women outside Bernarda's walls also suffer, while Patti Jamieson's Maid shows a lively freedom of thought denied her upper-class contemporaries. Polish director Tadeusz Bradecki has become the Shaw's expert in European masterpieces. He directs with great attention to detail particularly ensuring clearly differentiated responses from the five daughters. The first two acts played together build inexorably in power and while Act 3 does begin with a lull, the tension would be just that much greater if he had not permitted an intermission after Act 2. After all, the show is only two hours long. The only problem with Richard Sanger's new translation is that occasionally it provokes unintentional humour at inopportune moments. The cast maintains its concentration through these moments but it would be better if Bradecki could somehow have minimized them or, better still, if Sanger could have rephrased the passages.

Designer Teresa Pzybylski represents Bernarda's house with a stony grey dais on the Court House stage separated from the first row by a narrow trench to emphasize its isolation. A functioning well downstage centre makes palpable Lorca's frequent images of water in the midst of barrenness. Kevin Lamotte has captured the quality of light in southern Spain with amazing accuracy.

"Bernarda Alba" is one of the great dramatic works of the previous century, simple in structure but rich in meaning. The necessity of a strong all-female cast means it is not often produced professionally. A production as powerful as this one at the Shaw demands to be seen.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Bereav'd of Light
by Ian Ross, directed by Dean Gabourie
The Fellini Radio Plays
by Federico Fellini, directed by Idalberto Fei
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford August 6-25, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
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"Strange Bedfellows"

In the double-bill that opened the Stratford's Studio Theatre last month, the plays had both themes and cast members in common. Even though I thought only one of the plays had a future beyond its premiere, there was at least some rationale for presenting the two plays in tandem. That is not true of the Studio's second double-bill. Worse, the two one-acters are not only unsatisfactory as a double-bill but as independent works.

The evening begins with "Bereav'd of Light" by Ian Ross, a Métis writer from Manitoba who won the Governor General's Award for Drama in 1997. It is a naïve morality play about race that has everything to do with lecturing the audience and nothing to do with character or plot. On a plantation in the antebellum South, the owner Abraham Milton (Leon Pownall) is going blind so he teaches Absolom (Derwin Jordan), one of the house slaves, to read. This provokes the anger of Absolom's brother, Samuel (Seun Olagunju), one of the field slaves, to encourage Absolom to read to him and then to tell on him to the master. The master has Absolom beaten but he escapes into the forest where he is befriended by Wagoosh (Gregory Dominic Odjig), an Ojibway, who sees Absolom as the fulfillment of a sign he saw on a dream-quest seeking to put his own brother's spirit to rest.

Ross gives only Wagoosh any personal background. We don't know where exactly the action is taking place, the ages of any of the characters, when Abraham's wife died, how long Absolom has been a house slave, and so on. What we do learn is that Abraham is Bad because he is a racist. Samuel is also Bad because he supports Abraham's racist doctrine and uses it against his brother. His brother, however, is Good because his learning to read has made him challenge the master's racist views. Wagoosh is also Good because instead of attacking Absolom he makes him realize that they are both victims of the white man's oppression.

Yet the white man, as represented by the blind Abraham, is capable of repenting. When Samuel leads him into the wilderness to find Absolom, and Abraham finally reveals a secret about his brother, Abraham sees the folly of his ways and realizes the meaning of William's Blake's poem "The Little Black Boy" that is quoted repeatedly through the play: "My mother bore me in the southern wild, And I am black, but O my soul is white; While as an angel is the English child, But I am black as if bereav'd of light." Ross wants to use this poem to signify that all men are equal as human beings, but he can't deal with Blake's colour symbolism where "white" is pure and innocent (and English) and "black" is impure and sinful. In fact, Ross reinforces the symbolism by having the Bad brother Samuel say that his soul is not white but black.

All four players have greater acting abilities than what the play requires. They do the best they can with a script that underlines its main points two or three times in lieu of creating any sort of subtext.

Dean Gabourie's direction is straightforward and Lorenzo Savoini's minimal set of a magic ring of stones is effective as are Joanne Dente's period costumes. To provide some visual interest to the action, Gabourie has had Renée Brode set up some scenes in silhouette on the Studio's balcony though they merely illustrate actions the characters mention. There are certainly more complex one-act plays by Native Canadians than this one. Let's hope Stratford's director of new play development stumbles across them.

The second half of the bill, "The Fellini Radio Plays" is also unsatisfying, but for different reasons. It consists of three sketches the famed Italian director wrote for radio in the 1940s, translated and stitched together by Damiano Pietropaolo. The third sketch portraying a live all-request radio show itself consists of seven sketches. The effect is rather like trying to make a meal from a series of hors d'oeuvres.

While we should all be glad that theses scripts, once thought to be lost, were found in 1998, we do have to wonder whether there is any sense in adapting them for the stage. Assuming that Fellini was at all sensitive to the medium he was writing for, the proper way to experience these discoveries would be on the radio. There words and sounds have primacy and work on our imaginations to fill in the most bizarre details. The show unintentionally makes clear that embodying these sketches on stage only lessens their impact.

This is obvious in the first sketch where a Poor Man (Steve Cumyn) begins by begging a match from a Rich Man (Andrew Strachan) and ends by wheedling him of all his clothing. On radio the escalation of the Poor Man's demands could be quite funny. On stage, given that the Rich Man has almost nothing to say, the effect is merely stupid.

The most effective sketch is the second about an illiterate couple (Andrew Strachan and Tracy Michailidis) who vow to write each other every day while the man is away in the city looking for work. They send each other blank sheets of paper and imagine what the other has "written". This is the only sketch to achieve the poignancy of the early Fellini and translates well to the stage.

The third and longest section deals with a radio request show where any kind of question is invited and answered. Among other things, we meet the host and director (Eric Peterson) who directs every event in his life, we see a dialogue between two fish, we learn what train wheels say, we see the host teach a county-western singer (also Peterson) how to sing like Caruso, we have an emotional-filled radio drama between the host and an actress (Luba Goy) and we learn where sounds go after they fade away.

The emphasis in all of these skits is auditory not visual. The staging only attracts attention away from the sounds which according to Pietropaolo's note are so important. In the last skit all we see are Peterson and Michailidis on stage listening to the echoes of sounds as they arrive at their final station. There's everything to hear, nothing to see.

Italian director Idalberto Fei, who won an award for directing the radio show skit for radio, lards the show with songs and a funny dance by Ms. Goy, but only in the love letters sketch does he come close to creating any visual counterpart to the words that could be called Felliniesque.

Luba Goy is the only actor to have the right sense of serious clowning to make her sections work. It's a pity she doesn't have more to do. Peterson and Cumyn both overact so much they destroy the humour of their lines. Strachan and Michailidis are very good, especially in the love letters scene, though Michailidis is the better in conjuring up a sense of fantasy.

The set, costumes and lighting designers are the same as in "Bereav'd" and each rises to the challenge of a fanciful work that asks more from them. Besides Ms. Goy the chief pleasure of "Fellini" is the musical interludes of Eugene Laskiewicz on the accordion.

It's strange that the Festival would think it worthwhile to stage a play of such simple moralizing as "Bereav'd". It's also strange that Pietropaolo, Head of Radio Arts and Entertainment for CBC Radio, could not see that "Fellini" is more appropriate for that medium. It's doubly strange that anyone would think these two would make a good double-bill and that anyone would pay $50.00 to see it.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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His Majesty
by Harley Granville Barker, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake July 6-September 21, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Majesty Lost and Found"

"His Majesty" is the seventh and last in the Shaw Festival's series of plays by Shaw's contemporary Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946). The Shaw is only the second company in the world to have presented Barker's oeuvre for the stage and one doubts if any other company has the expertise to have done them so well. "His Majesty" is not as great a work as "Waste", "The Voysey Inheritance" or "The Madras House". It is both difficult and problematic. But the effort it takes to get into the play is ultimately rewarded and the play's questioning whether politics and war ever serve the public good is uncomfortably relevant.

