Caesar and Cleopatra - | - Beautiful City   - | - Girl in the Goldfish Bowl - | - The Old Ladies - | - Nikola Subic Zrinjski - | - The Queen of Spades

Add them, now!
-| - The Shape of Things - | - Oedipus Rex - | - La Boheme -|- Medee -|-

- | - The Swanne: George III: The Death of Cupid - | - Swollen Tongues - | - War Brides - | - The Land of Smiles

-|- The Turn of the Screw -|- Reaney Days -|- Robin Hood -|- Cinderella in Muddy York

 

Other Reviews for 2002 here  here  here 
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The Old Ladies
by Rodney Ackland, directed by James MacDonald
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 22-October 27, 2002 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Lots of Atmosphere, Little Excitement"

"The Old Ladies" by Rodney Ackland is the disappointing show occupying the slot for mysteries on the Shaw Festival program. The play is not a whodunit since the killer and victim are obvious. It is also not much of a thriller since there is very little excitement despite the director's heavy-handed attempts to drum some up. After seeing the first two acts, the average audience member is likely to dream up all manner of interesting conclusions only to find that none of them happens. To make matters worse, the director has decided at the last minute to add a dose of ambiguity to an otherwise straightforward ending. This leaves the audience confused and wondering what the point is of this unmysterious mystery and unthrilling thriller.

Rodney Ackland (1908-1991) based this 1935 play on the novel of the same name by the once-popular minor author Hugh Walpole (1884-1941). The story concerns three women in their 70s who live in a run-down rooming house in the fictional seaside town of Polchester. The current residents are Lucy Amorest, a kind-hearted widow who has not heard from her son for three years, and Agatha Payne, a half-mad woman of "Gypsy blood" whose prying and threatening ways make her a difficult neighbour. Into this gloomy world steps the timid May Beringer to take the room left vacant by the death of its former occupant. May and Agatha form an instant dislike for each other, May's fearfulness only egging Agatha on to frighten her more. The only thing of May's that interests Agatha is a large piece of amber carved into the shape of a dragon. Agatha, who fancies herself a lover of beauty, determines that she will have it by any means possible.

I would like to say there is more to the story than this, but there isn't. The cast is so adept at making less seem like more that we listen to large swaths of incredibly banal dialogue looking for clues and hidden motivations. But there are none. The learn the most about May, but the backgrounds of Lucy and Agatha are far too sketchy. Ackland and Walpole think it is enough that Agatha is "foreign" and unreligious to make her a villain. Why the three are in such poor financial straits and why they have left familiar surroundings for Polchester is never clear.

A read through the novel shows that all Ackland has done is to reduce the characters to three, set all the action within the house and to lift the dialogue verbatim from the novel. Such a facile adaptation does capture the feeling of mournfulness that pervades the dingy house. But it does not make much sense of what the simple narrative is about. It seems clear to me that the novel, flimsy as it is, is not primarily a thriller but rather a study of the hopelessness of women living in genteel poverty. Walpole underscores this theme in some of Lucy's thoughts that do not appear in the play: "What happened to old ladies when they had no money and no friends? No one cared about old ladies. They cared about old women of the other class."

The fact that the play is in the "mystery" slot may have encouraged director James MacDonald to force the action into thriller mode to make it seem more exciting. Why else does he have the screechings of Bernard Herrmann's music from "Psycho" accompany Agatha's every sudden appearance in a doorway? This reduces Agatha to a scary monster instead of a study of an obsessed old woman. Once we are in the third act and realize that the plot is not going to have any twists, MacDonald decides to supply one himself by staging the final moments so that we don't know if they are real or imagined. Coming after two and a half hours of trite realism this only causes confusion since it fits with nothing that has come before. MacDonald is good at maintaining tension and atmosphere, but by the end we wonder what it was all for.

That the play maintains our interest at all is entirely due to the skill of the actors. Donna Belleville has a difficult task as the terminally kind Lucy. Lucy is so preoccupied with seeming pleasant and in control, it comes as a welcome relief to find that she has fears of her own that her son may be dead, that she will be left penniless and of the peculiar Agatha. I would have been happy if Belleville had allowed more of Lucy's unease to peep through her steady stream of soothing words.

Maria Vacratsis struggles valiantly to humanize the character Agatha. Vacratsis sees that Agatha's obsession with owning May's amber is like Othello's obsession with Desdemona's infidelity. It is an expression of her own feeling of helplessness, a desire to possess some beauty in the midst of shabbiness. Vacratsis shows clearly how May's constant protestations of weakness and fear bring out Agatha's desire to show strength and domination in a world where she has none. How much better the play would work if MacDonald had allowed this complexity to flourish instead of undermining it horror movie tactics.

It is Wendy Thatcher as May who draws us into the play. The most detailed character of the three, May is a woman who has had very little contact with people or had anyone pay her attention. As a result is shy, innocent, fearful, childlike and painfully self-conscious. Thatcher reflects all of these in a finely nuanced performance. She is expert at poising our reaction halfway between laughter at May's silliness and pity for her fragility. She reveals beneath May's trivial chatter a poor woman's desperate need to be wanted.

David Boechler's set is a marvel on its own. It shows us both storeys of the rooming house in great detail, including the three women's sharply differentiated rooms. Andrea Lundy's moody lighting makes the house seems appropriately cold, dank and uncomfortable.

I know that the mysteries at the Shaw are very popular but after several misfires in a row now, I'm beginning to wonder whether the pool of mysteries actually worth reviving is not rather small.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Land of Smiles
by Franz Lehár, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto December 27, 2002-January 4, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

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"Hummel Shines in 'Smiles'"

The Toronto Operetta Theatre production of "The Land of Smiles" is musically one of the best the company has yet presented. The TOT has assembled a fine cast and the orchestra under conductor Robert Cooper has never sounded better. Highlighting the show is the radiant performance of former COC Ensemble member Tamara Hummel in the role of Countess Lisa.

"The Land of Smiles" ("Das Land des Lächelns") in one of a series of operettas Franz Lehár wrote for renowned tenor Richard Tauber. In this series, Lehár sought to move operetta closer to the realm of opera by adopting a more complex musical language and by choosing romantic stories with less than happy endings. In this gender-reversed "Madame Butterfly," Countess Lisa has fallen in love with Prince Sou-chong while on a visit to China. While in Vienna as an ambassador Sou-chong declares his love for Lisa and she, despite warnings from her friends and family, decides to move to China with him to be his wife. Once there she finds the constraints of Chinese court society too great. Fortunately for her, Captain Gustl, also in love with her, has followed her to China and helps her to escape while Sou-chong and his sister Mi, who loves Gustl, are left heart-broken.

Like the other "Tauber operettas," "The Land of Smiles" is generally thought of as a showcase for the tenor lead. As things turn out, this production becomes more of a showcase for the soprano lead simply because Tamara Hummel's performance is so much more emotionally involving. The role of Sou-chong is a challenging one. When we meet him in Vienna, he is an outsider and is naturally more formal than the Viennese around him. In China, he is further constrained by an elevation in rank and the necessity of complying with court etiquette. Only in his few moments alone or with Lisa can he pour out his true feelings.

Tenor Marcel van Neer has a beautiful, cultured voice with a glowing tone and refined phrasing. The difficulty is that he delivers the string of famous numbers Lehár has given Sou-chong, including the celebrated "Yours is My Heart Alone" ("Dein ist mein ganzes Herz"), more as a collection of separate art songs than as parts of a dramatic or emotional arc. To be fully effective van Neer needs to show the emotion behind the formality--behind the smiles (as the song has it)--and to contrast it with the moments when Sou-chong gives his feelings free expression. The song he makes most magical is the apple-blossom song, "Von Apfelblüten einen Kranz," which is a song sung on request. One admires van Neer's voice throughout but wishes he were more dramatically engaged.

This is not the case with Hummel as Countess Lisa. Her clear, rounded tone and secure high notes are a constant pleasure. Besides this, she successfully traverses the emotional arc of a girl naively fascinated with an exotic culture and the man who represents it through to the complex mixture of shame, anger and regret when she realizes the folly of ever thinking she could ever be accepted in such an alien world. Hummel brings this about not only through her acting but also by making each of Lisa's numbers mark a new stage in her character's growth. Her difficult operatic scene "Alles vorbei!" is very powerful. Her portrayal is so sympathetic it makes one rethink the story, for a change, from the woman's point of view.

Laird Mackintosh, fresh from a summer playing Freddy in Stratford's "My Fair Lady," is excellent as Captain Gustl. He gives the character a suavity and poise lacking in what is usually treated as the comic tenor role. Unamplified and in a smaller house, he is more at ease and much more effective than at Stratford. Peilu Ni and Saemi Chang alternate in the role of Princess Mi, Sou-chong's sister. Ni took the role at the preview performance I attended and her portrayal was both charming and affecting.

The one fly in the ointment is Eric Woolfe as Chief Eunuch and Majordomo Chi-fu, the only outright comic character in this bittersweet story. Woolfe, who has done such fine work elsewhere, plays up the eunuch jokes but ends in being merely shrill with most of the poorly written or improvised humour falling flat. I still have fond memories of David Walden, whose Chi-fu for the TOT in 1989 was rather like the Caterpillar in "Alice in Wonderland."

Stage director and General Director of the TOT, Guillermo Silva-Marin, manages the action with his usual facility allowing the serious aspects of the plot to have the weight they should. The TOT wisely engaged Artistic and Movement Consultant Xing Bang Fu, who worked on the opera "Iron Road" last year, to lend an air of authenticity to the staging and to choreograph the dances with ribbons and fans that start Act 2 with a burst of colour. Design Consultant David Rayfield has chosen impressive period costumes from Malabar, quite spectacular for the Chinese scenes. His sets simply but effectively suggested the lushness of both locations. Cameron A. More's lighting enhances the splendor of state and parallels the work's darkening mood.

From the very first bars of the overture, I knew the operetta was in good hands under Robert Cooper. He has a masterful sense of rubato and draws such fine playing and colour from the 16-member orchestra one might have thought Lehár had scored it for just such an ensemble. Cooper seems to relish the dissonances and shifting harmonies that link Lehár's writing more to his contemporary Richard Strauss.

"Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" may be the song everybody knows, but the score brims with one memorable tune after the other. When played and sung as well as here, it's clear why the work has remained so popular. Four of the seven performances are already sold out. Act soon if you don't want to miss out on this delectable musical feast.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Beautiful City
by George F. Walker, directed by Angela Finlay
Alumnae Theatre, Toronto, September 27-October 12, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"In Touch with the Simple Ugly Truth"

The 2002-03 season at the Alumnae Theatre has been dubbed "Men on Women" since all four plays by male authors deal with strong female characters. The first offering in this series is "Beautiful City" by George F. Walker. The play's last professional production is Toronto was its première in 1987. Despite a flawed design and an uneven cast, Walker's legions of fans will be pleased to see this rarely produced work.

Those unfamiliar with "Beautiful City," part of a trilogy of East End comedies, can rest assured that the play displays Walker's typical offbeat humour and quirky plot. As usual, the plot is driven a left-wing thesis, here a sort of Robin Hood economics. Two-dimensional characters are sketched in broad strokes and do not change in the course of the action. And the profanity-riddled language forgoes subtlety and nuance to paint issues as black or white.

