Sunday Father - | - Little Mercy's First Murder - | - Lakmé - | - The Glass Menagerie -|- Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries -|- 100 -|- Magnetism of the Heart - | - Les Femmes savantes - | - Russell Hill - | - The Mikado - | -

Your comments and reviews are always welcome.

Russell Hill

by Chris Earle, directed by Chris Abraham Tarragon Theatre, Toronto April 22-May 25, 2003 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Sliding Doors"

Chris Earle's latest play "Russell Hill" is a puzzle. The physical production is excellent, the direction is taut and smart and the acting is superb. But much of the audience remained in their seats after the final curtain call asking themselves "So, what was that all about?"

The play consists of eights scenes and a musical interlude involving various combinations of the six cast members. Except for the first and last scenes, no characters appear twice. A father has trouble getting through to his perhaps autistic son on a subway platform; a man thanks a beggar he thinks has given him good luck; an older man visits a massage therapist; a man and woman who haven't seen each other for five years meet and recall the moment when he dumped her; a young wife and mother writes a letter to her foster child in Africa; a young man tells a widower about a film being shot in his neighbourhood; two women are on holiday in Mexico when the pool is being closed prematurely; the people we first saw on the subway platform witness a subway crash. The common theme seems to be people hoping but failing to connect with each other. Many of the scenes show characters who have been or want to be "saved" in some way, from pain, from failure, from neglect. Earle has expertly written these scenes capturing often to hilarious effect the subtle ways in which people misunderstand each other's intentions. These scenes on their own are the play's great strength.

Earle, however, in an effort to make these disparate scenes appear more cohesive has written a part for himself as a TTC conductor who is both the evening's emcee and a version of the Stage Manager of Wilder's "Our Town" who relates anecdotes about riding subways and living in Toronto and comments on scenes to point out their artifice. Also interspersed with the eights scenes are excerpts from the inquest into the 1995 subway crash that occurred under Russell Hill in Toronto between the Dupont and St. Clair West stations. Here Earle becomes the chief prosecutor hammering away at the driver of the train that caused the crash. The other five cast members take turns playing the driver.

This is the least successful element of the show. The episodes are too brief to suggest that the show is "about" the 1995 accident. The accident may be the worst in TTC history, but with only three deaths it rather pales in comparison with the natural and man-made disasters that have so filled the news recently. Earle actually mentions this point and lists some of these disasters so that one wonders why this particular accident was chosen at all except that it is local. His mocking stance toward the subject matter and toward theatrical convention may be an attempt at some sort of deconstructive humour, but just when we fall in synch with the comic or tragic mood of a scene Earle the Emcee comes along and knocks us off the rails. He may say that "tragedy is the new comedy" and discourse on the "sick joke" implying that this is what the play is, but the eight scenes themselves don't point in this direction and trivializing them and an accident of local but not worldwide significance suggest Earle is unsure what effect he is trying to achieve. The Emcee portentously tells us that the motto of the evening is "Who do you think you are?" but that question best applies to the Emcee himself not to the eight scenes or the inquest excerpts.

The evening is enjoyable because of the uniformly fine performances of the whole cast--Earle himself, the precocious Sam Earle (his son), Shari Hollett, Frank Moore, Mary Francis Moore and Robert Smith. Especially noteworthy is Frank Moore's rendition of his own song "Toronto" (our own "New York, New York") as a lounge singer, Shari Hollett's mounting but suppressed anger as she recalls being dumped and Mary Francis Moore's portrait of a lonely wife and mother whose foster child she's never met is more real to her than anything in her life. Chris Abraham's directs with such wit and sensitivity that again the Emcee's denigrating commentary seems even more out of place.

What will arrest everyone's attention on entering the theatre is John Thompson's amazingly realistic set. One would think a real subway station had been dismantled and reassembled inside the auditorium. It is so detailed and so carefully broken down with stains and discolorations in all the familiar places you initially can't believe your eyes. The effect is enhanced by Andrea Lundy and Michelle Ramsay's accurate recreation of the exact lighting levels in a real TTC station. Ingeniously Abraham directs the action so that more often than not the station represents other settings--a park or even a Mexican resort. Richard Feren contributes the often menacing soundtrack.