The Shaw Festival production is the North American première of Barker's final play. It was first published in 1928 and was not produced until 1992 at the Edinburgh Festival. This is only its second production. How much different its production history would be if had been done at the Malvern Festival in 1929 as Shaw had wanted we'll never know. The calibre of the direction and acting in the present production is so high that it throws into relief the difficulties inherent in the play itself.

The action concerns the power struggle to reinstate Henry, the exiled king of the fictional country of Carpathia. As the Festival program helpfully informs us, the story Henry and his queen Rosamund are closely based on real events in the lives of Charles I and Zita, the last Emperor and Empress of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Barker's technique in his three greatest plays is to make the universal shine through a realism built up of minute detail. Unlike the fictional Madras House based on the real Liberty of London, here Barker has to struggle to make his operetta country of Carpathia seem real so that we take its events seriously. The result is massive amounts of exposition explaining the history, politics, geography and economy of Carpathia that overwhelms any similar exposition involving the main characters. Besides this, most of the events that determine the characters' actions are, until late in the play, described rather than presented.

All this would seem like a recipe for tedium were it not for the galvanizing influence of the director and actors who do their utmost to wrench this awkward beast to life. That they succeed to well is a major tribute to their talent. They help us see the people and issues amidst the forest of detail.

Chief among these are David Schurmann as Henry and Mary Haney as Rosamund. Schurmann has played many characters like this before, good men who long for peace and civility but who are entangled in a world of hatred and deceit. His Henry is the man who would not be king. Schurmann's mastery of tone and the precision of his phrasing and gestures bring out the sense of futility Henry feels in continuing a charade he no longer believes in. Haney's character is just the opposite. Rosamund wants Henry to leave exile, fight with those already struggling on his behalf and to enter the capital in triumph at any cost. Her frustration with her husband's equanimity leads her bribery in the play's most dramatic scene and eternal regret. Haney is expert at depicting a woman so obsessed with her dream that she cannot accept reality until her own actions force it upon her.

Sharry Flett plays the Countess Czernyak, in whose ruined villa Henry and Rosamund stay while deciding what action to take. The Countess is many ways the emotional centre of the play. Her son Stephen is the main fighter against the usurpers, but she, to Rosamund's consternation, says she will never rebuild her villa. Flett is radiant as woman who has come to terms with the forces of destruction, whose stoicism helps her maintain her integrity in the face of chaos. The Countess's comic counterpart is Colonel Hadik, now her gardener. He, too, is happy to accept a simpler life without pomp. Richard Farrell fully mines the subtle comedy of a man who is happier in his menial labour than he ever was as a commander. Colonel Guastalla, the king's own attaché, is another character who is content to serve even if it means, comically, a constant change of costume to suit his public and private roles. Lorne Kennedy's dry delivery is perfect for a man for whose loyalty and efficiency have subsumed his identity.

Even King Henry's opponents have an aura of fatalism about them. Dr. Madrassy and Mr. Bruckner seek to take over Carpathia because the opportunity is there. They fight to maintain their power but have no illusions that winning is assured or will last. Michael Ball's Madrassy is a talker who thinks he is a realist though he is not quite aware of his essential cowardice. George Dawson's Bruckner is self-confessed opportunist whose nastiness is tempered by gentlemanly behaviour so that even when Rosamund bribes him he is compelled to leave her no illusions about what may happen.

Those most unquestioning about the worth of patriotism are the young, whether the hotheaded Stephen Czernyak (Ben Carlson) or his quiet but intense sister Dominica (Severn Thompson). Barker includes the chipper British pilot Captain Dod (Jeff Meadows) to satirize his countrymen's lack of concern for anything not British (though ultimately even he is affected).

The luxurious casting has a host of Shaw regulars in a number of very small roles. Most notable of these are Terrence Bryant as the befuddled Count Zapolya, Robert Benson as an American journalist tired of Europe, William Vickers as the Mayor of Zimony who wants to see what he can get out of the war, Peter Krantz as the rebellious Sergeant-Major Bakay, Anthony Bekenn as the British consul Sir Charles Cruwys willing to resettle the fugitive royals in Bermuda and Roger Rowland as Jakab, a farmer who wants a medal from the king for his services even if the king's lack of power renders it meaningless.

Designer Sue LePage's set and 1920's costumes, especially under Ereca Hassell's muted lighting give the impression of sepia-toned prints come to life. Paul Sportelli's music carefully reinforces the tension between past and future by contrasting mazurkas with jazz. Director Neil Munro ensures that the committed performances of the cast draw us in to the action despite the hurdles Barker has set up. There is perhaps more humour in the work than Munro brings out, but in his hands the themes of the play shine clearly.

One can't help thinking that play about loss, acquiescence and the farewell to state and glory is also Barker's farewell to the stage. Trying at times though the play is, anyone who makes the effort will find the play (and the production) redolent with meaning. In saying farewell, Barker examines the meaning of action in the world, the role of artifice, the belief in permanence and the question of what gives life majesty. The Shaw Festival is in large part responsible for the revival of Barker's fortunes. Now that its series is completed, I'd like to see it all over again.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Detective Story
by Sidney Kingsley, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 23-September 21, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Avenger's Tragedy"

The Shaw Festival has another hit on its hands with "Detective Story". Director Neil Munro has proven himself a master in directing large naturalistic plays. Like "Counsellor-at-Law" in 1992, Sidney Kingsley's 1949 look at the goings-on in a New York City police station, whose demands might have overwhelmed many another, suit him perfectly. It is a showcase for the talents of 33 of the Festival's actors playing 34 roles in this cross-section of life in the city. From the midst of a lively parade of complainants, crooks and detectives a suspenseful tragedy emerges that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Unlike what many may expect from the title, "Detective Story" is not a murder mystery in the manner of Agatha Christie. Instead it is a story about a detective, Jim McLeod (Peter Krantz), whose passionate hatred of criminals has led him to disparage the safeguards of law and procedure to the point of harassing and abusing suspects he thinks will escape justice. Unlike his colleagues he is too personally involved in his work. He sees in every criminal's face the face of his father who so abused his mother she died in a mental asylum. He is particular vicious toward Kurt Schneider (Lorne Kennedy), a "doctor" accused of performing botched abortions that have claimed two lives. Schneider's lawyer Sims (Neil Barclay) has in turn accused McLeod of brutality against his client. Both Sims and crime reporter Joe Feinson (William Vickers) warn McLeod that if he doesn't lay off Schneider ugly secrets of his own will come to light. But when McLeod has the chance to be alone with Schneider, he cannot control his anger and beats him up so badly Schneider is admitted to hospital. His superior Lieutenant Monoghan (Jim Mezon) begins his own investigation and uncovers secrets that shatter McLeod's black-and-white view of the world and lead to tragedy.

Peter Krantz gives a powerful performance as McLeod. Only gradually do we see quite how unbending McLeod is and how dangerous this flaw will be. Krantz brings out the full tragedy of a character who can't change his absolutist views even when he comes to see how they have ruined his life. Jim Mezon clearly shows that Monaghan investigates McLeod out of concern for him and without malice. Jane Perry as McLeod's wife Mary, is not up to Krantz's level in portraying conflicting emotions. She is far too calm in what should be an emotional complex scene when Mary decides walk out of her marriage. Simon Bradbury does well at making Mary's former boyfriend Tami Giacoppetti not so slimy that we can't imagine Mary falling for him. Kennedy, Barclay and Vickers all give fine performances, with Kennedy particularly intense a man poised between hatred and cynicism.