What makes this play different from the usual Walker is that it is clearly meant as a fairy tale complete with a witch. That alone makes Walker focus on plot over character more palatable. Here the bad guys are the mob-supported developer Tony Raft and his mother Mary. Tony is on the verge of floating a series of new condos when his chief architect Paul Gallagher suffers a crippling pain in his side of unknown origin. While in hospital, Paul meets the daughter of a (good) witch who recommends him to her mother, Gina Mae, who works enthusiastically at Bargain Harold's discount department store. Paul gets better under Gina Mae's care, but soon the mob is after Gina Mae's brother-in-law for selling "family" goods and looking for Paul to get the condo presentation suite remodelled.

As usual, Walker equates wealth with evil (the Raft family) and poverty with good (Gina Mae's family). He suggests that wealth makes people sick because it insulates them from life (Tony wants a life without strangers) and that poverty makes people well because it puts people back in touch with life, or as Gina Mae puts it, the "simple ugly truth." The flaw in the thinking is that Walker wants to present Gina Mae's present way of life both as ameliorative as it is (as in Paul's recovery) and as requiring improvement. Otherwise, why would he have Gina Mae demand millions of dollars from the Rafts for facilities for the poor? Walker's idealization of poverty works contrary to his demand for redistributing wealth. But, as I said, this is a fairy tale.

The main impediment to this production's success is Stewart Vanderlinden's set. Vanderlinden has designed a number of attractive and clever sets for the Alumnae before but this is a case where more could have been done with less. The set consists of two large cubes surfaced to look like the walls of a back alley. Atop one is the office of the Rafts, atop the other a police office used only once. The idea is clearly to the people who work in high-rises from those on the street. One problem is that the plays many scenes constantly shift between the two and every setting up of the "street" scenes, Bargain Harold's or Gina Mae's house require too much effort and disrupts the pace. The other problem for anyone seated in the first four rows will be that the height of the Rafts' office cuts off anything from the feet to the neck of actors playing there. Martyn Wolfman has come up with an excellent mix of urban sounds and appropriate mid-1980s music. Michael V. Spence uses the few Alumnae instruments to create distinctive moods for the rich and the poor with a good explosion and fire in Act 2.

Since Walker's characters are cartoons and express themselves almost entire in multiple exclamation marks, the trick for a director is to encourage a suitable playing style halfway between the realistic and abstract. Angela Finlay's clear direction achieves this admirably. Not all the cast is up to this demand, but those who are give the play an infectious energy.

Chief among these is Tricia Brioux as Gina Mae. She gives Gina Mae a centredness and dignity that all others must bend to in their confusion. She so inhabits her character that it's no stretch to see how this powerful woman can also work happily as a cashier. Chris Owens is excellent as Paul, a man whose moral conflict with his employers has made him ill. He clearly shows us the degrees of Paul's recover and in Act 2 exudes the quiet strength of newfound peace. Showing a talent for physical comedy, Jason Gautreau is hilarious as the small-time crook Stevie. Stevie's mind has been so fried by drugs that his mind and body seem to act independently and he seems to see everything through a haze. Mary Claire Thompson is well cast as the fashionista/police cop, Dian Black, whose aplomb others find so unsettling.

The rest of the cast did not show same degree of command. Zachary Bennett's character, Tony Raft, is a constant state of excitement for the majority of the play, but Bennett doesn't play his anger any differently that his self-congratulation and both at the same pitch. Barbara Larose has the right presence as a gun-toting mob mother but it's obviously a push for her to give Mary the harshness that would suit her actions. Eve Wylden, as Gina Mae's daughter, needs to carry emotions through from one line to the next. Stephen Near, as Paul's brother Michael, is the only cast member to fall back on sitcom-ish reactions. And J. Danlen Moore has certainly captured the look and actions of Stevie hapless father, but I found him difficult to understand.

George F. Walker fans will be pleased have the chance to see this production of one of his less often produced plays. Non-fans will not be converted, but for those curious about Canada's popular writer of political comedies, "Beautiful City," where genre and characterization suit each other, would be a good place to start.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Caesar and Cleopatra
by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Christopher Newton
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 21-October 27, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Politics and Spectacle"

"Caesar and Cleopatra" currently playing at the Shaw Festival is visually it's one of the most stunning productions the Shaw has ever presented. Christopher Newton's direction on his last play by Shaw while still Artistic Director is filled with insight. And, as usual in the best productions at the Shaw, there is no weak link in the entire 32-member cast. This is a great achievement that will not be bettered anywhere for a very long time.

Shaw's play, first produced in 1906, was written as a kind of prologue to the events portrayed in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and "Antony and Cleopatra." Our knowledge of history, particularly as shown in those tragedies, casts a shadow of irony over every aspect of Shaw's play. While Shaw depicts Caesar's conquest of Egypt and the young Cleopatra's rise to the throne, he simultaneously underscores the traits and situations that will later doom them both. A play about the nature of power and how to wield it becomes at the same time a play about the evanescence of that power.

Newton and designer William Schmuck underscore these themes in two ways. All of the action is played out on monumental sets depicting seven locations. Not only do we have the well-known scene set near the Sphinx (here beautifully rendered) but all the other scenes of rooftops, quays, palaces, crypts, are modifications of a wall and steps seeming constricted of ancient ashlars. The scale suggests both the grandeur of human achievement and the minute space a human life occupied in the flow of time. Kevin Lamotte's lighting enhances the mood of mystery and drama. In a brilliant stroke, Newton and Schmuck have used the costumes to shift the action forward from 48BC to the period just before World War I. Shaw implicit comparison of the Roman Empire with the British Empire now becomes explicit. The usually out-of-place character Britannus now fits in perfectly and the discussions of how to govern wisely, especially in the Middle East, take on new relevance. The play begins with a prologue as a voiceover by Newton himself adapted from Shaw usually omitted prologue spoken by the Egyptian god Ra, who from the perspective of eternity, sees human endeavour as vanity-"the dust heaps on which ye slave, and which ye call empires, scatter in the wind."

A further innovation on Newton's part is to have Caesar played as "middle-aged" would seem to us and not as the advanced age it would seem to the ancients. Now Caesar's fascination with Cleopatra can seem part of a mid-life crisis preoccupied as he is with his age. And Cleopatra's interest in Caesar is more plausible especially when he is costumed as here as an Indiana Jones.

Jim Mezon captures Caesar both as a man of action and contemplation. He seems a man weighed down by his own achievements. He is attracted by what seems to be a carefree girl but is also aware of the foolishness of this attraction. He struggles with his own world-weariness to teach this 16-year-old how to wield power. Caroline Cave is very fine as Cleopatra even if she can't quite communicate nuance and complexity of emotion that Mezon can. She is especially good in the first half of the play in charting Cleopatra's transition from fearfulness to her first assumption of command. In the second half when we see her first abuse of power, we need to see more of the woman she will become than the teenager she still is.

The remainder of this cast of 32 reminds one yet again how solid the Shaw ensemble is. Sarah Orenstein lends such intensity to Cleopatra's mysterious servant Ftatateeta that she seems like a demon incarnate. Her equivalent in the Egyptian camp who wants Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy to rule is the devious politician Pothinus. Neil Barclay makes him both pompous and dangerous. As Ruffo, Caesar's second-hand man, Guy Bannerman gives one of his best ever performances. He gives us the dourness and gruffness of a Scot but makes Ruffo a fully rounded character, especially near the end when he must acknowledge his misdeed. Patrick R. Brown makes a suave and elegant Apollodorus and Norman Browning is at his comic best as the prim and stuffy Britannus.

Jeff Lillico evokes both laughter and pity as the moral and physical weakling Ptolemy who is being used as a puppet by the faction opposed to Cleopatra. Fine work also comes from Peter Millard as crafty Theodotus, Tyley Ross in the straight dramatic role of Achillas, Mike Wasko as the gallant Lucius Septimus and Jeffrey Renn in a comic cameo as a Roman Sentinel.

Newton's cinematic direction makes this the most enjoyable production of Shaw's epic that I've ever seen. The updating brings a sense of adventure and romance and invites us to compare and contrast periods in a way that the usual togas and tunics cannot do. Its panoply of fine performances makes this a date with history you won't want to miss.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Girl in the Goldfish Bowl
by Morris Panych, directed by Morris Panych
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto September 24-October 27, 2002 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Two-Headed Goldfish"

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Although Morris Panych's latest comedy is highly entertaining, it seems to be composed of two different comedies, both familiar, competing for our attention. It will strike Toronto audiences, especially Tarragon subscribers, as a cross between Kristen Thomson's "I, Claudia" and the 1979 Peter Sellers film "Being There," without being as focused as either. Despite fine performances, direction and design, the play seems unwilling to plumb the emotions it tries to evoke.

"Girl in the Goldfish Bowl" marks something of a change for Vancouver-based playwright Morris Panych. Though permeated with his absurdist view of life, the play aims at exploring real feelings rather than exaggerated neuroses. Iris is a girl, almost eleven, who recounts the last days of her childhood in 1962. She is precocious, imaginative and loquacious, but those around her regard her as an annoyance. Her father Owen does not work and spends his time drawing geometric forms and dreaming of going to Paris. Her mother Sylvia has finally decided to leave Owen but on her way out has tripped over her suitcase and broken her wrist. To make ends meet the family takes in lodgers. Miss Rose, who works in the fish canning plant, has lived with them so long she is Iris's godmother.

Iris believes that the world has been held together by she pet goldfish Amahl, because when he died, her mother decided to leave and the Cuban missile crisis began. Almost immediately, the unusual Mr. Lawrence appears who seems unfamiliar with both language, customs and the everyday things around him. The family takes him in and Iris pins her messianic hopes on him as she had on her goldfish.

It was difficult to sit in the Tarragon Theatre and not to think of Kristen Thomson's "I, Claudia," also about a precocious girl facing the breakup of her parents and who also has a goldfish. The coincidental similarities all work to Panych's disadvantage. Panych's text is liberally sprinkled with word play and hilarious one-liners, but the humorous surface rarely communicates the hurt underneath as it always did in Thomson. Panych has Iris switch suddenly to an adult to speak of pain of the events, as if only an adult's hindsight could see it. Thomson's play was so moving because she showed us the young Claudia trying to cope with the pain she was experiencing. Thomson's use of masks and a stage upon the stage elegantly raised larger questions about theatre itself that Panych never does. Panych's setting during the Cuban missile crisis tries to place the standoff between Iris's parents in a larger context, but he makes little on it.

Panych's plays usually focus on an outsider in society. "Goldfish" presents two--Iris and Mr. Lawrence. Though their stories are linked, the two compete for our attention. Plays like Gombrowicz's "Ivona, Princess of Burgundia" (1938) and Vian's "The Empire Builders" (1959) used a silent character on whom a society projects its fear and hatred. That does happen in Panych especially in how Miss Rose and Owen regard the inarticulate Mr. Lawrence, but rather more like the film "Being There," the mentally restricted outsider rises from nothing to become seen as the family's savior, first with Iris, then with Sylvia and finally with Owen. This story is very funny on its own but tends to compete rather than gel with the story of Iris.

The adult actor Kristina Nicoll does a marvellous job as Iris, hunching her shoulders, using a little girl voice and mimicking the slightly out-of-control facial and body movements of a young person. Nicoll's shift to adult voice and posture is quite a shock and is a testament to how fully she has taken us in a child. As Owen, John Jarvis gives one of his best ever performances finding just the right note of pathos in this hopeless shambles of a man who struggles vainly to make his wife stay while knowing he gives her no reason to do so. The role of Sylvia is underwritten. It may be funny the first few times that she avoids discussion by running out to the kitchen "to see if something is burning." But ultimately, we don't hear enough from her to understand how she could have married Owen much less stood living with him for so long. Brenda Robins responds by playing Sylvia as if there were motivations beyond what the text suggests, but this makes her acting contrast with the broader characterization that Panych the director has asked for.