As a play, "Russell Hill" would be much stronger if Earle had not latched onto the 1995 accident to tie the show together. Instead, he could have used the subway as a more general metaphor for people travelling in darkness, lonely individuals though surrounded by others. He could have allowed the comedy and tragedy of his well-written scenes to speak for themselves instead of filtering them through a know-it-all cynicism. As it is, the play is a rather odd ride since the conductor would rather slam the doors on your imagination instead of letting it out.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Les Femmes savantes


by Molière, directed by Diana Leblanc
Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto April 25-May 10, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

 

"A Nearly Shipshape Molière"

"Les Femmes savantes" (1672) is not one of Molière's plays encountered very often in English Canada. The Stratford Festival has never done it even though Richard Wilbur has given it a fine translation as "The Learned Ladies.” The thinking must be that while everyone is aware of misers, hypocrites and hypochondriacs, it's hard to find an equivalent to the "précieuses" of Molière is satirizing. What is more difficult is that Molière ridicules these women for seeking more knowledge that a woman should have.

Director Diana Leblanc has found a neat solution to this problem. She has reset the action in 1912. The learned ladies of the play become ridiculous not so much for seeking knowledge but by adoring a male faux-philosopher Trissotin when they should be campaigning for women's rights and for becoming Platonists when they should be looking for concrete gains. The story could even be set today with Trissotin as a new-age guru. The plot, in fact is very much like a gender-reserved "Tartuffe" where the wife not the husband has fallen for the smooth-talking con man who is selling poetry and philosophy instead of religion.

The plot follows a familiar pattern. The practical Henriette has fallen in love with Clitandre, a young man of good family. Henriette's hen-pecked father Chrysale approves of her choice, but her mother Philaminte is set on having her marry Trissotin. One complication is that Clitandre was formerly in love with Henriette's sister, Armande, who then did not return his affection but now feels she has a claim on him. And then there is Chrysale's sister, Bélise, who is convinced Clitandre is in love with her.

While changing the period of the action has advantages, relocation the setting from a house in Paris to the deck of an ocean liner has not been thought through. The new setting does add a sense of adventure (similarly Tom Stoppard moved Molnár's "The Play's the Thing" from a castle to a ship in his adaptation "Rough Crossing"), but, unlike the time change, it is difficult to see how it benefits the play. How is it all these friends and relations happen to be on board the same ship? Where are they coming from or going to? How can characters receive letters on board instead of telegrams? Besides that, designer Glen Charles Landry has painted "L'Île de France" on a prominent life preserver although that ship was not built until 1927. He probably means the "France" built in 1912. While the first two acts play very well in an outdoor setting like a ship's deck, but the last three must be indoors. Although we are probably meant to see that last three acts as taking place in Philaminte's cabin or the ship's library, in this production it looks rather as if Philaminte has asked for her indoor furniture to be placed outdoors since the life preserver hasn't been removed. Sarah Balleux has designed colourfully whimsical versions of ladies fashions of the Teens.

Most of the cast give fine performances. Among the women France Gauthier is deliciously funny as Bélise, a woman who is convinced that all men are in love with her. Gauthier knows that the best way to make such a character work is to play her as completely serious the better to bring out her quiet lunacy. Among the men TfT Artistic Director Guy Mignault with his perfect comic timing creates a hilarious portrait of Chrysale, the easily cowed milquetoast. Robert Godin is a genial Ariste and François Grisé is an attractive Clitandre, able to make the ardent lover's sincerity natural and believable.

Jessica Heafey shows that Armande's pain at Clitandre's rejection is never far from the surface and is clearly the reason she has joined the "learned ladies.” Heafey's fine performance wins Armande our sympathy and gives the comedy its depth. Martin Randez provides quite a different take on Trissotin. Rather than the usual effete pseudo-intellectual, this Trissotin is a buffed hunk who delivers his verses as action poetry. As with the 1912 setting, this casting helps shift Molière's satire away from women's learning to lust disguised as learning. Randez fills the bill although he looks rather more as if he dropped in from the 1970s. Mélanie Beauchamp wins waves of laughter for playing Martine as a gruff French-Canadian servant who frequently misunderstands what others say.

Colombe Demers is an oddly sullen Henriette without the pluckiness or poise one expects in a Molière heroine. She seems to be in such a bad mood throughout the show even when Henriette is with her beloved Clitandre, one thinks he perhaps should have stayed with Armande. Louise Nolan catches the general looniness of Philaminte, but compared with Gauthier and Heafey, she is rather too overtly histrionic. Sébastien Bertrand as the scholar Vadius who knows Greek seems to shout all his lines.