The details of this central story emerge piecemeal interleaved as it is with several other dramas being played out at the station, some serially, some simultaneously. There's Mrs. Farragut, the precinct's local loony (the hilariously serious Jennifer Phipps), who claims to have electronic vision that can see people through walls such as the men next door she thinks are building an atomic bomb. There's a Shoplifter (Sarah Orenstein in a fine comic turn), onstage through most of the action, being booked for stealing a fake alligator purse. Two cat-burglars Lewis (Dylan Trowbridge as a comic innocent) and Charlie and (George Dawson an intense, edgy performance) are brought in, the younger Lewis spilling the beans on the older Charlie. First-time offender Arthur Kindred (Jeff Meadows in a strong debut with the Shaw), cited for bravery in World War II, has stolen $450.00 from his employer Mr. Pritchett (Al Kozlik) but is defended by his girlfriend's sister Susan (Fiona Byrne, excellent as usual). We see how disturbed McLeod is when he pursues Arthur even when Pritchett drops charges.

To contrast with the obsessive McLeod, we are introduced to the irascible but gentle booking officer Detective Dakis (Norman Browning), the married playboy Detective Callahan (Mike Wasko) and above all McLeod older, longtime partner Detective Brody (Robert Benson). Benson plays Brody as McLeod's foil. He demonstrates with great persuasiveness that the pursuit of justice must include mercy or one is in danger of losing one's humanity.

Neil Munro's skill in choreographing so complex a piece is astounding. There are two rooms visible--the general open office and the lieutenant's room--with sometimes three or more actions occurring simultaneously, intercut conversations and additional goings and comings. Yet, Munro maintains a clear focus on what is important, what ancillary, throughout so that we see how the various side-plots feed into or contrast with the main plot. He conducts the work as if it were a symphony with expert pacing, fine gradations of dynamics and mood.

At the same time that the show seems like an intricate slice-of-life, Munro brings out the resonance of the play's more universal themes beneath the surface detail. To this end he has designer Cameron Porteous create a non-naturalistic set for this highly naturalistic drama. Except for chairs and other objects, all vertical surfaces are made of wire mesh so that we can see through them to a sketched outline of the office on the black backdrop. Aided by Alan Brodie's lighting, key to shifting our focus from group to group, Munro and Porteous seem to endow us with the "electronic" vision of the paranoid Mrs. Farragut, who can see human beings through walls since they are electric dynamos spinning off energy. McLeod refers to his job as cleaning up "human garbage" and Munro has seen to it that the stage is littered with trash that the inefficient janitor can never clean up.

Munro has also seen the tragic structure that lies beneath the sometimes comic surface realism. McLeod because of events in his past sets himself up as a merciless avenger of crime despite the warning "Humble yourself" from his Tiresias, the reporter Feinson. When McLeod discovers that his own life is tainted, he crumbles. The political ramifications of the action are also clear. To categorize people as heroes or evil-doers according to absolute rules requires an absolute knowledge that no man possesses. While Kingsley may have had the rise of McCarthyism in mind, many speeches take on uncanny relevance to current events now that our neighbour to the south has turned absolute avenger.

This is the kind of show that has made the Shaw Festival world-famous. To see such a large flawless ensemble under such meticulous, insightful direction is truly a wonder. Don't miss it.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Miss Julie
by August Strindberg, directed by Herbert Olschok
Soulpepper, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto August 27-September 21, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Soulpepper Can't Master 'Miss Julie'"

Soulpepper's current production of "Miss Julie" is a major disappointment. The play is one of the seminal works of modern drama. Stratford has not done it since 1977 and the Shaw Festival never. Therefore, it is good that Soulpepper has chosen it as their first foray into Strindberg. Unfortunately, two of the three main actors are not up to the demands of their characters and a burden of directorial quirks make an evening that ought to be gripping merely tedious.

The 90 minutes of the play follow events that occur during the celebration of Midsummer's Eve on an estate in Sweden. Jean, the Count's valet, and his fiancée the cook Kristin are already a bit randy in the spirit of the celebration. So is the absent Count's only child Julie, who has just broken off her engagement. To console herself, to celebrate, to fulfill her sexual desires, to abase herself, she begins to flirt with Jean much to Kristin's dismay. This escalates to a sexual encounter after which the two gradually awake from their delirium. Julie is filled with both longing for escape and self-loathing that, hastened by the sudden return of the Count, culminate in tragedy.

In "Miss Julie" Strindberg created what is perhaps the most perfect and certainly the best-known Naturalistic tragedy. Under the influence of Darwin, he wrenches the force of Fate away from the influence of gods or the stars to find it in the formative influence of characters' heredity and environment. Miss Julie, brought up both as a woman and a man, finds the two sides of her nature constantly at war with each other. Jean, born a servant but aspiring to raise himself above his station, finds his dreams undermined by his lackey's personality. The two may feel a sexual attraction, but Strindberg makes clear that Jean and Julie are also playing out psychological games of power and domination. One can hardly see O'Neill "Long Day's Journey into Night," Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or Pinter's "The Homecoming", among others, to recognize how much 20th-century playwrights owe to Strindberg, who revealed the psychological complexity and mythic struggle inherent everyday life.

How sad, then, that Soulpepper could not find two actors able to communicate the complexity or struggle within these two characters. Julie is the most significant role Patricia Fagan has yet been assigned, and while she has been excellent in smaller roles, it's clear that this recent theatre school graduate is not yet ready to carry a show. Her line delivery is very flat except when she shouts to show emotion. Julie is so riddled with internal strife that this tension and its multiple subtexts should be suggested in every line she has. Instead what we get is a spoiled young rich girl who dallies with a servant giving us little clue of the despair and self-hatred we should see in her from the beginning.

Tony Nardi fares better as Jean than he did recently as Leontes in "The Winter's Tale" but the same problems remain. His rapid-fire, deadpan delivery that works so well in comedy is totally out of place in tragedy. As with Fagan, subtlety and nuance go missing when that is exactly what should make this interplay of man and woman, servant and master, riveting. Instead of communicating any intensity, Nardi's Jean seems to act out of boredom.

The best performance of the evening comes from Jane Spidell as Kristin. In her hands this character, often regarded as only a foil for Julie, becomes as complex as Jean. Spidell fully brings out the tension in Kristin between longing for a happy married life and knowing the pain she will suffer with Jean as her husband. Spidell never loses focus and suggests a realm of unspoken thoughts and feelings behind everything she says. Only when she is on stage do we see the kind of electricity the whole show should have.

Spidell is also the only one in the cast who is able to invest some of Herbert Olschok's bizarre stage directions with meaning. Olschok, who directed Soulpepper's disastrous "La Ronde" last year, is determined to make this famous Naturalistic play as unnaturalistic as possible by demanding stylized action on stage to underscore, unnecessarily, the play's themes. Kristin pours out a bottle of sand in an arc on the floor, which becomes the line between master and servant Julie should not cross. Periodically the actors walk in slow motion. Is that because Strindberg says they are sleepwalking through life? Julie first appears in riding gear, then after dancing with Jean, in a dress to illustrate her male/female nature. And when Julie and Jean exit to have sex, the kitchen set reacts, chairs overturning, cupboard doors flying open, drawers shooting out as if this were "Blithe Spirit", to demonstrate, too obviously, how the order of things has been upset. And saxophonist Colleen Allen, who functioned as the psychopomp in "La Ronde" appears again here, I assume, for the same reason, dropping portentous baby booties along the way. Why Kristin pours beer at a great height into the washbasin and no one who uses it thereafter notices I haven't figured out yet. Are their lives so polluted they don't notice?