Tanja Jacobs, looking and acting like a cross between Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, is hilarious as Miss Rose. The scene when she struggles to stay alert under the influence of one of Owen's pills is priceless. Richard Zeppieri plays the enigmatic Mr. Lawrence just as if he were, as Iris suspects, a fish out of water. His blank expression and monotone voice make his non-comprehension of the everyday even funnier.

Ken MacDonald's-two storey sets is far more elaborate than one usually sees at the Tarragon. The wood throughout the house looks weathered and bleached like the wharves in the presumed vicinity. Audiences are likely to find the most humour in the costumes for Miss Rose, who has never left the immediate postwar period behind. John Thompson's lighting lends the stage a soft glow of nostalgia.

Contrary to habit, Panych did not direct the play for its world première in Vancouver. He does do the duties for Toronto. He is adept at pacing the action and finding humour in the abrupt shifts that characterize it. One can tell that Panych means the ending to be wrenching, but too little of the play has delved into more serious emotions for it to have that effect. "Goldfish" is a pleasant two hours and Iris is a perky character, but I didn't leave the Tarragon with the complex mixture of elation and sadness that I did not long ago after encountering the endearing Claudia.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Hay Fever
by Noel Coward, directed by Christopher Newton
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake July 31-November 24, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Sheer Bliss"

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Christopher Newton is exiting the Shaw Festival on a high note. The last production at the Shaw that he is directing as Artistic Director is Noel Coward's classic comedy "Hay Fever" and it is a delight from beginning to end. The direction, action and design are so perfect, one can't imagine a better production anywhere

"Hay Fever" (1925) is considered Coward's purest comedy. It has virtually no plot. The four members of the Bliss family each unbeknownst to the others, invites a guest to stay for the weekend, the guest arrive, are dismayed my the family and leave. Hanging from this thin thread is a comedy about acting, about the theatre, about relation of art and reality.

Judith Bliss is a famous actress who has retired from the stage. Theatre is in her blood and is festering in the isolation of the country. Consequently, she theatricalizes her everyday life. The simplest occurrence, a boy kissing her daughter, is occasion for a dramatic scene, that is when she is not actually playing scenes from her past successes with her family. The role could have been written for Fiona Reid. She is perfectly in her element and gives a performance to treasure. She is alive to every quirk in Judith's self-absorbed, mercurial nature and proves yet again what a master of comic timing she is. While she clearly distinguishes Judith's many levels of play-acting, she shows that Judith is so accustomed to dramatizing every element of her life, even when the mask supposedly falls and she faces the reality of ageing, there may actually be no moment when she is not acting. Reid's is a great performance of a great role.

The rest of the Bliss family may complain of Judith's making a scene of everything, but they are only different from her in degree. As often as not, they collude with her scenes and creates scenes of their own. David Bliss, her husband, is so preoccupied writing his novels he hardly interacts with the real people around him. Michael Ball, looking younger and sprightlier, has just the right degree of absent-mindedness to make David's lapses into his own scene-making believable and hilarious.

Mike Shara and Severn Thompson are well cast as the two Bliss children, Simon and Sorel. Their performances are so finely detailed they show us both the traits they share as siblings and the traits their brother and sister and the traits that make them individuals. As the artistic one, Simon's Shara is a lankier, more volatile version of his father. As Sorel, Thompson has the rare chance to display her fine comedic talents. Sorel is the only one of the Blisses who longs to be part of a "normal" family. Yet when cues for a scene are given, Thompson shows that Sorel lets herself be drawn in despite herself.

The four guests the Blisses have separately invited become objects of humour as they each attempt to cope with bizarre alternate universe of their hosts. Indeed, their hosts are so self-obsessed they either ignore the guests or treat them as human playthings. Judith has invited a young athlete, Sandy Tyrell, because his adoration makes her feel youthful. David has invited a young flapper, Jackie Coryton, to use a character study for his novel. Simon and Sorel have both invited older admirers, Simon the stylish Myra Arundel and Sorel the diplomat Richard Greatham. Soon enough the partners have re-assorted according to age, multiple scenes of recrimination and forgiveness follow while the guests band together to plan their escape from the madhouse.

Like the Bliss family, all four are perfectly cast. Kevin Bundy shows a flair for physical comedy as the oafish puppy dog Sandy. Lisa Norton makes the Jackie look like a shy little girl lost in a funhouse. Laurie Paton's Myra is sophisticate and catty and not used to being unnoticed. David Schurmann's Richard is well meaning and restrained and unprepared for a family where hysterics are a familiar event. Mary Haney gives us another of her hilariously sullen domestics as the Bliss's maid, Clara.

Newton probably understands how to direct Coward better than anyone in the country does. He has made the Shaw Festival the leading producer of Coward in the world with 13 productions in his tenure alone. He draws incredibly detailed performances from this dream cast. He has brought out all the nuances of the characters' interactions and makes that the motor of the play. Unlike the "other festival" where directors slather on the gimmicks in a vain effort to make comedies funnier, Newton allows the play to breathe out its own abundant humour and making the experience all the richer. The greatest set piece of the production is the scene at the start of Act 3 when the guests sneak down to have breakfast quickly before they sneak away. In this largely silent scene, Newton has extrapolated precisely how each of the four guests will react to the Blisses' booby-trapped breakfast buffet. Their different reactions to scalding lids and sticky spigots sum up in riotous fashion their difficulties in a world with its own unexplained rules. Newton knows exactly how to pace the work and build to a climax. He also knows the profundities that lie beneath the shimmering surface of the play. Playing a word game involving acting starts Act 2, but Newton knows that Coward is examining how much game playing is part of "real" life. He knows that the guests in arriving at the Blisses' house have actually stumbled into a theatre where a play is in progress in which they are asked to play unaccustomed roles.

William Schmuch has designed a beautiful set of the Blisses' house decorated to bring out their bohemian lives and eccentricity. The wonderful array of costumes suits the nature of each character and sets the tone for each act. Alan Brodie's lighting is very effective in creating mood. In Act 2 he conjures up exactly the look and feel of light before a storm.

This is a production that would win raves anywhere in the world and it's just down in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Don't miss it.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Queen of Spades
by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, directed by Annilese Miskimmon
Canadian Opera Company, Hummingbird Centre, Toronto
September 26-October 11, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Winning Hand"

The Canadian Opera Company brings us Tchaikovsky's eerie opera "The Queen of Spades" in a production that is simply brilliant. Created by Richard Jones for the Welsh National Opera in 2000, the production won raves and it is easy to see why. Revived here by Annilese Miskimmon, it strips away any aura of romanticism or sentimentality from the work to reveal it a powerful psychological study of obsession and madness.

Tchaikovsky's opera premièred in 1890, the same year as his ballet "The Sleeping Beauty." While both depict quests for the sake of love, there is no happy ending in the opera. Herman, a poor soldier, has had to look on while the aristocrats in the army gambled away fortunes at cards. He has fallen in love with Lisa, a girl has seen in St. Petersburg, but is heartbroken to learn that she is already engaged to Prince Yeletsky. When Herman discovers that she is the granddaughter of a famous Countess who is said to hold the secret of winning at cards, both of his obsessions become one. If he can persuade the Countess to tell him the secret, he will have enough money to be worthy of Lisa. The Countess's death before revealing the secret of the three cards pushes the desperate Herman over the brink so that he does not even recognize that Lisa has thrown over the Yeletsky for his sake. The opera ends in tragedy for both of them.

Tchaikovsky's brother Modest fashioned the libretto from a story by Alexander Pushkin written in 1834. Modest added Herman's passion for Lisa to Pushkin's story and made it precede his obsession with the secret of the cards. This makes the opera dynamic and gives it depth by weaving three themes together--love, chance and death. Modest makes Herman see his life as a nightmare and expands the gambling metaphor in Herman's exclamation, "What is our life? A game!"

Jones's intelligent, incisive production brings out all of this largely through very simple means. He has had designer John Macfarlane move the action forward from the time of Catherine the Great to a dowdy post-Revolutionary Russia. In this way, he broadens the sense of desperation to that of society in general. Lisa and the Countess in their pastel dresses are set apart from the palette of greys of the rest, as if they represented hope for a new life. The design and Michael Spray's lighting (after Jennifer Tipton) suits the expressionist style Jones adopts reminiscent of Fritz Lang's silent films and emphasizing psychology over the supernatural. The stylized blocking, movements and gestures he assigns the actors not only give the work a satirical edge, especially regarding the doddering Countess, but they also heighten the sense of unreality. This unreality in turn makes us feel as if what we see actually is Herman's nightmare and underscores the theatricality of the opera. Herman enters Lisa's room not by a door but its fourth wall and at the end, Herman's friend Count Tomsky gives the set a pushes sending it gliding backwards into darkness.

Jones keeps the Countess before our eyes even in scenes where she does not herself appear through paintings or people dressed in her clothes. Her omnipresence correlates with the idea of Fate in the work. Jones makes us see that the Countess's arid life without love is also a kind of death, made clear by substituting a skeleton for the traditional ghost in Act 3. Even the pastoral interlude in Act 2, here performed as a puppet play, becomes in Jones's hands not merely an allegory of the action but the story of the Countess's life. In Jones's detailed approach, as recreated by Miskimmon, every element of the production works to develop the ideas inherent in the opera.

The COC has fielded an excellent cast headed by Russian tenor Vadim Zaplechny as Herman in his most impressive appearance yet with the company. He sings with a ringing tone laden with sadness. In a riveting performance, he presents us first with Herman as a kind of innocent weakling and brings out every painful nuance of Herman's gradual descent from obsession to madness, Herman paradoxically gaining in strength the further he slips into delusion. As Lisa, Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian sings with a very powerful voice and brings a complex mixture of emotions to the part making Lisa's desperation in the aria before her suicide particularly disturbing. Canadian mezzo Judith Forst is superb as the Countess, able to tread the fine line between caricature and character. Even while we are ready to deride the Countess for her decrepitude, Forst's sensitive singing brings out her humanity.

Russian baritone Igor Morozov makes an excellent Prince Yeletsky especially fine in the Prince's aria of Act 2 imploring Lisa to recognize his love for her. Baritone John Fanning makes Count Tomsky into a cynical, devil-may-care fellow. His account of Countess's history in Act 1 brings a mocking tone to the narration even as it draws us in. Hungarian mezzo Viktoria Vizin, as Lisa's companion Pauline, displays a beautiful, rich voice and subtle characterization in her two songs in Act 1 and as the Shepherd in Act 2. Peter Collins and Alvin Crawford as the cynical officers Tchekalinsky and Sourin and Sonia Gosse and Frédérique Vézina as the Governess and Maid/Chloë each make fine contributions.

Conductor Richard Bradshaw's brisk tempi dusted off the cobwebs to reveal the sinewy beauty of the score that relates it forward to the 20th-century instead of backwards to the 19th. The orchestra, sounding glorious, clearly reveled in the music's plangent sonorities and vital rhythms.