It would not take much to make this production more successful especially since Leblanc has solved the major problems in making the play work today. Her direction of the scenes between Bélise and Clitandre, Ariste and Chrysale and of the poetry reading of Act 3 is rich in comic detail. Anyone who wants to fill out their knowledge of Molière should not hesitate.

©Christopher Hoile

Sunday Father

by Adam Pettle, directed by David Storch
Canadian Stage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
January 9-February 15, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome.

"Unfilled Shoes"

After the successes of his "Therac 25" and "Zadie's Shoes", the opening of Adam Pettle's "Sunday Father" became one of the most anticipated in the 2002-03 season. It is a solid play with a trio of fine performances, but the comparison every playwright dreads to hear cannot be avoided. "Sunday Father" may be good, but it's not as good as "Zadie's Shoes".

The play concerns two brothers, Alan and the younger Jed, who have been best friends and rivals since childhood. Their lives have both beenscarred by their father's decision to leave their mother for another woman. In the terms of the visiting rights in the custody agreement, he became the "Sunday Father" of the title. The father's unaccountable coddling of Jed and neglect of Alan, who works in his father law firm,
has generated a tension that still shows in the horseplay and aggressive joking of the boys now in their thirties. A double crisis arises when Jed discovers that his wife Amy has been having an affair with a former boyfriend and when Alan finds that his father is supplying no support in an upcoming deal that will make or break his career.

Pettle's focus is clearly on the two brothers, both as we see them now in flashbacks to them when they were young, taping their own private radio show, "The Sunday Night Files", that increasingly serves as a reminder of not just of friendship but rivalry. If fact, Pettle focusses so much on their joking that he neglects elements of the plot. How could a health care worker like Amy, who is supposed to be both intelligent and overworked, be so stupid or have the time to carry on an affair, much less have trysts in her own house? Pettle wants to show that Jed, in separating from Amy and fighting for custody of their child, is in danger of repeating the same mistake his father made. But that should not mean that Pettle neglect to give us any insight into Amy's character.

"Therac 25" or "Zadie's Shoes" left us with the bittersweet taste of flawed characters who struggle to create some order out of their messy lives. Unlike the hard-won resolution of those plays, "Sunday Father" ends far too neatly and with far less of a struggle. Two of the characters even become millionaires by the end, which immediately reduced my interest in them to zero.

Pettle structures the play so that each character has tells a bedtime story to Jed and Amy's son. Jed tells him of the birth of Athena from her father's head, Alan tells the story of Cain and Abel and Amy tells the story of Pandora's box. Unlike in Pettle's earlier plays, the references here are far too obvious and without ironic overtones. In case we don't get it, Pettle will have Jed say, "I am Athena". No points for identifying Cain and Abel or Pandora.

Pettle's writing is sharp and funny but it doesn't uncover as much hurt as in his previous plays. The playwright's brother Jordan is very good as Jed and has slowed down the pressure of speech that has marred some of his performances in the past and shifts instantly between Jed's past and present selves. It's good to see Liisa Repo-Martell in a contemporary role for a change. She is excellent as usual in portraying an intense character of conflicting, often unspoken
emotions. She makes the most of her underwritten part and turns Amy's story of Pandora into one of the most riveting scenes in the play. Ultimately, the most interesting character is Alan and Ari Cohen gives an insightful, finely detailed performance. He shows us the pain gradually increasing beneath carefree, jock persona Alan tries to project until Alan breaks.

Director David Storch shows the tension and insight he can bring out in a good script, unlike the lacklustre "Beard of Avon" he directed just two months ago for CanStage. He does have difficulty with the set Bretta Gerecke has designed. All white, lucite and chrome with thin metal supports at the very front holding up the white canopy of the ceiling, the set might be fine as a modern museum installation but seems unconnected to anything in the play and provides too narrow a
playing area. Storch is forced by the set to stage many of the most important scenes in the play in the house right third of the set, leaving the house left side underused. My advice is to avoid seats in the house left, if possible so you won't have to spend the evening craning to the right to see.