Indeed, Olschok seems far more interested in choreographing the action and devising stage tricks than in getting Fagan or Nardi to explore the text. Olschok has all three characters begin in such a pitch of sexual fervor that they have nowhere to go. To have Jean and Kristin already going at it before Julie enters undermines the play's structure. Strindberg has carefully constructed the play to build gradually to two climaxes involving Julie, the first ending in sex, the second in death.

Peter Hartwell has designed a very handsome set reflecting the clean, spare lines and bright colours of Scandinavian country furniture. His costumes are nicely poised between period and modern, making Kristin, as suits this interpretation, appear conservative but not frumpy. Too bad he couldn't find Nardi the right sized bowler. Louise Guinand, normally noted for her subtle lighting, has little chance to display it. Here where stage time equals real time one might suppose the light would gradually grow as dawn breaks. But Olschok has asked for the lights to be clinically bright throughout except when they suddenly dim at each climax.

Soulpepper's "Miss Julie" an unsatisfactory production of a great play. Since Stratford and the Shaw seem to be avoiding Strindberg, I do hope Soulpepper continues to explore his plays, preferably, however, with directors and casts who can meet the challenge.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Merrily We Roll Along
by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 24-October 27, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Backwards Musical"

In its initial Broadway run in 1981 "Merrily We Roll Along" closed after only 16 performances becoming the worst flop ever for Stephen Sondheim. A major contributor to its failure was director Hal Prince's bizarre concept requiring an all-teenaged cast. Since that debacle, the show has been successfully revived with changes from Sondheim and the writer of the book, George Furth. The current Shaw Festival production shows the work in the best possible light. It's well sung, well directed, well designed. But for all the expertise put into it, the show still comes off as irremediably flawed.

That "Merrily" is being done at all is due to the opening of the Shaw's mandate two years ago to allow works not just written in the period of Shaw's lifetime (1856-1950) but also about that period. In this case, Furth adapted the book for "Merrily We Roll Along" from a 1934 play of the same title by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. As in the play, Furth's book follows the life of the central character and his two best friends from the moment of his greatest public success and private failure backwards through time to the point when the three came to know each other. Furth has updated the period from 1934-1916 to 1976-1957.

I don't know the original play, but this device, at least as handled by Furth, is the main source of the work's failure. In Furth's hands the action lurches backwards from one overwrought, soap-operatic scene to the next for the entire first act. Former composer now film producer Franklin Shepard has a major hit with his later movie, but at the same time, his drunken former best friend Mary disrupts the celebratory party by denouncing Frank, and Frank's wife, angered by his attraction to a new starlet blinds her with iodine. Frank and his other best friend and lyricist Charley both appear on a television talk show, but Charley, angered by Frank's selling out, denounces him on air. Frank comes back from a round-the-world cruise to cool off from his divorce but instead of celebrating with Mary and Charley, he takes up again with the Broadway star Gussie who broke up his marriage. And so on.

By showing the characters constantly in extremis (and in reverse time), it's nearly impossible to get any idea of what they are really like. The premise assumes that we want to find out how things came to such a bad pass in the first scene. But since everything in the Act 1 is so melodramatic, what we learn has to do more with bad clichés than real characters. As a result, we care little about either characters or plot. There is not much motivation to return after intermission except that, as it turns out, the second act, showing the characters in more normal interactions, is much more involving though by then it's too late.

The cast for the most part is excellent. The main problem is with the central character Frank. All we learn from Frank in Act 1 us that his various mistakes come from not being able to say no. But why that should be we never know. Tyley Ross sings well but his generic acting doesn't make this already-uninteresting character anything but bland. Jay Turvey fares better as Charley, expertly delivering the complex number "Franklin Shepard, Inc." But of the three "Old Friends" the one who holds our attention most is Jenny L. Wright as Mary. Mary is the only character Furth has given any depth and Wright makes that subtext, a frustrated desire for Frank, our means of connecting with her character throughout. Mary also traverses the widest emotional arc. Wright is fully equal to the challenge, making the reprise of "Not a Day Goes By" the emotional highlight of the show.

The second Mrs. Shepard (whom we of course meet first) is Gussie Carnegie, the Broadway star who has clawed her way to the top. Though the character is a stereotype, husky-voiced Charlotte Moore invests her with such venomous vitality you can enjoy her for the sheer camp of it. The delightful Glynis Ranney as Beth, the first Mrs. Shepard, brings the level of acting to a more realistic level throughout Act 2.

The smaller roles are all well taken. Peter Millard and Jane Johanson (subbing for Nora McLellan) make a memorable appearance as Beth's primly conservative parents. Gary Krawford has enough technique to make the wisecracking Jewish producer Joe Josephson, Gussie's first husband, seem less of a stereotype. Patti Jamieson and Jeff Lillico are excellent as two news anchors whose careers we also follow backwards, as is Jeff Madden as Tyler, the man who supposedly invents the answering machine.

As might be expected Sondheim's music is far more complex and his lyrics far more intricate than is the norm in a Broadway musical, but they are inextricably wedded to the book. Perhaps it's because the characters are either blanks or clichés that ensemble numbers like the "The Blob," "Our Time" and the title song come off so much better than the individual numbers. Musical director Paul Sportelli has done a fine job of adapting the score to a 10-piece band, though he ought to have transposed "Not a Day Goes by" up into Glynis Ranney's range. As always at the Royal George it is a great pleasure to hear musicals performed without amplification.

Director Jackie Maxwell maintains focus throughout the complex action on stage, but there is there is only so much she can do to tone down the melodrama. Judith Bowden's Art Deco apartment for Frank is probably a reference to the source play, but it starts off the show on a confusing note. Nevertheless, the numerous costumes she has created are, beside a pixelboard readout above our chief means of clueing in to each time period. Robert Thompson uses a wide range of lighting effects to give a different mood to each scene. And Valerie Moore's intricate choreography is a pleasure throughout.

Sondheim fans will need no encouragement to see a production as solid as this of such a rarity and unmiked to boot. Non-Sondheim fans will leave with their bias intact. Those indifferent, despite the talent and energy on display, will leave indifferent wondering why the Shaw has chosen this work instead of one of one of the other better Sondheim shows that also fall within the Shaw's new mandate.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Maids
by Jean Genet, directed by Diana Leblanc
Soulpepper, du Maurier Theatre, Toronto August 28-October 3, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Maids to Order"

When you enter the du Maurier Theatre to see Soulpepper's production of Jean Genet's "The Maids," you first notice that the stage has been placed in the middle of the large space, the seating evenly divided on either side. Astrid Jansen's set of a symmetrical Art Deco bedroom is seen through scrims covering both openings. We watch Martha Burns playing a domineering mistress and Nancy Palk playing a submissive servant in exaggerated style until the bell of a timer rings and the two scrims rise simultaneously, Paul Mathiesen's lighting shifting from soft to analytical, breaking off the game-playing of two maids and giving us suddenly a clear view of the half of the audience facing us.

It's a brilliant move that gets right to the heart of Genet's play about role-playing, the interchangeability of identities and the difficulty of distinguishing fiction from reality. Genet's 1947 play was inspired by a real murder in France in 1933 in which two maids killed and mutilated their mistress and her daughter. Genet's purpose is not to recreate the event as several French films have done, but rather to examine the psychology of an underclass who has no hope of every achieving power.

Genet's two maids, sisters Claire (Martha Burns) and Solange (Nancy Palk), act out their fantasies of self-abasement and revenge against their mistress, known only as Madame, to revel in the illusion of power. Their room and board is their only payment, their clothing Madame's cast-offs. Their total dependency (Madame calls the two her "children") has engendered a mixture of adoration and hatred for her that finds release only in their ritual called the "Game" or the "Ceremony." The two take turns playing the roles of Maid (embodying both maids) and Madame that climaxes in the Maid's murder of Madame followed by a meditation on Madame's funeral and the Maid's trial and execution.