This is a revelatory production. After seeing it I will find it hard to go back to a traditional decorative production with its 18th-century costumes and real ghost. To approach the action as psychological rather than supernatural and see it as critique of society is exactly what Pushkin did in the original story. The post-Revolutionary setting makes Herman's dream of wealth and freedom seem more hopeless. With such a fine direction, conducting, singing, acting and design in one production, the COC plays a winning hand.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Nikola Subic Zrinjski
by Ivan Zajc, directed by Dora Ruzdjak Podolski Opera
Mississauga, Living Arts Centre, Mississauga October 5-11, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Croatian Musical Pageant"

A real rarity is currently on offer at the Living Arts Centre. Opera Mississauga is presenting the North American première of the Croatian opera "Nikola Subic Zrinjski" (1876) by Ivan Zajc (1838-1914). To Canadians of Croatian descent and to collectors of rarities the work is self-recommending. To the average operagoer the work will seem a curiosity of specific historical and cultural importance that serves as a showcase for some fine singing from members of the Croatian National Opera in Zagreb.

Up until now, Opera Mississauga has deliberately concentrated on opera's greatest hits presented with soloists from European (primarily Italian) opera houses in traditional productions. OM Artistic Director Dwight Bennett, who has an active career in Europe, has seen that the "top ten" lists of operas vary widely from country to country and that works beloved in many countries are seldom or never performed in North America. With an estimated 60, 000 people of Croatian descent living in southern Ontario, it became a logical move within the OM mandate to program "Zrinjski," considered in its homeland as the country's national opera. The Croatian community led by producer Edward Mavrinac rallied behind the production and now it is a reality. There are plans for the production to tour to Australia, Pittsburgh and other cities with a large Croatian community.

The story concerns the Battle of Siget (now Szeged in Hungary) in 1566 when the Croats led by Nikola Subic Zrinjski fought to the last man to prevent the forces of the Ottoman Empire under Suleiman the Magnificent from conquering Vienna. Though all were killed and Siget destroyed, the Turkish forces suffered so many losses that they withdrew. Chroniclers of the time compared Zrinjski to Leonidas at Thermopylae and subsequent songs, ballads and an epic poem in Hungarian celebrated Zrinjski as the national hero of Croatia.

Hugo Badalic's libretto for "Zrinjski" is based on the play "Zriny" by German poet Theodor Körner (1791-1813). Though considered Körner's best play, "Zriny" is static, the characters are icons not true characters, the language of the Croats consists solely of noble sentiments and, strangely for a play about a battle, there are few inherently dramatic scenes. Unfortunately, Badalic remained far too true to his source so that all these deficiencies make their way into the opera. As is generally true of highly patriotic works, the opera presupposes an immediate identification with the idealized characters on stage that those outside the group will not feel. Had Badalic, unlike Körner, shown an interest in the psychology of characters in duress, he might draw a wider audience into their plight. But whenever a new threat arises, Badalic's characters, like Körner's, immediately and without difficulty sublimate personal feelings to higher goals. This makes "Zrinjski" feel less like compelling musical theatre and more like an historical pageant set to music.

For his part, Ivan Zajc provides a steady flow of rousing melodies very gratefully written for the voice. Zajc blends so many influences it is impossible to say who he sounds like but himself, but if I were pressed I would say I was most reminded of the first two acts of Donizetti's "La Favorita" but with tonal colour similar to that in Smetana. Anglocentric audience members will find his spirited marches very much like Sullivan's. Indeed, for such grave and potentially gloomy subject matter, Zajc's music remains remarkably cheerful and buoyant throughout. Dark chromatic clouds may arrive but they are quickly blown away by the tunefulness of Turks' unfounded optimism and the Croats' unfailing heroism. When the libretto does present a truly dramatic situation, as in Act 3, Scene 2, when Zrinjski's daughter asks her fiancé to kill her to avoid dishonor in enemy hands, Zajc's music, attaining an almost Verdian weight, rises to the occasion, but the libretto seldom presents such challenges. Musical highlights include Zrinjski leading the choral oath at the end of Act 1, the oriental-flavoured ballet music in the sultan's harem in Act 2, and in Act 3 the folksong Zrinjski's daughter sings to comfort herself, the dream pantomime of her wedding and Zrinjski's rallying his troops for final battle.

Opera Mississauga has imported seven of the soloists directly from Zagreb. Baritone Armando Puklavec is clearly right at home in the role of Zrinjski, his full, rounded tone and lofty demeanor well suited to hero portrayed more as a symbol than a man. Ivica Saric uses his magnificent bass to humanize Zrinjski's opponent, Suleyman. Miljenka Grdjan, as Zrinjski's daughter Jelena, has a strong, clear soprano that makes her every appearance a pleasure. Miljenko Duran, as Jelena's fiancé Juranic, has a tenor of an unusual colour but a achieves burnished ring to his many extended high notes. Zorica Antonic as Zrinjski's wife Eva uses her warm soprano to blend beautifully in her various duets especially with Grdjan.

Bass baritone Ozren Bilusic has little to do as Jaranic's comrade Alapic. Sotis Spasevski, playing Suleyman's Jewish doctor, Levi, has a pleasant baritone but seems rather stiff on stage. The sole disappointment in the cast is Damir Fatovic as Suleyman's vizier Sokolovic, who sings indifferently and displays no particular acting skills.

Jane Coryell's sets, consisting of painted flats and wings, give the works a fairy-tale look suitable for such an idealized view of history. Ivan Brozic has designed the attractive period costumes, especially gorgeous for Zrinjski, Eva and Suleyman. Brent Chanlter's lighting needs to be more adventurous to create a greater sense of atmosphere.

Croatian director Dora Ruzdjak Podolski is content to move singers into decorative groupings and stock poses rather than attempting an interpretation. Dwight Bennett and an orchestra composed of members of the COC orchestra and the National Ballet orchestra play with conviction and show the work in the best possible light making the most of Zajc's unusual harmonies and infectious rhythms. As always, Hammerson Hall gives a natural warmth and bloom to voices unlike any other theatre its size in Canada.

Bennett's broadening of the OM mandate to include such works must be applauded. It seeks to speak directly to groups hitherto unrepresented in the programming of typical North American opera companies. The enthusiastic reception "Zrinjski" received on opening night shows this broadened mandate does fulfill such a need. Besides, bringing such works to the greater Toronto area can only enrich the cultural life of the region. Let's hope for more such ventures in the future.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Shape of Things
by Neil LaBute, directed by Jim Guedo
Canadian Stage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto September 26-October 19, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"How to Lose Friends and Infuriate People"

The Canadian Stage production of "The Shape of Things," its Canadian première, makes for an unsatisfying evening. Hot young American playwright Neil LaBute is probably best know for writing and directing such films as "In the Company of Men" (1997) and "Nurse Betty" (2000). His 2001 play "The Shape of Things" shows him at his worst. Contrivance and pretense win out over realism and probability. To make matters worse, one actor in the cast of four is very weak and there are difficulties in both direction and design.

The action takes place at Mercy College somewhere in the American Midwest. Geeky, overweight Adam meets and falls for Evelyn, an art student working on her master's project. (Note the Biblical symbolism--later Evelyn offers Adam an apple.) Under Evelyn's tutelage Adam changes his hairstyle, starts eating healthier food, starts working out, loses 25 pounds, trades in his nerdy glasses for contacts and starts wearing stylish clothes. Adams calls Evelyn his Higgins. (Note reference to "My Fair Lady" and Shaw's "Pygmalion.") As he becomes more conventionally good-looking, Adam gains self-confidence and indulges in a momentary fling with Jenny, who is supposed to be marrying Phil, his male-chauvinist best friend. Things seem to go too far when Evelyn demands that Adam have a nose job. Phil calls Adam a Frankenstein, meaning of course the monster not the creator. (Note reference to Mary Shelley's novel.) Finally, Evelyn demands that to prove that he loves her, Adam must give up his two friends. Adam later refers to himself as Gregor Samsa. (Note the reference to Kafka's "The Metamorphosis.")

Up to this point, the play is mildly interesting as a study of emotional manipulation among the twentysomethings. LaBute does well at capturing their language and attitudes. But, he wants to suggest that the story has greater profundity through self-congratulatory references to other authors. This is annoying enough. Worse is that the play leads to a trick ending. Not only is one character playing a trick on another but LaBute is playing a trick on the audience. The point of this trick is explained to us in the form of a lecture which is meant to leave is wondering about the relation of art to reality and what should and shouldn't be labelled art. Instead, we feel deceived and insulted that LaBute thinks we need to have the play's theme triple underlined to get it.

CanStage has naively for this Internet age posted a sign in the lobby asking its patrons not to reveal the ending to their friends. (Descriptions of LaBute's upcoming film of the play reveal the ending in their opening line.) Surprise endings as, say, in the film "The Sixth Sense" uncover a fact while progressively giving us all the information to work it out. LaBute simply hides this information and with it all the motivation for the character who plays the trick. It is also improbable. The character's trick can only work with the collusion of the faculty of a college which, as LaBute has demonstrated from the first scene, is far too conservative to permit such a thing. How Adam can suddenly afford the new clothes much less a nose job when LaBute has emphasized he has no money, is unclear. So, too, LaBute ignores information he has presented to force the plot to reflect his theme.

What makes the already iffy evening more difficult to stomach is the flaw in the cast. Presumably to boost ticket sales, Amy Redford, daughter of the actor Robert Redford, has been parachuted in to play the key role of Evelyn. One could excuse this insult to Canadian talent if Redford, fille, were perfect for the part. But not only is she not perfect for the part, she shows little aptitude for acting on stage. The most obvious flaw is that she doesn't project. She speaks in a normal tone of voice as if she were in a movie which means that, given the pervasive soundtrack, she is frequently inaudible. Even when she is audible, she does not enunciate and her voice on its own is weak and does not suit a forceful, seductive character like Evelyn. Her facial expressions and gestural vocabulary are also limited. She does give Evelyn a certain meanness and intensity but this go for naught if she can't be heard.

In contrast, Allan Hawco is excellent as the poor schmuck Adam. He is remarkable in detailing Adam's step-by-step transformation from a shy, doughy geek to a more self-confident, trim hunk, while still retaining enough of his former characteristics like his goofy laugh to show us he is the same guy underneath. He makes us long to have Adam's puppy-dog devotion wane to see the coldness of Evelyn's manipulation. Hawco encompasses the wide emotional range the role demands and keeps us on his side from first to last.

Of Adam's two friends, Jacob Barker starts the misogynist jock Phil at too high a pitch so that it's hard to know what Jenny sees in him and when he later argues with Evelyn he has nowhere to go. As his character becomes more muted, Becker gives more nuance to what we thought was merely an obnoxious lout. Amy Price-Francis plays Phil's girlfriend Jenny like a jittery, more insecure version of Albee's Honey. Price-Francis command of conflicting emotions makes the scene in Act 2 where Jenny forces herself to stand up to Evelyn one the highpoint of the play.

As director, Jim Guedo has captured the feel of how the twentysomethings of today interact, their movements, stances, gestures, tones of voice. As designer, his costumes are all well chosen. His set with its movable grey walls suggests the anonymity of modern college buildings, but a back pallet used to represent various interiors takes too long to be loaded, unloaded and moved to the front. To cover the set changes Guedo has modern magazine covers on the themes of makeovers to attract the opposite sex projected on a front screen. Since LaBute already hits us over the head with his theme, this is overkill and compounds the sense of distrust of the audience in the play. Andrea Lundy's lighting, especially effective in the initial museum scene, creates just the right atmosphere for the many locations required.