Less emotionally and structurally complex than "Zadie's Shoes" and requiring only three actors, I can easily imagine "Sunday Father" being taken up by other theatre companies looking for more commercial Canadian fare. I do hope that after this Adam Pettle returns to the more difficult subject matter and structures that made his previous plays richer theatrical experiences.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Little Mercy's First Murder

by Morwyn Brebner, Jay Turvey & Paul Sportelli, directed by Eda Holmes
Tarragon Theatre Extra Space, Toronto January 21-February 23, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Stab at Musical-Noir"

"Little Mercy's First Murder", a joint effort of the Shaw Festival and the Tarragon, receives an excellent, inventive production in the Tarragon's smaller Extra Space. It's too bad that the chamber musical itself is not up to the standards of the production. The musical starts out with an exciting premise, a sort of self-conscious, singing film noir "Alice in Wonderland", but it goes down too many blind alleys before its 95 minutes are over.

The flaws in the show lie entirely with book and lyrics by Morwyn Brebner. In 1942 Little Mercy, a poor woman to works in a library in New York, has stabbed her mother. A policeman is on the scene and so is Weegee, a famous crime photographer. (A fact not noted in the programme is that Weegee (1899- 1968), né Arthur Fellig, was an actual person.) With his help Mercy escapes from the murder scene and is given a glimpse of the town she has never seen as Weegee snaps pictures on his nightly tour of crime scenes and society gatherings. All the while the policeman is in pursuit.

A parade of the highs and lows of city life with a Communist commentator as guide seems a good premise, but Brebner seems to lose sight of her goal as we move through the episodic plot. Visiting the scene of a fire makes sense, but Weegee's going to the opera just to recreate one of famous photographs does not. Once they arrive at Sammy's bar at the end, Brebner gets so caught up in the lives of a Norma, transvestite chanteuse, and the barman who is hopelessly in love with her we lose what little point there was to the main plot. The long scene in the bar seems like a diversion to fill out a shortish show that has run out of ideas.

The music by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey, taking its cue from jazz and Kurt Weill, is attractive and appropriate. But the songs' effectiveness is constantly undermined by Brebner's awkward, unmemorable lyrics. The policeman's "A Dog Likes a Bone" about beating women comes out of nowhere and "Rhumba!" that might have been used to understand Norma's character of create atmosphere is merely a catalogue of sci-fi monsters more appropriate to the 1950s than 1940s. It may be no accident that the two best numbers are the Overture sung to nonsense syllables and the misogynist "If Only All Women (Were Whore)" sung in French.

The cast is excellent. Melody Johnson plays the 31-year-old Little Mercy as a woman who has had so little contact with the outside world she has remained a little girl curious to see if what she has read in books matches reality. Peter Millard manages to find warmth even within the hardened, cynical Weegee. Neil Barclay gets the policeman's mix of comedy and menace just right. Jeff Lillico plays the transvestite with panache making her potentially the most interesting character in the show. Tony Nappo funny/sad performance makes the enamored barman's plight believable. The chameleonic Jane Johanson disappears into a number of roles most notably the mother in the burning house and the society dame at the opera.

Director Eda Holmes keeps the show's pacing taut and gets as close as she can with a deficient script to capturing the mood of an existential "comédie grançant". John Thompson's set ingeniously provides multiple acting areas within a small space. Its surround of drying photographs is a constant reminder of Weegee's profession. Thompson's period costumes are appropriately drab, the better set off the society dame's conspicuous wealth and Norma's would-be elegance. The props supervised by Tracy Taylor especially for the fireman's hose spouting blue streamers as water is always inventive. Andrea Lundy's makes the most of the theme of photography, often using Weegee's flash to open a scene after a blackout. Hers is one of the most creative uses of lighting I've seen in the Tarragon Extra Space.

While the performances and physical production make the show enjoyable, Brebner's book and lyrics need a major overhaul before this "musical-noir" as she terms it can be called successful.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Douglas Beattie
Touchmark Theatre, River Run Centre, Guelph February 15-22, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Through a Glass Darkly"

With Touchmark's powerful production of "The Glass Menagerie", director Douglas Beattie leaves behind the comedy of Dan Needles' Canadian Wingfields for the tragedy of Tennessee Williams' American Wingfields. Whereas Walt Wingfield chose to leave the city for the a life in the country, Williams' Amanda Wingfield's marriage to a salesman forced her to leave her home in the South and all its ways only to be stranded in an unfriendly city when her husband abandons her. Both characters feel out of place in their new environments, but throughout Needles' Wingfield series we do not doubt that Walt has found a richer life than he had in the city. Williams' Amanda Wingfield, a Southern belle who used thrive on gentility and attention, finds neither in the city around her or within her own home.