When the play begins, the maids have taken their first step outside the Ceremony to harm Madame in real life. Claire has written letters to the police urging them to take action against Madame's lover for an unknown crime. They have rejoiced in his arrest and incarceration because of the misery it has caused Madame', but a phone call in Act 1 informs them that he has been released for lack of evidence. The spectre of Madame's renewed happiness and the fear that the origin of the letters will be discovered, leads the two to carry out their murder of Madame for real, not by strangulation, as in the Ceremony, but with a barbiturate-laden chamomile tea. Contrary to their pose during the Ceremony, they are instantly submissive, even fawning when faced with Madame (Charmion King) in person. The failure of this murder brings the play full-circle as they play out their frustrations in another enactment of the Ceremony, this time one where the fantasy and reality of death become one.

Martha Burns and Nancy Palk are excellent as the two maids, though ideally the actors should be closer in stature the better to emphasize the theme of interchangeability. Both suggest a madness in their ways through different means--Burns through a quicksilver volatility of temper, Palk through a dreamy dissociation from things. Despite their roles in the Ceremony where one is the victim, the other the avenger, Burns and Palk make the important point that love, sisterly or beyond, is the indissoluble bond between them. Both indicate the shifts between the "real" words and deeds of the two and the their "acted" equivalents with utmost subtlety.

Charmion King is hilarious as Madame. Her Madame is undeniably self-obsessed and self-dramatizing, but is far from the ogre of the maids' Ceremony. This is important because we must see that the Ceremony has taken on a life of its own and is no longer an accurate reflection of the world. King is adept at changing her tone from saccharine to acidic and back in a flash. Astrid Jansen has perfectly enhanced her character with a rather outré 1940's outfit with the fur of a fox appropriately biting its own tail.

If there is a flaw in the production it is that Leblanc has smoothed away some of the play's edge. She is so concerned to make the shifts between "real" acting and "play" acting clear that she tends to downplay actual rivalry between the sisters (over the attentions of the delivery boy, for example), by linking it more to their "play" acting. To suggest that there is some animosity between the two despite their bond would make their enactment of the Ceremony that much more complex and unsettling. Leblanc has lent the ending such ambiguity that some may wonder what actually has transpired. Some may be baffled; I think more will be intrigued.

"The Maids" explores the old theatrical paradox of illusion and reality in disturbing way because Genet links it to political and social themes. In absence of a revolution, is play acting the consolation of the dispossessed? What does this say about our own act of attending the theatre? Toronto has had few opportunities to see this play and seldom in a production as strong as this. Those who appreciate fine acting and questions about the nature of acting itself will not want to miss it.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Return of the Prodigal
by St. John Hankin, directed by Christopher Newton
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 25-October 5, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Prodigious "'Prodigal'"

Last year at the Shaw Festival an unknown play by an unknown author became the hit of the season. This year the Shaw has brought back that play, St. John Hankin's 1905 comedy "The Return of the Prodigal," and its entire run is nearly sold out. Why is this? The play is a real find, the direction and design are excellent and the cast is superb.

"Prodigal" by the short-lived Hankin (1869-1909) is a play poised neatly between Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, combining the epigrammatic wit of the former with the social conscience of the latter. It concerns the Jackson family happily ensconced in their family home in Gloucestershire. The patriarch Samuel and his first-born son Henry have recently electrified their textile mill and as a result have tripled their income by having their employees work longer hours to produce cheaper quality cloth. Five years before the action begins, Samuel had sent his ne'er-do-well second son Eustace to Australia to make his fortune and remove his embarrassing presence from the family's tidy life. But just as Samuel is preparing to run for parliament, who should suddenly turn up muddied and disheveled on the family doorstep but Eustace. As long as he seems ill, the family is sympathetic toward him, but once he has recovered and appears to have no plans to leave, the old animosities of Samuel and Henry toward the good-for-nothing Eustace resurface. From amidst the satire of the first two acts serious questions of feminism and socialism emerge, frivolity begins to fall away and the play ends on a note far removed from comedy.

The play was revived for John Gielgud in 1948 but it has had to wait for Christopher Newton to revive it for us today. To bring renewed interest to unjustly forgotten work is exactly what theatre festivals were initially established to do. Newton has directed "Prodigal" with all the clarity and wit of his best work. He has perhaps overembroidered some scenes compared with last year (Dr. Glaisher's birdcalls do nothing to further the plot), but a tautness and tartness remains to the whole enterprise with the shading into the more serious mood of the second half expertly managed. Designer William Schmuck has created a set that handsomely evokes the self-conscious modernity of the Edwardian period with rush matting, creams and beiges. His period costumes perfectly complement the very different natures of particularly the female characters. Kevin Lamotte's lighting casts a warm glow over the first two acts moving into suitably starker contrasts in the final two.

With the exception of the two Footmen, the entire cast from last year has returned--a good thing since it's hard to imagine a better one. Returning to their roles after the winter hiatus, the cast is so familiar with their parts they have become second nature to them. The naturalness of their interactions creates, even more than last year, the sense of observing a real family in a real community.

Ben Carlson is excellent as Eustace. He lets us glimpse the underlying anger and resentment in Eustace's flippancy that paves the way for the more serious debate later on, about what a rich father owes a useless son. Patricia Hamilton, Carlson's mother in real life, is hilarious as his mother in the play. Her Mrs. Jackson doesn't have selective hearing as much as selective understanding. Any information that might upset her neat and narrow world she lets slip past as if it hadn't been uttered. Bernard Behrens is forbidding as Samuel, yet he suggests that the strictness of conduct he promotes is a relic of the past generation. In the acrimony of his argument with Eustace, we sense that he feels that not just his position as a father is under attack but the beliefs that define how he understands life. It is rare that the defeat of the father in comedy can also move us as it does here. Blair Williams and Kelli Fox are very plausible as Eustace's brother Henry and sister Violet. Henry is the unquestioning follower of his father's traditional and capitalist views. Williams makes Henry's narrowness more comic by making him obsessive compulsive besides, constantly arranging objects and tidying any mess. Fox has seemingly little to do in most of the play except to be ignored by everybody. But, as if turns out, that is precisely Hankin's point. The suppressing energy Fox has suggested throughout the majority of the action suddenly bursts out when Eustace supposes Violet must be happy with her life. Then in a remarkable protofeminist speech, she shows that her comfortable, predictable life is really a prison that prevents her form ever knowing the outside world. The fervor of Fox's delivery is key in shifting the tone away from simple comedy.

Hankin has peopled the play with characters who reveal the limitations of the life the Jacksons have chosen. Brigitte Robinson makes Lady Faringford a younger, meaner version of Wilde's Lady Bracknell. She's meaner because though her family is upper class they have no money. This makes her outrageous remarks about the "lower orders," regarding even the wealthy Jacksons as mere "tradesmen," only more ironic. Christopher Blake is her ineffectual husband Sir John, whose stutter and inattention sum up Hankin's critique of the aristocracy. (From August 26 on the role will be played by Newton himself.) Susie Burnett is their daughter Stella, who is more attracted to Eustace than to Henry, whom all suppose she should marry. The youthful radiance Burnett gives Stella makes us rue the fact that her life will be bartered away.