For obvious reasons, plays that depend on surprise for their effect don't last unless there are other compensations, like finely detailed characters, once the surprise is known. Here, where the plot involves a number of improbabilities those compensations are minimal. Besides that, when the play applauds itself for its own pretensions, there's no need for an audience to join in.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Oedipus Rex
by Igor Stravinsky, directed by François Girard
Canadian Opera Company, Hummingbird Centre, Toronto September 27-October 12, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"An Acclaimed Production Returns"

The Canadian Opera Company's production of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms" garnered such rave reviews on its appearance at this year's Edinburgh Festival that more praise from me seems somehow superfluous. Canadians are sometimes insecure about what they praise, but we knew this production was brilliant when we saw its première in 1997. It's heartening to have critics in Scotland and England confirm our views. It makes one proud to have Canadian productions such as this represent Canada abroad.

"Oedipus" is as impressive on second viewing as it was on the first. While one no longer feels the initial surprise, one more easily focuses on how masterfully all the component parts of the production work together. Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" (1930), related both in music and language to "Oedipus" (1927), works so logically as the prologue to the opera one might have thought it had been intended that way. Director François Girard has linked the two works in ways that are all the more effective for being so simple. The shallow, confined space he gives the chorus for the "Psalms" contrasts with the vast open space of "Oedipus." The screen on which are projected the names of those who have died of AIDS covers two-thirds of the stage opening above the chorus becoming visually a kind weight that presses down upon them as they sing their praise of God. The actor who will be the Speaker in "Oedipus" simultaneously writes names in a book while identically clad men enter to write names on the ground. They will become part of the chorus seeking the truth in "Oedipus" while he will present the opera as an example of how the gods use one man's power of reason to cause his downfall only to open up a greater mystery. The writing of name in "Psalms" is echoed in "Oedipus" with the slow unrolling of a single meandering drawn line that leads ineluctably to a crown as Oedipus comes closer in his quest to discover the murderer whose presence has brought a plague upon Thebes. The writing on the screens in both cases points to an incomprehensible fate, commemorated in "Psalms," confronted in "Oedipus."

Michael Levine's design again amazes. Oedipus seated on an oversized chair atop a writhing mound of bodies while men search for familiar faces is unforgettable. The chair may be a throne but dwarfs Oedipus as if no one man is adequate to wield power over others. In making Oedipus look like a child playing at being king it already reified subsequent discovery of incest with his mother Jocasta. He reigns over a kingdom of death that only his punishment can bring to life. The industrial lamps the male chorus uses to search the mountain blind when aimed at the audience, but in our first glimpse of the scene and after Oedipus's own blinding, neatly fusing Sophocles' themes of blindness and insight. The ritualized gestures first glimpsed in the chorus of "Psalms" become magnified with the mythic characters of "Oedipus." Just as Levine's costumes make them look wrapped up in cloth, so the stylized gestures make the characters appear like human beings trapped in the confines of an unalterable story. Alain Lortie's lighting, emphasizing the contrasts between light and shadow, enhances the sculptural effect of the design.

The performance of "Symphony of Psalms" on its own is masterful. The COC chorus's natural ability to blend and balance line against line shows why they have become the bedrock of every COC performance. The COC orchestra under conductor Bernhard Kontarsky aptly catches the tone of fervent meditation, relishing the tang of Stravinsky's sonorities. Perhaps to contrast with it, Kontarsky chooses tempi for "Oedipus" that strike me as a shade too brisk. While this makes the reference to baroque oratorio clear, especially in Jocasta's aria, it does not quite suit Girard's ritualistic presentation.

Replacing Colm Feore in the role as Speaker, Don McKellar brings a different note to the work. Less overtly histrionic, he introduces "Oedipus" still in the contemplative character he presented in "Psalms." This helps strengthen the ties between the two works and lends "Oedipus" a sense of melancholy, anticipating the mood of the final chorus, that I don't remember from Feore's performance.

Tenor Michael Schade triumphs again as Oedipus. Even within the constraints of costume and stylized gestures, he conveys the character's detailed emotional descent from hauteur to disbelief, horror and penitence. The peevish tone he brings to Oedipus at his height suits Girard's stage picture of him as a child-king. After the shock of Jocasta's revelation, his tone becomes noticeably rounder, one might say more mature, as Oedipus confronts who he is and what he has done.

Polish contralto Ewa Podles is magnificent as Jocasta. Her creamy tone and the fullness of her voice give Jocasta a majesty even when Stravinsky's music seems to mock her for believing that oracles lie. She more than mastered Kontarsky's quick pace, tossing off Stravinsky's repetitions and jagged runs with her usual aplomb.

Of the other singers, American bass-baritone Peteris Eglitis is a rather gruff Creon, barking out his lines with little contrast from one to the other. Canadian Robert Pomakov lends his commanding bass to the role of Tiresias. Canadian bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre and tenor Michael Colvin show the Messenger and the Shepherd as pawns horrified by their contribution to the divine scheme that makes a beggar of a king.

"Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms" may have a running time of only one hour and fifteen minutes, but its impact is monumental.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Swollen Tongues
by Kathleen Oliver, directed by Richard Rose
Necessary Angel, Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto October 24-November 10, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Rhyming Couples"

One might have thought that plays in rhyming couplets had gone out with the 18th century. Anyone who has heard or read Richard Wilbur's translations of Molière knows how delectable the form can be when a modern mind sets to work on it. In 1991 American David Hirson had a major success with "La Bête," an original play in couplets about the nature of acting and theatre, mounted in Toronto by the Canadian Stage in 1993. Now we have one by Vancouverite Kathleen Oliver set among poetry enthusiasts at some unspecified time in the past. While not as consistently witty as "La Bête" or with as broad a theme, "Swollen Tongues" is very amusing, attractively designed and well acted.

"Swollen Tongues" makes its Toronto debut having already achieved success elsewhere. It 1997 National Playwriting Competition, was produced in Vancouver in 1998 and then in London, England, in 2000. The British Off the Cuff Theatre Company took it on tour through the UK in 2002.

The story concerns a brother and sister, Thomas and Catherine, who are being tutored in the art of writing poetry by a certain Dr. Wise. Thomas is a typical male chauvinist and assumes women do not have the wit to write poetry even though his own verse is execrable. Dr. Wise begs to differ and is encouraging Catherine to "find her own voice" in poetry. Her difficulty is that while she has no trouble improving her brother's doggerel, she cannot write her own poetry alone. The play's title refers to tongues being bitten so long holding back what they want to say.

What all the characters want to say is to speak their love. Dr. Wise has an interest in Catherine beyond a master-student relationship and both Catherine and Thomas are in love with the pert dressmaker Sonja. For her part Sonja is infatuated by the poetry of Sir Overripe, a man she has never seen. When Thomas discovers that Sir Overripe's poetry seems to be cribbed from his own, he challenges Overripe to a poetry duel of "bouts rimés" to determine who shall deserve the hand of Sonja. That Dr. Wise is not what he seems, that Catherine herself is "Overripe" and that Sonja herself takes Overripe's place in the duel are just the beginnings of a series of multiple cross-dressings that eventually lead to a happy end.

Oliver, also a poet, writes excellent rhyming couplets, perfectly suited to the artifice of this story about people more obsessed with the means of expressing love than the end. She doesn't make the rhyming word as much a surprise as Richard Wilbur does in his Molière translations or as Hirson did in "La Bête," but she does so often enough to make one realize all over again how enjoyable this form is. A greater source of humour is Oliver's sudden changes of diction. Standard Restoration poeticisms "ere," "naught," "blight" rub elbows with phases like "Get real," "too out there" and "doh." Calling attention to the very artifice of the language is always funny because Oliver never overdoes it.

Her plot, too, is an artifice, but here she encounters some difficulties. The play pretty much seems to end by the end of Act 1, and without the final speech by Dr. Wise we wouldn't necessarily know there was more to follow. The plot in Act 2 is not as tightly knit as in Act 1 and requires inconsistencies in the character of Sonja. Throughout Act 1 she is raring to bed Catherine once she learns of her love. But once they are alone in a house called "Women Only Land" in Act 2, she becomes "shy." She determines the house is empty but then is not surprised to find a woman named Amanda there. She is not "shy" with Amanda and immediately proposes another poetry duel to decide her fate. Even in such an artificial plot one feels Oliver has had to force things too much to arrange this obvious parallel to duel in Act 1. A note states that Toronto is seeing the "final version" of the play, but I feel it still needs revision and could stand to be expanded. We really know only Catherine and Dr. Wise, Sonja's character, no matter how omnisexual, does hang together and a Thomas has no personality other than being a stereotyped male chauvinist.

Director Richard Rose, in this his last season with Necessary Angel, has assembled a cast from diverse quarters. The chief delight of the evening is Karen Hines (better known as the clown Pochsy) as Catherine. Her every intonation, hesitation and gesture are so comically right you would think it had been written for her. Her overheard bedroom soliloquy and the dress-fitting scene in Act 1 are the highlights of the show. Shaw Festival regular Ben Carlson is very successful in making more of Thomas than is in the text. Insecurity lies not too deep beneath his bluster. His turn as "Amanda," when he brings out all the awkwardness of a male forced to don female attire, is hilarious. Soulpepper regular Nancy Palk is mainly responsible for bringing a more measured tone to the evening both as "Dr. Wise" and in her true identity as Alex, a worshipper at Sappho's shrine. Second City regular Melody A. Johnson has the misfortune to play the seamstress Sonja, a character conceived mostly for the convenience of the plot than internal coherence. Her tone of voice has a permanent smirk in it. This works well when Sonja is aggressive, especially when disguised as the pushy Overripe, but when she is not this tone undermines what little credibility there is.

Rose does not have much sense of Restoration style. He generally encourages the actors to play their parts too broadly when greater subtlety would in fact make the play more humorous. The addition of amplified noises of quill on parchment is a misplaced attempt to make the already funny play funnier. The interludes between scenes of Palk reading Sappho's poems is relevant to the play's celebration of lesbianism but certainly deadens the tone in an otherwise lighthearted romp.

David Boechler has cleverly designed an effective seven-door set for the tiny Factory Studio stage. His costumes are highly attractive modern takes on 18th-century designs. Melinda Sutton's lighting gives the piece a candlelit glow.

Kathleen Oliver is a talent to watch. If not everything works in "Swollen Tongues," quite enough does to make it one of the most enjoyable new Canadian plays I've seen this year.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Swanne: George III: The Death of Cupid
written and directed by Peter Hinton
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford October 9-November 2, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Obfuscation Uneschewed"

The first full-length play to be presented at Stratford's new Studio Theatre is Peter Hinton's "The Swanne: George III: The Death of Cupid." It is the first part of a trilogy in verse about Queen Victoria. Stratford has committed to producing "The Swanne: Princess Charlotte: The Courts of Venus" in 2003 and "The Swanne: Victoria: The Seduction of Nemesis" in 2004. As the bloated titles suggest, Hinton has a lot to say but doesn't know when to stop.

For nine years, Hinton worked on "The Swanne" until the text came to 1000 pages with 200 characters in a cycle of five plays. Working with dramaturge Paula Danckert, Hinton pared the text down to three plays, each over three hours long, playable by 21 actors. To judge from only the first installment, the work should be pared down even further. The play is filled with potentially powerful scenes, but again and again they outstay their welcome. A scene between the aged actress and a young black boy makes the same point at least four times before Hinton decides to let it go; a scene between the bordello-owner St. John Voranguish and his wife is twice as long as it needs to be, and so on. Rather than using verse to express ideas more concisely, Hinton seems to use it as a license for verbal excess.