"The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.'' That is how Amanda's son, Tom, introduces the first in the long line of "memory plays" written in the 20th century. Tom is our narrator and also takes part in the action. For too many productions Tom's words become an excuse for an exercise in nostalgia. What Beattie makes clear from the outset is that Tom's memories of the mother and sister he has abandoned just like his father are tinged with pain and haunt him without respite. Tom may physically have escaped his family but they and his decision to leave them still dominate his thoughts.

Beattie physically signals this darker, less comfortable vision of the play through his design. The otherwise realistic set depicting the Wingfields' miserable apartment is completely shaded in charcoal with only some furniture and clothing providing colour. Even before Tom's failure to pay the electric bill plunges apartment in darkness, Renée Brode masterful lighting has emphasized coldness and shadows.

As a director Beattie eschews sentimentality. He also views the work as an ensemble piece not the star vehicle as it is usually presented. The result is that for the first time in my experience the Wingfields seem like a real family with deep-seated complaints and fears, not like a trio of actors thrust on stage together. This deepens the effect of the whole play since showing the strength of their unseverable bonds makes the tragedy of one the tragedy of all.

As Tom the narrator, Eric Woolfe gives the sense that he replays this key incident in his past not out of choice but from inner necessity. The magic tricks Beattie gives him carry on the theme not just of theatre as illusion but of life as illusion. Woolfe makes him seem resigned to his burden of guilt. Within the action Woolfe carefully depicts the increasing severity of Tom's inner struggle between duty to his family and desire for his own freedom.

Patricia Yeatman is superb as Amanda. From her first entrance appearing worn with care and defeated by life, we know this will be a more realistic interpretation. In her repetition of fond stories of her exciting girlhood, Yeatman gives the sense that Amanda knows that these memories are just a temporary escape from the present. Unlike other Amandas who are made to seem naturally optimistic, Yeatman shows that Amanda now has to force herself to be optimistic about the future because the only alternative is despair. When Amanda adopts her Southern belle pose for her dinner party, Yeatman makes us cringe with pity.

The primary worry for both Tom and Amanda is Tom's sister Laura. She is both physically and mentally unable to function in the outside world. Her limp and her morbid shyness have made her seek refuge in the world of her collection of glass animals. Both Williams and Beattie make clear that hers is just the most extreme form of escape into illusion that characterizes all members of the family.

Like the others Melissa Good avoids the sentimentality often emphasized the role. The distracted look, childlike voice, sudden changes of expression and her disproportionate fears show us from the beginning that this is not simply a delicate flower but a woman with severe problems. The kindness that the "gentleman caller" Jim shows her might seem to bring her to a state of normality, but when Laura's confidence allows her to show Jim her menagerie, Good chillingly shows us that Laura's obsession, far from quaint, verges on madness.

Brad Loucks plays the one outsider, Jim, Tom's only friend at work, whom he brings home at Amanda's request as a "gentleman caller" for Laura. Loucks, too, shows his character in a different light. Usually the long scene between Jim and Laura is played as if it is Laura's menagerie that scares him off. Here, Beattie picks up the fact that Jim's fiancée is a "home girl" like Laura and makes Jim's attraction to Laura real. Holding out the possibility that in other circumstances Amanda's scheme might have worked both makes Amanda look less foolish and the tragedy more biting. Normally, Jim is played as if he is far from comfortable in the Wingfields' home. Lending Jim a certain underlying weakness, Loucks makes Jim's memories of his own, now vanished, once illustrious past and his hope for a future in broadcasting seem like another variation of the Wingfields' escapism.

By relating Jim to the Wingfields Beattie reveals the Wingfields' tragedy as part of the general condition of humanity. Four excellent performances and Beattie's detailed, insightful direction make Williams' classic a compelling experience. How lucky Guelph is to have Touchmark call it home.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Lakmé

by Léo Delibes, directed by Andreas
Geier Opera Ontario, Hamilton Place, Hamilton January 25, 30 & February 1
Centre in the Square, Kitchener February 7, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Director Dulls Exotic Feast"

Opera Ontario's "Lakmé" is the first fully staged production of Léo Delibes's 1883 opera in English Canada. Musically the production is outstanding. The cast sings beautifully and the orchestral playing is superb. All the more unfortunate then that ill-conceived stage direction should deliberately mute the work's dramatic impact, when a more sensitive director could have made the evening a major success.