In smaller roles, Sharry Flett and Anthony Bekenn are the Reverend and Mrs. Cyril Pratt, whose politeness and little jokes show that Mrs. Jackson has no monopoly on selective understanding. This is more obvious in the family physician Dr. Glaisher, a fine comic portrait by Roger Rowland, who has got through his entire practice with minimal examinations and a few set phrases. Even the rigid propriety of the Jacksons' butler Baines as played by Terrence Bryant is a symptom of the self-satisfied world Eustace's arrival disrupts. "Prodigal" is just the latest in a long series of discoveries the Shaw Festival has made, revealing the period from 1900-1950 in English drama to be far more varied and exciting than textbooks have lead us to believe. The play and this production deserves the widest possible audience. A tour would certainly be in order. Now that the Shaw has whetted our appetite, let's hope it plans to examine Hankin's other surprisingly modern comedies.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Walk Right Up
by Celia McBride, directed by Michael Shamata;

Shadows
by Timothy Findley, directed by Dennis Garnhum
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford August 24-September 15, 2002

by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Two Scant Servings"

The third double-bill at Stratford's new Studio Theatre is not as ill suited a pair was the second double-bill. Unlike the second pair, some actors appear in both plays and both feature a common image, a central scene around a dinner table. Both plays are better acted than the previous pair, but this only reveals what insubstantial pieces they both are.

First on the bill is "Walk Right Up" by Montreal-based playwright Celia McBride. The focus is the difficulties the Ruskin family faces after the father has suffered a debilitating stroke and the mother begins showing signs of dementia. An actor daughter Poet has been taking care of the parents in their cottage, but now she has to go away to make a movie and expects her older sister Ella to take over. Ella is too busy with her job and has invited their drug-addled brother Brilliant (must be ironic) to take over. Fights flare up among all concerned until Brilliant leaves when he can't get any more money for drugs from Ella. At dinner, more fights break out. Though the elder Ruskins, Millar and Lily, won't move out of their cottage and won't accept home care either, McBride sides with Poet and has Ella come to realize that she should take care of them. The mother is allowed to speak the moral of the play as the last line: "We all need help."

Yes, and so does the playwright. The writing never rises to the level of a movie-of-the-week except in Brilliant's disconnected speeches. The family tensions are so broadly signaled and turn out to be so clichéd that they arouse no interest. If often seems as if the point is to provide useful instruction in the care stroke patients instead of telling a story. McBride assumes we agree that the parents are right to refuse both home care and a nursing home, when one or the other is the sensible option. It also doesn't seem to bother McBride that Ella's conversion comes about as the result of emotional blackmail from a stunt the father pulls when he tries to walk and, of course, falls down creating a scene.

The play is generally well acted. Brenda Robins's committed performance as Ella is much better than the material itself. Kimwun Perehinec as Poet sounds the same tone of complaint throughout but then her character's nickname is "Pill." Paul Soles communicates the gruff spirit of Millar while physically convincing as a stroke victim paralyzed on one side. The show's main liability is Elizabeth Shepherd, who gives all Lily's lines the same overemphatic delivery. The mother is supposed to be annoying but not monotonous. The show's main surprise is Damien Atkins, who provides a sudden energy boost as Brilliant. He gives a performance both hilarious and troubling as someone whose brain has been so fried by drugs he is barely coherent.

Director Michael Shamata gives the work a respectful reading but can't disguise its longeurs and creaky hinges. The show is only one hour and fifteen minutes long but feels like more than twice that.

The second play on the bill is Timothy Findley's "Shadows." Findley died two months before it opened. It would be nice to report that what is now his last play is a masterpiece. Instead, it turns out to be a rather heavy-handed theatrical joke and not an original one at that.

Playwright Ben Singer and his wife Shelagh have invited four guests, two old friends, two newcomers, for a party during a total lunar eclipse. The usual postprandial amusement at the Singers is a game called "Storytime," in which the diners must tell some painful truth about themselves or at least make it sound like a truth. Predictably, dark secrets are revealed, recriminations are hurled, the newcomers want to leave. When the guests unaccountably treat lightly the reported death of a newcomer's friend in a plane crash, we begin to wonder how tasteless this cross between "The Boys in the Band" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is going to be.

Ah, but Findley has a grander theme in mind. Ben suddenly refers to us, the audience, the house lights go up and the actors begin to mingle. Ben informs us that nothing we have witnessed so far is real (no?), there was no lunar eclipse (yikes!) and the actors are not who they said they were (gasp!). Rather the five joining him at the table are playwrights competing to tell the most convincing story or, to quote, "six playwrights in search of a commission." The one who wins will have his/her play produced at the Festival Theatre. The five then tell us different fictions to explain who they "really" are. After this, Ben reveals to us, "Lies. That's what the theatre is made of."

As the allusion to "Six Characters in Search of an Author" makes painfully clear, Findley is attempting to write a play in the mode of Pirandello. Unfortunately, he can't think of any original way to begin it except for a now-hackneyed truth or dare game and his conclusion is nothing but a paraphrase of the conclusion of "Six Characters." At least, Findley acknowledges his source, but he clearly has nothing new to add to it. When Ben announces to the audience what has "really" been going on during the dinner scene, that explanation doesn't fit what we've seen. Findley has not been clever enough to write that first scene so that, in retrospect, it supports this new interpretation. Rather than a revelation, it comes off as just a trick.

That said, the show is very well acted. It good to see Brent Carver play a nasty character for a change, making Ben a sadistically manipulative egotist. Brenda Robins lends dignity and poise to Ben's wife Shelagh. Karen Robinson gives humour and passion to Lily, an actress and Ben's former lover. Stephen Ouimette has little to do but appear sullen as a gay actor and another of Ben's former lovers. Chick Reid exudes cool as the lesbian designer Kate. Gordon Rand is suitably lumpish as the randy photographer Owen. And Kimwun Perehinec, in the best of her three performances at the Studio, gives us a dumb brunette, Meredith, whose naiveté is deceiving.

Director Dennis Garnhum has caught the atmosphere of tension rising beneath the surface camaraderie very well. He has created such a fine mood the break into "reality" is harsh. Lorenzo Savoini, Joanne Dente and Ereca Hassel are responsible, respectively, for the set, costumes and lighting for both shows, each far more successful with "Shadows," where mood is more important and the characters more colourful, than in "Walk Right Up".

Both shows end with an in-case-you-didn't-get-it speech telling us the moral of the play, as if the preceding events where so complex the writers feared they were beyond us. In both cases the works are unoriginal and the "moral" embarrassingly obvious. Anyone who sees much theatre in Toronto will know that the best new Canadian work is not like this. The question is why does the programmer of the Studio Theatre season think it is?

 

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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King Lear
by William Shakespeare, directed by Jonathan Miller
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford August 24-November 6, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Technique over Passion"

"King Lear" now playing at Stratford is notable for two reasons. First, and probably foremost in most minds, Christopher Plummer appears in a Shakespearean role at the Festival for the first time since 1967. Second, and to my mind more important, the show marks the first time since Tyrone Guthrie that a director of international renown, Sir Jonathan Miller, has directed a play there. These are reasons enough to see the production even if the result falls short of true excellence.

"Lear" can be one of Shakespeare's most harrowing tragedies. It certainly was in Robin Phillips's production with William Hutt in 1988. Here one watches with little emotional involvement. There are several reasons for this. First, several crucial roles have been assigned to actors not up to the task. Plummer himself has decided to make Lear's madness comic rather than pitiable or frightening. And Miller, too, emphasizes the comedy in the play, though in a highly controlled fashion, well after the storm scene that dissipates the claustrophobia of the indoor scenes and the terror of the outdoor scenes.

Plummer has been resting on his laurels as "great Shakespearean actor" for several decades with only trifles like the film "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (1982) or the insightless play "Barrymore" (1996) as fragmentary reminders of his past ability. This "Lear" proves he still can do it. His stage presence is undeniable and he speaks Shakespeare's verse with absolute clarity. But it struck me throughout that Plummer seemed to regard the role as a means of virtuosic display without really engaging with the character. There is much to admire in someone so in command of a wide range of expression, but that alone does not draw us into the work. His wrath and fear of descending into madness are well portrayed, but where his interpretation seriously goes awry in the important meeting with the blinded Gloucester in Act 4. Though Edgar repeated states what a pitiful sight it is to behold, Plummer's Lear delivers all of his "mad" speeches to the audience as if he were a seedier version of Barrymore. He thus comes off as merely crotchety and eccentric instead of mad.