The premise of "George III" is that Charlotte, wife of the Prince Regent (later George IV), has an affair with the Regent's equerry resulting in a black male child. "The heir to the British throne is black," George III and the Regent are told. The remainder of the play deals with the machinations to cover up this fact so that Victoria, the Regent's niece, will become queen. Charlotte gives Victoria a packet of letters on the death of Victoria's father confessing the affair and causing Victoria to question the legitimacy of her reign.

The flaw in this premise is obvious. An illegitimate child, no matter what colour, cannot become monarch of England. Therefore, all the scandal Hinton's portrays is completely unconvincing. Hinton admits that the play is "a work of fiction--entirely." But plays, no matter how fantastic, have to play by their own rules. The first scene has all of George III's numerous progeny count off where they are in the line of succession, thus introducing the notions of birth order, sex and legitimacy as rules for determining who shall reign. We learn at least twice that Edward, Victoria's father, must throw over his mistress and his children by her, to marry a royal and produce an heir, underlining yet again the importance of legitimacy. To state that Charlotte's black child is actually "rightful heir to the British monarchy" as Hinton does in the play and his notes is to ignore facts about the world of the play that he himself put there.

In addition to a flawed premise and self-indulgent writing, Hinton deliberately courts confusion by placing the action within a double framework and juxtaposing scenes from multiple time periods. The play opens with the mature Queen Victoria serving as chorus mentioning the times and places of events. At the end of the play we realize that what we have seen is a play written by the young Victoria as an attempt to come to terms with the "truth" Charlotte's letters tell of the "rightful heir." Up to the end we have supposed that the play is a memory play with the mature Victoria watching her younger self in act in the fuller context of history. At the end we are asked to believe that the young Victoria has somehow been able to imagine the perspective her older self will have.

Though the play begins in 1820 the year of George III's death, the majority of the action occurs in 1819 the year of Victoria's birth and the birth of the black child. When the action disconcertingly shifts to 1830, the year of George IV's death, we assume these are flash-forwards until the end in 1837, the time when Victoria is writing the play, turns out to be the base time. Besides this, a number of flashbacks can occur within a single scene. Hinton is trying to play the postmodern game of imbedded stories within stories but does do so clearly enough so that this structural game playing comes off as confusing rather than clever.

Peter Hinton also directs and has created a succession of visually striking scenes--ageing, peruked offspring gather around the dying George II, young Victoria entering in a flurry of letters. Yet, given the plays flaws and structural difficulties it is impossible to care much about anything that happens. Hinton directs each scene to have the same strident tone that over the course of three hours becomes wearying.

From the large cast, including some of Stratford's finest actors, he has drawn performances that are so over the top or so mannered they are not engaging. Among the former are Ian White as the dying George III, Diane D'Aquila as Queen Charlotte and even worse as the ageing actress The Scarecrow, Benedict Campbell as an orphanage rough named Simon and John Dolan as a legless beggar. Among the latter are Lucy Peacock as the odiferous but kind-hearted wet-nurse Mrs. Peabody, Margot Dionne as the haughty brothel-owner's wife Proserpine and Domini Blythe as the Victoria's governess. Much of the performances fall into the category of over-emphatic delivery because the actors are simply trying too hard. These include Claire Jullien as Jaquenetta whose baby the royals steal, Paul Dunn as Jeremy the baby 16 years later, Seun Olagunju as William in love with Jeremy, Tim MacDonald as the Head Boy in an orphanage, Julia Donovan as the Gin Sot Dear and Derwin Jordan as the god Cupid. There are performances that are all the stronger for their restraint. Chief among these is Lally Cadeau as the mature Victoria, lending a solemn, acerbic tone to the proceedings. Bernard Hopkins gives a fine portrait of the gourmandizing Prince Regent. Benedict Campbell makes a blithely duplicitous St. John Voranguish whose wife discovers his illegal business connections. Evan Buliung chillingly makes Doctor Shuddas's rigid formality a blind for evil.

"George III" is performed a virtually bare stage though Glen Charles Landry is credited with set design. Carolyn M. Smith has designed the exaggerated Regency costumes, stiff and black for the aristocrats, soft and earth-toned for the poor. Lighting designer Robert Thomson situates the action in appropriate levels of murk.

An epic scope does not need to imply a confusing presentation. In fact, it requires exactly the opposite. Modern multi-part epic plays that have told an alternate view of history all the while eschewing obfuscation and relating a compelling narrative include Tony Kushner's seven-hour "Angels in America" (1991-92), David Edgar's eight-hour "Nicholas Nickleby" (1980) and John Barton's cycle of ten one-hour verse plays called "Tantalus" (2000) retelling the events that that Homer did not include in "The Iliad." Unlike these, Hinton's tale is not compelling and his presentation unclear. While we applaud the ambition of a project like "The Swanne" and the courage of the Stratford Festival in taking on such a large project, the first installment of this trilogy is more tedious than exciting.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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War Brides
by Grahame Woods and Joey Miller
Theatre Aquarius - September 18 to October 5, 2002

Review by Kerry Corrigan

Leaving home to follow their hearts, an estimated 48,000 war brides immigrated to "a sweet shop named Canada" immediately following World War II. War Brides - A Musical is a softly engaging evening of intertwining stories, which leaves the audience in a feel-good mood, as three women overcome loneliness, disappointment and prejudice to start new lives in this vast country.

Based on the CBC TV drama by Grahame Woods, War Brides now has music and lyrics added by Joey Miller to up the emotional ante of the story of these three new Canadians. Presented as a series of short moments, with some flashbacks to "how they met", Theatre Aquarius' season opener has a small-scale feel to it, no doubt because of the rather ordinary lives the characters find in their adopted land.

Yet the strong ensemble cast brings to life the uncertainty and small triumphs encountered by so many brave women who left their families and familiar environment to embrace their new husbands' home and lifestyle.

"The swoosh of dropping knickers all across England" could be heard upon the arrival of handsome servicemen from abroad. After whirlwind courtships, some of the couples had to endure a year or more of separation, adding to the strain of resuming where they had left off.

Before the ship finally docks at Pier 21 in Halifax, three of the singing ensemble of seven women have bonded enough to pledge that they'll attend at a 6-month reunion. With that, they set out to reunite with their mates, in Nova Scotia, Quebec and Saskatchewan, and the audience is invited along to observe.

Directed and choreographed by Anne L. Allan, with help from musical director Diane Leah, War Brides soars on the voices of its ensemble actors, particularly the three women central to the story.

Val, a feisty, cultured, delightfully wry upper crust gal from England, is played wonderfully by Jayne Lewis, who brings out Val's marvelous sense of humour, a trait she needs when dealing with her neglectful husband Bret (Scott Fisher) of Eagles Butte, Saskatchewan.

Ellie, a common-sense Scottish nurse who lands on her feet despite heart-breaking setbacks, is a strong, sympathetic presence in the hands of attractive Shannon McCaig. Victor A. Young, the not-so-dashing yet utterly charming Dr. Andre Sevigny of Montreal, attempts to sweep her off her feet, even as they toil over appendectomies in the operating room.

Lisa, the youngest of the bunch, is a petite German, played by Cara Hunter, who is fondly remembered as Mary Magdelene from last year's Jesus Christ Superstar. Lisa has fallen for an East-Coaster, husband Ewan, (Nicholas Matthew) of the small town of Abernathy, Nova Scotia. Unfortunately Ewan doesn't foresee how troubling the presence of a young wife with the strong accent of the enemy will be for the many townspeople who have so recently lost young sons in the war.

All three female leads possess powerful voices, well suited to Miller's style of epic song writing. Miller also has some humourous songs in his repetoire, as when Val and Bret meet up with "You Haven't Changed" or when Andre woos Ellie with "Garden of Delight". Other times the melodies seem oddly out of synch with the time, with the only authentic period music coming in snippets of background music.

No matter, for costumes, hair and etiquette all conjure the 1940's setting with clear authenticity.

As part of the chorus, Cliff Le Jeune makes a memorable impression in a number of supporting roles, including Ewan's vocally disappointed father and the flashy emcee of Montreal's Tic Toc Club.

The expansive grey set by Irene and Adam Kolodziej threatens to rob the play of intimacy in the smaller moments, but works well when employed for larger scenes such as trans-atlantic voyages, and western hoe-downs.

War Brides - A Musical takes an indigenous story and spreads it out on the huge stage at the Irving Zucker Theatre, bringing artistic substance to Canada's social history.

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La Bohème
by Giacomo Puccini, directed by Jeannette Aster
Opera Ontario, Hamilton Place, Hamilton October 19, 24 & 26, 2002
Centre in the Square, Kitchener November 1, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Superb 'Bohème'"

Opera Ontario has begun its 23rd season with a superb production of Puccini's "La Bohème." "La Bohème" is, of course, the most-often performed opera in the world and has been produced by the Hamilton-based company three times before. But this new production miraculously has no hint of the routine about it. An insightful director and a young cast of excellent singers make this familiar work feel like new.

The most difficult aspect of "Bohème" to capture is its simplicity. The plot is one of the most straightforward in all opera. The characters are uncomplicated and while their emotions may be momentarily confused, the confusion is soon resolved. In an opera where the poverty defines the characters' actions and outlook, grandiose productions, like Franco Zeffirelli's for the Met, entirely miss the point. The characters fall in love, laugh and pretend despite their circumstances, and the harsher these are made to seem, the more poignant the action becomes.

The sets borrowed from the Virginia Opera atmospherically lit by Stephen Ross and the costumes coordinated by Ed Kotanen shift the action forward from Paris in the 1830s of the original to Paris under the German Occupation in the 1940s. Straighter lines and a grimmer reality replace picturesque petticoat and frockcoats. Radio broadcasts (not overlapping the music) directly affect people's lives. This setting immediately expands the feeling of restriction and poverty from the artists' world to that of the whole citizenry. It adds a political dimension to the work when Musetta's wealthy benefactor becomes a high-ranking German officer and a sense of menace to Act 3 when the usual tollbooth becomes passport control run by an enemy forces. Setting Act 4 after the Liberation of Paris lends further irony to Mimi's death.

Director Jeannette Aster has drawn highly detailed performances from the entire cast and chorus. She is sensitive not only to the words sung but to the dramaturgy inherent in Puccini's music. She manages the complex action of Act 2 at the Café Momus superbly, making clear the interplay of the simultaneous onstage events. Aster's is the most natural and incisive stage direction I've seen at Opera Ontario. I hope we will see more of her work there in the future.

Such careful direction would go nowhere if there were not a cast able to carry it out. The chief delight of this "Bohème" is that the principals are fine actors as well as marvelous singers. Soprano Sally Dibblee, last seen in the company's excellent production of "Susannah" in 1999, returns to play her first Mimi. Again, she enchants with the purity of her tone and her amazing vocal control. Her pianissimos are heavenly. Mimi can often seem generally weak and passive. Dibblee makes Mimi much more interesting by showing that under her shyness Mimi has a strong character struggling to free itself from the restrictions her disease places on it.

Quebecois tenor Marc Hervieux plays Rudolfo. What a discovery! Not only does he have a full-blooded Italian tone and power to spare but, unlike many in this category, he can act. This is especially important in a work like this so dependent on carefully observed nuances of feeling. He invests "Che gelida manina" in Act 1 with a more complex mixture of emotions than is usual and the jealousy he shows in Act 3 is tempered with an awareness of its injustice. He's definitely someone to watch.