Like Bizet's "Les Pêcheurs des perles" presented by Opera Ontario last year, "Lakmé" is one of many operas better known from recordings than from live performances. Its only previously staged performances in 1966 and 1983 were undertaken by small companies in Quebec. Thanks to a series of British Airways commercials the "Flower Duet" of Act 1 has gained new popularity while Lakmé's "Bell Song" of Act 2 has always been a coloratura showpiece. But the work is full of felicities like Gérard's aria "Mais d'où vient maintenant cette craint insensée?" and the love duet between Lakmé and Gérald "Oublier que je t'ai vue".

Jane Archibald is superb in the title role. She has a crystalline tone that yet is full of feeling. Her pinpoint precision and fearless excursions into the stratospheric heights of the "Bell Song" brought down the house and was the highlight of the evening. As Gérald, the British officer who falls in love with Lakmé, Stuart Howe sings in a highly cultured tenor ideal for French repertoire. His phrasing is impeccable and his pianissimos are heavenly. As Nilikantha, Lakmé's father who opposes her interest in Gérald, American Alfred Walker displays a rich, velvety bass-baritone. He brings such feeling to Nilikantha's "stances" "Lakmé, ton doux regard se voile" that he wins sympathy for this stern figure since we see that his rigor is due to his love for his daughter.

The secondary roles are all well taken. As Lakmé's servant Mallika, Anita Kraus sings beautifully. She helps makes the "Flower Duet" exquisite. As I feared, much of the audience assumed that when Lakmé and Mallika exit that the duet is over. It isn't until we hear them sing the refrain again offstage. This moment was ruined not only by audience applause even though the conductor was still at work but even more by the house management of Hamilton Place that allowed ushers to seat latecomers during the offstage singing. In future please give the ushers a bit more briefing about what constitutes a "suitable break" in the action.

All the other singers are in fine voice--baritone Alexander Dobson as Gérald's friend Frédéric, soprano Tamara Hummel and Gérald's fiancée Ellen, mezzo-soprano Mary Ann Kowan as her friend Rose, mezzo-soprano Dina Martire as Ellen's governess and baritone Dion Mazerolle as Hadji, Nilikantha's servant. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony gives a ravishing account of the score under young Quebecois conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin even producing the tang and bite in sonority of an authentic French orchestra.

With the music so sympathetically sung and played, it is a pity the stage direction should be so perverse. German director Andreas Geier has decided, as directors mistakenly do, that he can improve upon the original plot. Thus he creates a frame for the story in the overture showing us the old, married Gérald in a wheelchair. His friend Frédéric brings him the sketchbook he had in India, whereupon Gérald muses upon the past, the opera itself becoming a kind of extended flashback. Near the end the old Gérald physically enters into the picture singing his final duet with Lakmé in his old man costume. For unknown reasons the shock of recalling her death brings on his own.

I don't mind concept productions so long as the direction serves to heighten the dramatic impact of the work. Here Geier's direction does just the opposite. By showing us an old Gérald from the beginning, he gives away the ending that depends entirely on whether Gérald will stay with Lakmé or leave with his regiment. The dramatic tension especially in Act 3 is thus ruined. Geier makes things worse by keeping the lovers physically separate for most of the act thus spoiling the key moment when Lakmé looks into Gérald's eyes and perceives that his love is not as all-consuming as he claims. Besides this, Geier's version literally foregrounds Gérald's story at the expense of Lakmé's. Imagine a "Madama Butterfly" that focusses more on Pinkerton and not on the title character! If "Lakmé" were a regular repertory work, one might wish occasionally to look at the story from another perspective. But for a director to misrepresent the story for an audience new to the work shows complete insensitivity to the occasion.

Other than his needless framing device, Geier shows little insight in finding the drama in any of the scenes. He moves singers about in geometric formations, he has arias sung almost exclusively from centre stage and he seems intent on keeping the stage picture as static as possible. In Act 2 in particular he mismanages the crowd scenes by having singers enter and exit according to whether they are singing instead of whether the action demands their presence to make sense.