One reason Shakespeare productions have become stale at Stratford is an overreliance on a small cadre of in-house directors who don't challenge the actors or the audience. Under Miller the whole company seems to shine like new, almost everyone eschewing old habits and speaking the text with such understanding that line after line glossed over in previous productions makes sense. Those already known as fine actors seem energized and surpass themselves in truly excellent performances.

James Blendick as Gloucester finally has the chance to show his true range and depth in a performance both daring and moving. His scenes after Gloucester's blinding culminating in the suicide attempt at Dover are the most affecting in the production. Barry MacGregor, face painted as a commedia figure, deep sadness in his eyes, plays Lear's Fool as an adult with the mental age of a boy who cannot do otherwise than speak the truth (a perfect parallel to Cordelia). He is Lear's externalized conscience and guide. For once the scene when Goneril chases him away is not cut. Benedict Campbell casts aside the bluster and excess that has marred many of his performances in major roles, and brings a keen intelligence to the Earl of Kent, who is so much like the audience's representative within the play, hoping to save Lear but only witnessing horror. Stephen Russell has played the violent Duke of Cornwall before, but here he brings a new fierceness to the role. Brian Tree succeeds in making even the often-ignored Oswald (Goneril's steward) a memorable role. With the part intact, I realized for the first time his parallel with Edmund.

Domini Blythe as Goneril and Lucy Peacock as Regan both reveal sides of themselves they have seldom shown at Stratford. They clearly distinguish the evil sisters. While Blythe is cold and calculating, Peacock, revelling in the chance finally to play an evil character, makes Regan less intelligent but more undisguisedly greedy than her sister. They both give very finely detailed accounts of their characters' slide into the abyss.

It is sad to see that Stratford with its vast resources is unable to muster actors equal to these to fill out the remaining key roles. Maurice Godin, who last acted at Stratford in 1986, plays the villain Edmund as if he were a Restoration dandy. I've never seen Edmund's nasty lines garner such hearty laughter before. Playing Edmund as a wit is certainly different (it links the role to Richard III) but Godin is so easy-going he suggests no intensity of hatred much less of evil. The Gloucester subplot is further undermined by Evan Buliung as the good son Edgar, who alone among the cast has unclear diction clouding his important lines. Ian Deakin as the Duke of Albany is very good at showing how good can appear weak when faced with evil in the person of his wife Goneril, but he never invests Albany with the strength and authority he should have to stand up to her and the corruption around him. Sarah McVie's Cordelia always speaks with an emphatic moral purpose but little sense of inner conflict or emotion.

The play is presented on a completely unadorned stage. There are only five pieces of furniture used and few props. For once the play is set in a period with some relevance to the action. British designer Clare Mitchell has accoutered the cast in the florid style of the Cavalier period, with large lace collars for everyone and elaborate hairstyles for the women. Not only does this pick up Lear's line "If only to go warm were gorgeous", it reminds us of the first time in British history when the populace dethroned and executed a king, Charles I. Robert Thomson's lighting is seldom in keeping with the play's moods. The scenes on the heath are suitably dark with a wonderful scene lit only by an on-stage lantern when Gloucester helps Lear find shelter. But Acts 1-2 and 4-5 are too analytically lit throughout to suggest any air of menace or mourning.

Miller has given the play great fluidity by overlapping exits and entrances. This speeds the action but is done so deliberately it also serves as a kind of alienation device reminding us of the play's own artifice. Miller's strategy in playing so many of the line for full-out humour is meant to coddle us along until we wake up to the horror or distress of those who have been amusing us. Perhaps if Plummer had emphasized emotion as well as technique and if the weaker actors had been stronger this might have worked since Miller rigorously controls when we do or don't have a comic response. Ultimately, we tend to admire his and Plummer's precision without being moved by the result.

 

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Brachetti
by Serge Denoncourt & Pierre-Yves Lemieux, directed by Serge Denoncourt
Mirvish Productions, Canon Theatre, Toronto September 10-October 20, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A One-Man Cirque du Soleil"

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Arturo Brachetti is a one man Cirque du Soleil. That's how I felt after seeing his self-titled show that kicks off the 2002-03 Mirvish season. We often hear that something is "unlike anything you've ever seen before", but "Brachetti", arriving direct from an eight-month sold-out run in Paris, is a show that really does live up to that description. We may dimly remember that there used to be people called "quick-change artists" on the bills of old variety and music hall shows, but how many of us have actually seen one in action? This charismatic young Italian with the Tintin hairdo, a superstar in Europe, has revived this nearly-forgotten art and thanks to a slick, eye-poppingly imaginative production looks set to dazzle North America as well.

The formal term for a "quick-change artist" is a "transformations," and transformation is what every aspect of "Brachetti" is about. Foremost are Brachetti's unbelievable split-second costume changes, over 80 of them, shifting from man to woman to plant to animal in the blink of an eye. In the first half Brachetti plays all six characters in a recreation of a black-and-white television Western. The shifts from character to character, including a gunfight with himself, are so rapid (21 changes in six minutes!) you'd swear he had an identical twin. He doesn't. In the second half, in the pièce de resistance of the evening, Brachetti takes us on a whirlwind tour of Hollywood movies from Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator" to Darth Vader in "Star Wars," not chronologically but associatively with an emphasis on surprising contrasts. King Kong fends off airplanes, descends and becomes Esther Williams who floats upwards to perform an aerial water ballet. His impression of Liza Minelli in "Cabaret" is astounding. The second half starts off with the James Bond theme during which Brachetti slips suddenly in costume from Sean Connery to Roger Moore.

The theme of transformation does not stop here. In the first half Brachetti quickly folds a simple, donut-shaped piece of felt into 27 different hats and become the 27 different people who would wear them. In the second half, he shows how to make your own movies and proceeds to make the most convincing series of hand shadows you've ever seen. I found it heartening that this sequence, one of the simplest and most ancient forms of theatre, won the most resounding applause.

Such simplicity is surrounded by far more high-tech elements. The throughline of the show is Brachetti's narrative of his own life from growing up in the small village of Corio near Turin to leaving home at age 18 to fulfill his dream of performing his own "spectacle." To illustrate, various stills of Brachetti's family and friends (all played by Brachetti) are projected on the set until some of the stills slip into motion, some change into home videos and one, the seminarian who taught Brachetti magic, bursts through the screen as a live actor.

Guillaume Lord's motorized set, looking like travelling crates stacked in the form of a cube, also picks up the theme. The cube transforms itself, rotating, opening up in various configurations and eventually splitting in half to allow Brachetti to play on the actual stage beneath.

Though the show begins with famous quotations from English and French authors about role-playing, fiction and reality ("All the world's a stage ...."), the underlying theme, made clear in Serge Denoncourt and Pierre-Yves Lemieux's script, is the Pirandellian notion that identity is an illusion. Every person has a thousand different identities, one for every role in life. When Brachetti is first introduced, he stand before us removing mask after mask after mask. Alain Lortie and Bruno Rafie draw on all manner of light effects from computerized banks of lights familiar from rock concerts to roving spotlights to numerous forms of still and animated projections. Each of Brachetti's set pieces is performed in synch with Larsen Lupin's soundscape including everything from gavottes to Philip Glass. Curiously, for a show built around costume changes, there is a credit for a wardrobe master (Massimo Sarzi Amadé) but not costume designer. Perhaps, they derive from Brachetti's private collection of over 350.