Canadian Gregory Dahl is already well known. He brings his full, rich baritone and finely honed acting skills to the role of Marcello. His performance is so strong that the Marcello-Musetta relationship becomes not merely a diversion but the parallel contrasting plot it is meant to be. For her part, Albanian soprano Mirela Tafaj, making her Canadian debut, is a vivacious Musetta. While her voice tends to blend with more than rise above the orchestra, her acting ensures a clear projection of character.

Dion Mazerolle's light, firm baritone makes a memorable character of the easy-going Schaunard. Great Quebecois bass Joseph Rouleau, coaxed out of retirement for this production, makes two contrasting roles--the easily duped landlord Benoit and Musetta's wealthy admirer Alcindoro--so distinct you'd think the two are played by different singers. His sonorous voice is a delight. In contrast, Ukrainian bass Alexander Savtchenko as Colline certainly looked the part of the bear-like philosopher, but his intonation is unclear and his diction imprecise. Tenor Sarkis Barsemian is an attractive Parpignol.

Opera Ontario Artistic Director Daniel Lipton conducts very gratefully for the voice. Though his tempi became slower for the second two acts, the orchestra and singers responded with greater intensity. Throughout he makes clear the minutely detailed relation of the Puccini's music to the words sung and the action onstage. Under him the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra produced a gorgeous sound.

This production succeeds by paying such close attention to what Puccini's music is actually saying. While it's not difficult come across productions of "La Bohème," it is difficult to find one so clearly and insightfully staged as this. With such fine talent on display, it's more than worth the journey.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Médée
by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, directed by Marshall Pynkoski
Opera Atelier, Elgin Theatre, Toronto November 1-10, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Opera Atelier Unveils a Masterpiece"

Opera Atelier's production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier's "Médée" is a spectacular success. It feels like the culmination of everything the company has been working toward for the past 15 years. In 2000, OA's groundbreaking production of Lully's "Persée" took the company's already sumptuous productions to a new level of grandeur. Last year its production of Monteverdi's "L'Incoronazione di Poppea" last year brought out the psychological depths of an early work to a greater extent than heretofore. Now, "Médée" combines both. The production reveals this once little-known work as not just a masterpiece of baroque opera of opera in general.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1645-1704) had the misfortune to live and work in Paris at the same time as Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). Lully owned the royal patent for opera composing and performance at the French court. Only when Lully died was Charpentier allowed to write a "tragédie lyrique" for the court.

Although "Médée" premièred in 1693, six years after Lully's death, such was the power of pro-Lully faction at court that, in spite of the approval by its dedicatee Louis XIV, they ensured the work failed. Only with the baroque revival in the late 20th century did Charpentier's music come to be regarded not merely as equal to Lully's but in many ways superior. William Christie's group Les Arts Florissant has been the most dedicated champion of Charpentier. The production of "Médée" it brought to BAM in 1994 was the work's North American première. Opera Atelier now becomes the first North American company ever to mount the work.

"Médée" is the most ambitious project OA has ever undertaken. There are ten principals, a corps de ballet of 16, a 25-member chorus and an orchestra of 33, Canada's Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra augmented with members of France's Le Concert Spirituel.

The libretto to "Médée" is by Thomas Corneille (1625-1709), brother of the famous Pierre, and a well-known playwright himself. He situates the legend of Medea within a court riven with intrigue and deception. He sees Medea as a semi-divine being whose longing only to be human is thwarted by the corrupt world around her.

The action begins earlier on in the story than the familiar tragedy of Euripides. Créon wants Médée to leave Corinth but Médée has yet to discover that Jason has fallen in love with Créon's daughter Créuse. This means that the singer playing Médée has to cover an even wider emotional arc when personal deceit is later added to Créon political deceit. In the opera, Médée continues to hold out hope that Jason will return to her until the climax in Act 3 when he confesses his love for Créuse. Only then does she relinquish the human side of her nature and embrace the supernatural to wreak her awful revenge. In my view this is the finest adaptation of the Medea legend in opera, including Cherubini's famous work of 1797.

American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Novacek, who made her Toronto début with OA last year as a fiery Emilia in "Poppea," is a vocally remarkable Médée. The taxing role clearly holds no terrors for her. Compared to the rest of the cast, her face shows a limited range of expression, but her beautiful rounded tone and superb line and complete mastery of the French declamatory style are more than enough to characterize this complex being. If she is not fully convincing when Médée expresses a sincere emotion, she is superb in Médée's increasingly powerful scenes of rage.

The French haute contre Cyril Auvity, much in demand in Europe, makes his North American début as Jason. He is not as vocally commanding as Novacek, but that is fitting for so wavering a character. His identifiably French timbre is ideally suited to Charpentier's sonorities. He is also a remarkably fine, very physical actor who even succeeds in making us feel some empathy for his character's weakness.

Alain Coulombe uses his smooth, rich bass to great effect as the duplicitous Créon. He makes Créon's descent into madness in Act 4 thoroughly gripping. Bass baritone Olivier Laquerre is splendid as Oronte, King of Argos, who wins on the battlefield of war only to lose the battle for Créuse's love. He sings with undeniable confidence and swagger as the victories Oronte and fully communicates the humiliation caused by Créuse's deception. As Créuse, soprano Nathalie Paulin sings as radiantly as ever, giving an appropriately brittle, flighty quality to devious princess. She makes Créuse's death in Act 5 via a poisoned gown both moving and terrifying.

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó brings her lustrous voice to an affecting portrayal of Nérine, Médée's confidante. Curtis Sullivan is in fine form vocally and dramatically as Arcas and later as La Jalousie. Tenors Colin Ainsworth and Michiel Schrey make fine contributions as two Corinthiens and soprano Shannon Mercer is very effective as Cléone.

As usual Jeannette Zingg's choreography is highly varied within its baroque framework and always apposite to the subject matter and music. Unlike in Lully, the divertissements in "Médée" are integrated into the action of each act. Zingg makes the dancing seems like the natural culmination of the energy that has built throughout the act. She and the corps de ballet dazzle us right from the start in the fantastic celebrations of Oronte's victory. Dancer Patrick Lavoie's solos first with foils then with a pike are amazing.

Marshall Pynkoski has directed the action with a keen insight into the nature of the characters and their tragedy. The stylized gestures and blocking are still there but seem to merge with a more naturalistic style of acting. The result is a more emotional involving drama that grips you from beginning to end. Pynkoski has rightly omitted the Prologue to the opera that, as was the custom, praised Louis XIV but has nothing to do with the story.

Hervé Niquet conducts the augmented orchestra with panache. I put it down to opening night enthusiasm that the tempi for the first three acts were generally too brisk and the orchestra too loud in Act 1. Balance improved from Act 2 onward and a less breathless pace gave the reflective utterances of Acts 4 and 5 devastating impact. Throughout the orchestra creates a lush, sensuous sound, clearly reveling in Charpentier's rich harmonies.

Gerard Gauci's painted drops are as effective and Dora Rust-D'Eye's costumes as sumptuous as usual, but here Rust-D'Eye's palette is much more sombre a befits a tragedy. Médée's two significant gowns stand in brilliant contrast to the sepias and verdigris of the rest. Kevin Fraser's evocative lighting frequently makes the stage picture look like a 17th-century painting come to life.

This production is a major achievement. Opera Atelier could perform no finer service than revealing a once-obscure work for the vibrant masterpiece it is. The perfect marriage of beauty and emotion in this "Médée" leave one with a sense of wonder.

 

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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The Turn of the Screw
by Benjamin Britten, directed by Christopher Newton
Canadian Opera Company, du Maurier Theatre, Toronto December 3-8, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Haunting Production"

"The ceremony of innocence is drowned." Myfanwy Piper added this line from W.B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," to her libretto for Benjamin Britten's opera "The Turn of the Screw" based on Henry James's supernatural novella of the same name. In many ways, it is a key to Britten's interpretation of the opera and to director Christopher Newton's highly detailed staging of it for the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. Audiences must have perceived that this was the perfect match of director and opera since the entire run sold out months before it opened.

Cameron Porteous' set consists entirely of an ornate, three-dimensional Victorian mansion with a tower representing the manor of Bly, about the size of a large, very expensive dollhouse. To signal the various locations outside Bly, the house would glide and rotate across the bare du Maurier Theatre stage. Windows for the appropriate indoor scenes would light up. This self-animated house is an immensely clever way of evoking not merely the eeriness of the haunted house where the action take place but, as dollhouse, of the haunted childhood of the children Miles and Flora, somehow in the thrall of the ghosts of two servants, peter Quint and Mrs. Jessel. Like the seemingly inhabited on-stage model of a house in Edward Albee's "Tiny Alice," the set also suggests that the actors/singers are merely puppets in the hands of a larger unknown force.

The furniture on stage, all black in its stark geometrical forms, contrasts with the neo-Gothic house and thus seems to set the actions apart from it and so generalize it. Jane Johanson's austere choreography links the dance of miles and Flora to that of Quint and Jessel. Newton's symbolic blocking shows significant actions echoing each other. These together give the impression of a story being retold or a ceremony re-enacted about the death of innocence. Indeed, as the "Malo" song suggests with its Latin pun on "I want," "apple" and "evil," the opera sees the action as a strange post-figuration of the loss of Eden.

Alan Brodie's lighting immeasurably enhances the atmosphere of menace. Projections of the shadows of gnarled tree branches covering the entire stage, suggestions of passing clouds, pin spots lighting only faces in the dark all reinforced the sense of pervading doom.

Modern interpretations of James's tale suggest that the ghosts are the products of the Governess's repressed sexuality. Piper's libretto that gives the ghosts a scene to themselves does not follow this view. Accordingly, Newton does not seek to impose it on the production. Instead, he makes the focus of the play the struggle of an ordinary person, the Governess, with the force of evil, a theme prevalent in throughout Britten's work.

In this, his first directing assignment after stepping down as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, Newton draws performances from the cast of six as subtle and nuanced as those one has come to expect in his best productions at the Festival.

In the major role of the Governess, soprano Frédérique Vézina is outstanding. Her empathic portrayal, her effortless control and the range and colour of her voice suggest she has a very bright future ahead. It was announced that mezzo-soprano Colleen Skull, playing the housekeeper Mrs. Grose, was suffering from a bug making the rounds. This likely accounts for her more generalized acting style and a certain dampened quality to a voice we know from previous performances is so vibrant and rich.

Tenor Peter Collins has gone from strength to strength masking his most powerful appearance yet as the ghost of Peter Quint. He makes the frequent runs Britten gives him both seductive and sinister as they are meant to be. His repeated sotto voce command "Take it" to Miles to steal a letter is truly chilling. Former Ensemble member soprano Elizabeth McDonald gives a vivid account of the tortured spirit of Quint's mistress, Mrs. Jessel.

Former Ensemble member mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig is so effectively sings and acts the older child Flora one might believe she was actually the age of her character. John Michael Schneider, who as a member of the COC Children's Chorus, actually is close to his character Miles's age, is a real find, fully able to communicate the complex emotions of this boy torn between worlds of reality and the supernatural.

Under conductor Richard Bradshaw the 13-member orchestra gave a brilliant account of the score. Melodic lines passed seamlessly from instrument to instrument and the whole ensemble played with the utmost precision and clarity. Bradshaw keeps Britten's ever-changing sonic webs of tension taut all the while bringing out the sensuous, neo-Impressionist beauty of the score. Those who acted quickly enough to buy a ticket will feel very lucky indeed.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Robin Hood
by Malcolm Heenman, directed by Jim Warren
Ross Petty Productions, Elgin Theatre, Toronto December 5, 2002-January 5, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Merry Men, Women and Children"

"Robin Hood: The Merry Family Musical" is the best holiday panto that Ross Petty has ever staged. Not only is the cast the best ever, composed of stars of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals and the National Ballet, but the writing itself is tauter and wittier and the musical selections more cleverly chosen. This time Petty and company have got the balance just right with a show that will appeal as much to adults as it will to children.