Director Serge Denoncourt, along with Pierre Bernard, created the piece as a showcase for Brachetti's amazing talent for the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal in 1999. Denoncourt has ensured that the high-tech surroundings never overwhelm the human element. If they did, the theatricality and human scale of the magic would be lost. Rather he keeps the focus on the chameleonic Brachetti himself and the people who inspired him. In his narrative Brachetti pays tribute to Don MaMantelli, who first taught him magic, and his mother (a very funny imitation with voice alone) who was alarmed by her son's insatiable need to change his appearance. "Who are you?" she constantly asks, "You can't be all four seasons at once." In a beautiful segment inspired by paintings from Van Gogh to Mondriaan, he does just that.

Brachetti pays particular homage to two Italian influences--the most famous transformationist of all, Leopoldo Fregoli (1867-1936) and film director Federico Fellini. The segment in the style of Fregoli is not only charming in itself but fills in a background most of us won't have by showing how the transformationist's art relates back to the commedia dell'arte. The surrealist segment on Fellini that closes the show is perhaps the loveliest, capturing that master's mixture of humour and poignancy. Brachetti metamorphoses into characters from Giulietta Massina in "La Strada" to Donald Sutherland in "Casanova." The trouble is that only those who know their Fellini well will catch all the references. Placing the quieter Fellini homage after the boisterous Hollywood romp that seems so much like a conclusion makes it difficult for Fellini section to create the best impression.

That quibble aside, "Brachetti" should, like the early Cirque du Soleil, appeal to the widest possible audience--from theatre buffs who want to a see a show that really is "pure theatre" to kids who like magic to ordinary folks who want two hours of jaw-dropping entertainment. See it soon because you'll want to see it again.

 

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Absolutely Chekhov
by Anton Chekhov, directed by Albert Schultz, et al.
Soulpepper Theatre, du Maurier Theatre, Toronto September 9-28, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Zesty Five-Course Meal"

Soulpepper's final offering of 2002 is an evening of four of Anton Chekhov's short one-act plays preceded by the world première of a play about Chekhov. If the idea of seeing five plays in two and a half hours seems daunting, it isn't. Think of it as a five-course tasting menu. Soulpepper Artistic Director Albert Schultz has paired the Chekhov plays with some of Canada's top playwrights whose savoury colloquial adaptations make them seem new. The plays have been carefully chosen and the program carefully arranged to make us see the common themes and images that link one piece to the next making for a satisfying evening that is much more than the sum of its parts.

The appetizer is "The Old Business" by Susan Coyne and Jason Sherman directed by Leah Cherniak. Though the weakest play of the five, it is an excellent preface to the other four. It concerns Chekhov himself on the disastrous opening night in 1896 of his first full-length play seen by the public, "The Seagull," marking a break with the series of vaudevilles that had made him so popular. That night's disaster would later turn to triumph and the seagull would be adopted as the symbol of the Moscow Arts Theatre. But at the moment we meet Chekhov, his supporter Alexei Suvorin and his leading lady Lika, each is filled with anger and resentment prompted by the first night audience's negative reaction.

Chekhov (Diego Matamoros) has fled the theatre and vows never to write another play. He will turn to the country to do farming and doctoring, something useful in the few remaining years of his life. The title is what Chekhov calls the tuberculosis he knows will kill him. Meanwhile Suvorin (Victor Ertmanis) and later the Lika (Nicole Underhay) berate Chekhov for using their personal tragedies as material in the play.

Coyne and Sherman try for the blending of humour and pathos in Chekhov's own work but only succeed in shifting from one to the other. While the relation between Chekhov and Suvorin is believable, that between Chekhov and Lika, not to mention her entrance through the window, is not. Matamoros is the most successful of the three at communicating complex emotions, here a mix of pride, self-doubt and anger at himself and at those who had already prejudged his play. After this introduction, we move on to four examples of the vaudevilles that Chekhov would cease writing after the "The Seagull" had gone on to success. The first of these is "The Dangers of Tobacco" (1886) translated by Dan Healey, adapted by Michael Healey and directed by Albert Schultz. We meet a severely henpecked husband (Joseph Ziegler) whose wife has put him up to giving a lecture on the title topic. In this version of the actor's nightmare, the poor man admits he knows nothing on the topic and in an attempt to explain his awkward position bemoans a life wasted in 33 years of marriage to a woman who makes his every moment miserable. Ziegler makes the man's befuddlement and not-so-hidden resentment hilarious. Schultz makes much of the fact that, as in "The Maids," the audience is seated on opposite sides of the stage compounding the man's difficulty in where to direct his address.

After this lecture by a hesitant speaker, we move to an outright tirade in "The Tragic Role" (1890) adapted by Adam Pettle and directed by Daniel Brooks. A man (Diego Matamoros) comes to visit his friend in town (Joseph Ziegler) to borrow a revolver since he can no longer stand the "pleasures" of cottage life. What with mosquitoes and tenors, he gets no sleep and during the day everyone gives him lengthy lists of errands they want him to do while he is in town. This is the slightest of the four Chekhovs, rather like an O. Henry short story in the form of a play, but Matamoros' intensity as a performer makes it highly entertaining. Brooks' minimalist style, holding speaker and listener in a static pose in a small pool of light, relates Chekhov forward to the Theatre of the Absurd.

After intermission we encounter the best known of Chekhov's playlets, "The Bear" (1888), adapted by Jason Sherman. Albert Schultz has directed this play in a more exaggerated style than the others that is well suited to its farcical nature. After glorious strains of Mussorgsky, the lights go up to find Martha Burns a young widow sitting in the pose of "Whistler's Mother." To demonstrate what true love is the widow has vowed to shut herself up in her house to mourn her dead husband (even though he was a cad) until the end of her days. Into her life bursts a soldier (Oliver Becker), a friend of her husband and the "bear" of the title, demanding immediate repayment of a loan. An elderly servant (William Webster) is too timid to remove him. The more adamant the widow becomes the more boorish the soldier becomes. Their dispute escalates until the widow proposes a duel to settle the matter. But the heat of the exchange of threats and insults seems to provoke another sort of heat as the two find themselves attracted to each other against their wills. Schultz and his cast have expertly managed the arc of the action rising steadily from the dead calm of the beginning to the riotous emotional confusion at the end.

In complete contrast, the final piece takes us back to the world of the theatre in a melancholy vignette about an aged actor. This is "Swan Song" (1888) adapted by David French and directed by Joseph Ziegler. The actor (William Webster) has passed out from drink and wakes up to find himself on the empty stage after everyone has gone home. Like so many characters in Chekhov he makes use of the occasion to wallow in self-pity, but here it is unleavened by comedy. It so happens that the prompter (Oliver Dennis), who unbeknownst to the management, sleeps in a dressing room each night, comes upon the actor. His presence causes the actor to reflect on his greatest roles launching into scenes, with his help, from "King Lear," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth." Even as Shakespeare's words reinvigorate him, we see that he has no life outside the illusion of the theatre and even there the time he "struts and frets his hour upon the stage" is reaching its end.

In a more somber form, "Swan Song" picks up the undercurrent that runs through all five plays of lives wasted, lost youth mourned and everyday life impossible to bear. Webster and Dennis are excellent. Unlike Jeannette Lambermont's production at Stratford in 1990, Ziegler ensures that the tone never becomes mawkish. Webster, unlike Stratford's Richard Curnock, gives the sense that even when wallowing this actor is still playing a part.

Astrid Janson's set and costumes unify the plays with a sense of genteel tawdriness. Paul Mathieson lights each play quite differently but there is an overall softness that seems to find it perfect conclusion in the lone candles in the darkness at the end of "Swan Song."

"Absolutely Chekhov" features only four of the ten of vaudevilles Chekhov wrote. What a pleasure if Schultz could cook up another such well thought out, well executed evening as this.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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