In the past, the humour in these entertainments has been strictly hit-and-miss and one tended to think that that must be part of the panto genre. Well, not this time. One zinger follows the next in such rapid succession that your face (and I mean you adults) may well ache from laughing. The same goes for the music. Petty's pantos have generally borrowed their musical numbers from widely disparate sources, but this time the choice of numbers themselves is clever. Taking a leaf from "Mamma Mia!" virtually every number provokes a wave of laughter when we hear a familiar tune pop up in new contexts. "I Talk to the Trees" takes on new meaning when Robin Hood sings it. So does "Stop in the Name of Love" when Maid Marion tries to save Robin from the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Kudos are due to Malcolm Heenman, who has produced the tightest script ever, to director Jim Warren, who has kept the pace rapid and made the complex action seem effortless, and to choreographer Tracey Flye, who, due to the presence of two ballet-trained stars, has developed more complex choreography than seen before and has better integrated the dancing into the story.

It is an inspired idea to add magic to the legendary story by making Sherwood Forest rather like that in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" where it becomes a battleground for warring supernatural powers. There a Good Fairy and the Forest Wizard strive for control of territory and for the direction of the plot by magically manipulating anyone who enters.

As the Sheriff of Nottingham, Ross Petty garners torrents of boos and hisses with his every entrance. The kids obviously love to censure an adult so vocally and Petty arrogant poses and putdowns only egg them on. A British-born friend told me the way he plays the villain is the authentic article.

A fine Prince Charming last year, Stratford actor Graham Abbey returns to play Robin Hood. His exuberance and sense of fun make him perfect for the role. Last year I was surprised by how well he sang. This year his voice is even stronger and richer. If he plans to add musical comedy to Shakespeare, he's ready.

In a break with tradition this year's "dame" is actually played by a woman, the Shaw Festival's Nora McLellan. As Maid Marion's companion, Nurse Tickle, she instantly connects with the audience getting them to repeat her loony "Hellooooo" greeting right from the start. She delivers her song "Call a Nurse" in true music hall style.

National Ballet star Rex Harrington plays the Forest Wizard very like the sorcerer Rothbart of "Swan Lake." His poise and demeanor immediately command the stage. His many fans will relish the change to see him speak and sing, the first very well, the second quite passably. Stratford Actor Sara Topham is an excellent match for him. With fine acting, lovely singing voice, sprightly presence and dancing ability, one wonders if there anything she can't do.

Amy Walsh is a charming Maid Marion and has a fine singing voice, while Steve Ross makes a humorous Friar Tuck. The one disappointment, surprisingly, is the Shaw Festival's Simon Bradbury. He makes the Sheriff's comic henchman Pinch too heavily Dickensian to suit the panto's frothy atmosphere.

Petty has previously used sets and costumes from unnamed British sources, but this year the sets are designed by Quebecois designer Jean-Claude Olivier. They capture the authentic panto look of large-scale storybook illustrations. The uncredited costumes are rather too generically medieval and need to be more exaggerated, especially in the case of Nurse Tickle. Pantos do not require subtle lighting, but Steve Ross (not the actor) has the most freedom to create mood in the dark scenes in the forest and in the Sheriff dungeon.

Ryan, my accompanying 11-year-old critic, said the show was "by far the best" of the three he's seen. What he liked most were not so much the frequent sword and staff fights but the supernatural battles between the Good Fairy and the Forest Wizard where those on stage are buffeted by contrary magical forces. Not only would he recommend it to his friends but he spontaneously asked his mother if he could see it again. Given the enthusiastic response of adults and children alike, I'd say if you've never seen one of Ross Petty's pantos, now is the time to do it.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Reaney Days
by James Reaney, directed by Jeff Culbert
Ausable Theatre, McManus Theatre, London November 21-30, 2002
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

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"Life from Both Sides"

This season Ausable Theatre of London takes a break from its survey of the works of Robertson Davies to look at another author, much read but less often produced, London's own James Reaney. Artistic Director Jeff Culbert in association with Reaney himself has developed a highly entertaining double-bill presented under the collective title "Reaney Days." The two one-acters, written more than 30 years apart, presenting both the more playful and the more poetic sides of Reaney make for a very satisfying evening.

First up is "The Story of the Gentle Rain Food Co-op" written in 1997 and broadcast as a radio play on CBC in 1998. The Ausable production is the première of its stage version. The play is inspired by the still thriving London Food Co-op, of which Reaney is a member. The play is a gentle satire on the worlds of academia and of co-operative, both with an impostor in their midst and both so idealistic they can't initially recognize the impostors for what they are. The central character Mr. Jones moves between both worlds. In the course of the action he discovers the assailant of a man known only as Mr. X and raises the alarm about the mysterious Mr. Mulliver, who, playing on the members' middle-class guilt, is voted the Co-op's first paid manager.

Reaney is adept at exposing the petty rivalries that fracture even the most idealistic communities--the vegans versus the vegetarians versus the organic meat-eaters, people more obsessed with the origins of vanilla beans or the number of grains in their bread than the nature of the man the vote in as manager.

The play succeeds on stage better than many other adaptations of radio dramas because of the non-naturalistic approach of director Jeff Culbert. The stage is bare except for a vestigial staircase to mark entrances and a few party decorations to create atmosphere. Otherwise, everything is conjured up through mime and the clever use of minimal props. Bicycles handlebars and steering wheels are synecdoches for whole vehicles, puppets represent two twin babies and a man with a box on his head is a radio. The inventiveness of the production and performances are a perfect match for the playfulness of the text.

The play is well cast. Tyler Parr is excellent as the central character, Mr. Jones, who both narrates and acts in the story. He's an ordinary guy who slowly comes realize that a conspiracy may underlie the strange doings at the university and the Co-op. Jake Levesque and Laura O'Connor both play numerous small parts and both have a great gift for comedy. Levesque got a well-deserved round for his role as a radio (and various stations on it) and is duly pompous as the evasive Professor Skimwater while O'Connor has a knack for vocal characterizations whether human or feline.

Serge Saika-Voivod maintains an air of ambiguity about Mr. Mulliver's motives. Carol Robinson-Todd has mastered pedantic chairmanlike tone for Dr. Clipperton. And Don Fleckser is suitable loony as Mr. X.

The second half of the bill is "One-Man Masque", a solo play Reaney himself first performed in 1960. It is made up of fragments of poetry, autobiography and fantasy illustrating the various stages of life and death. The first half is very like an extended Canadianized version of Jacques' famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech from "As You Like It", except that the materials are so disparate that we have the impression of looking at each "age" from a different perspective as well in a different genre. This being Reaney, it is no surprise that this view of "life" should also encompass the various "ages" of death finally to come full-circle in the segment called "The Lost Boy" as a soul seeks rebirth.

Jeff Culbert himself is the narrator/actor and director. He is very much like a gentle self-effacing version of the Stage-Manager in Wilder's "Our Town" guiding us through the realm we know and the one we may fear. He is able to capture the precise tone and mood instantly, whether it is a shy St. Hilda's girl, the angry symbol of death Granny Crack. He makes the last stage of death, the Dwarf, an image of chaos perhaps based on the character in Per Lagerkvist's novel, truly frightening.

Morag Lesarge's set makes our narrator's journey look, in a homey way, like a tour of the jumble in a symbolic attic presided over by a stick-figure man and woman as ur-parents. Nancy van Dongen's costumes bring out the humour in the first piece. In both plays Andrew Mawdsley's lighting and Dean Harrison's soundscape are always effective

The pairing of a multi-character versus a one-man play, of the real world mired in specifics versus the world itself seen from the point of view of eternity, not only shows Reaney's range as a playwright but also creates an evening as thoughtful as it is humorous. Thanks are due to Ausable Theatre for bringing Reaney's words so strikingly to life.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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Cinderella in Muddy York
by Ann & David Powell, directed by Sue Miner
Puppetmongers, Tarragon Theatre, Toronto December 20, 2002-January 5, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

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"A Treat for the Holidays"

Puppetmongers Ann and David Powell's "Cinderella in Muddy York" played to much acclaim at the Tarragon Extra Space at Christmas time last year. In case you missed it then, they have brought it back again this year. While the Grade 1-3 crowd is visibly and audible enthralled by the story, adults will enjoy the sheer inventiveness of the presentation.

As the title suggests the Powells have relocated the action of the classic fairy tale from 17th-century France to Toronto of 1834. Adults will savour much of the wit in the contrast between the two settings and the digs at present-day Toronto. The Prince becomes the Lieutenant-Governor's son, Princely Charming, honoured guests at the ball include Donald Valley and Gardiner Eastbound, Cinderella's family live in the "bush" east of Yonge Street, the ball is to celebrate the changing of the name Muddy York to the miscellany of vowels and consonants of Toronto, Cinderella praises the fresh taste of Lake Ontario water, and so forth. Meanwhile children will both learn something of Toronto's past as well as come to think of their own city as a magical place.

The Powells update the story in other ways. For adults there are clever anachronisms. The Stepmother exclaims, "When will someone invent the vacuum cleaner?" For children they have Cinderella lament what she might do with her life, become a scientist or explorer, if she were born in another time. Unlike many children's shows, "Cinderella" is never moralistic. The Puppetmongers portray the action so clearly the actions speak for themselves. When the Stepmother heaps chores on Cinderella on the night of the ball, one child behind me exclaimed out loud "That's bad!"

The show begins on what looks like a standard, smallish puppet theatre complete with curtain. One initially worries that the action will remain within these confines. However, looks are deceptive which is both one meaning of the story and could serve as a motto for the production. As the story progress the Powells use more and more of the stage space to either side of the "puppet theatre" and in front climaxing, as one might expect, with the large scene at the ball. To change to the court scenes the "puppet theatre" itself comes apart, its walls gliding about the stage, before reconfiguring themselves.

The Powells, as in the Japanese tradition, are in plain sight when they operate their puppets. They use a wide range of techniques from tabletop rod marionettes for the main characters, rod puppets for others like a pair the acrobatic mice, two-dimensional cutouts for minor figures, down to simple manipulated objects. One is already impressed with the reception line and dance of rows of cutout figures when that is topped with a waltz of cutout couples turning on their own on a large turning wheel. The pumpkin transformed into the Chinese-lantern coach is truly magical. But some of the simplest actions are the most delightful whether it is David Powell moving a cloth from underneath to represent the rippling lake or showing us a distraught wineglass stranded on a desert island made from lumped-together cookie dough.

Both Powells keep all their numerous roles distinct--David identified most as the congenial narrator of the show and Ann as a strong and dutiful rather than passive and helpless Cinderella. Both take on the roles of Stepmother and haughty, giggling sisters Zelda and Imelda as needed. The design is bright and attractive and the costume changes ingenious. Director Sue Miner has admirably paced the show and Rick Banville has achieved a wide range of subtle lighting effects.

The Powells are clearly expert in how to activate a child's imagination. The children present were wide-eyed and attentive. The unassuming presentation and cheerful creativity of the Powells' production brings out, even in adults, the refreshing feeling of childlike joy.

© 2002 Christopher Hoile

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