Cameron Porteous is credited with the design of the minimalist set leaving Pasquale Grossi's lovely costumes from the Lyric Opera of Chicago to conjure up the period of India during the Raj. Stephen Ross's lighting is completely unnaturalistic--midday scenes are dark, there are abrupt cues in the midst of songs and the backdrop changes from orange to blue to green for no apparent reason. This is so unlike Ross's work I can only assume he doing what the director has asked.

What a pity then that the staging should be a major impediment to enjoying the musical riches of an opera so seldom staged. I do hope Opera Ontario will bring us "Lakmé" again with less intervenionist direction. I also hope that the company continues to bring us operas that lie on the rim of the standard repertory. The Canadian Opera Company has neglected French opera, Puccini's Italian contemporaries and non-Wagnerian German Romantic opera for many years. This "Lakmé" proves what musical feasts such works can be. Sensitive direction can make them exciting dramas as well.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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100

by Neil Monaghan, Diene Petterle & Christopher Heimann, directed by Christopher Heimann
theimaginarybody, du Maurier Theatre Centre, Toronto April 15-20, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Less Than Perfect"

Following its win of a Fringe First Award for "innovation in theatre and outstanding new production in The Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2002" and sold-out runs in Edinburgh and London, theimaginarybody's production of "100" is making its North American debut at this year's du Maurier World Stage Festival. It's hard to see what the fuss is all about. While there is some fine acting and excellent mime, the premise is flimsy and the dialogue lame.

The premise is exactly the same as in the 1998 Japanese movie "After Life" written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda though executed with considerably less finesse. Five people find themselves in an anteroom to the afterlife. They are given a limited time (a count to 100) to choose one memory the relive through all eternity. (At least the people in "After Life" had a week.) The catch is that all other memories will be wiped out. One of them called the Guide (Lawrence Werber) keeps urging the others up to choose a memory and get on with it, but the other four are predictably befuddled and ask all the predictable questions: "Where are we?", "Who are you?" etc. The situation and dialogue never move beyond those of a lesser episode of "The Twilight Zone.”

Sophie (Tanya Munday) is a woman who gives up a personal life for success in business, finally winning a manager of the year award. But success has not brought her happiness. Alex (Matt Boatwright-Simon) is a bicycle courier who dreams of becoming a professional racer. But he never fulfills he dream. Nia (Claire Porter), his girlfriend is happy just to have found a good man to live with. In contrast with these Londoners is Ketu (Matthieu Leloup), who is the first in his village to realize that the earth is round, but like an aboriginal Galileo is forced to recant his theory. We are given no notion of even what continent Ketu is from let alone what his "tribe" is supposed to be. Leloup, being a Caucasian male with a French accent, led me to think at first that Ketu was supposed to be from some benighted village in France.

The reason why one memory must be chosen is never made clear. The Guide says that all memories fade, so, one wonders, why keeping all of them until they dissipate is really so bad. What is all too evident is that the play's premise must merely have been an excuse for a series of improvisations that were eventually written down as a play. Munday, Porter and Leloup are best at making the banal dialogue sound meaningful. The less modulated performances of Boatwright-Simon and Werber have the opposite effect.

The one great strength of the show is its use of mime and light. Using only a few bamboo sticks on the nearly bare set and making their own sound effects, the actors instantly conjure up a tropical rainforest, a subway, a swing set in a park, an office, a party in a bar. Lighting designer Adam Crosthwaite, using relatively few instruments, achieves marvellous effects, particularly when the shadow of a stick changes with the position of the sun leading Ketu to believe the sun orbits around the earth. Director Christopher Heimann's imagination in staging these episodes and the cast's expertise in carrying them out makes one wish the story itself were more engaging.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Magnetism of the Heart

by Aleksander Fredro, directed by Sylwia Torsh Teatr Rosmaitosci, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto April 10-13, 2003 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Major Attraction"

One of the great virtues of the du Maurier World Stage Festival is not merely the chance to encounter new techniques of acting and staging but also to see repertoire seldom if ever performed in North America. The production of Aleksander Fredro's "Magnetism of the Heart" by Warsaw's Teatr Rosmaitosci combines both. It is a delightful comedy given a deliriously imaginative production.

Aleksander Fredro (1793-1876), author of more than 40 comedies, is one of Poland's classic dramatic authors. If one of his masterpieces, "Maiden Vows or Magnetism of the Heart" (1833) is any indication, North American theater companies could usefully consider adding his charming works to their mix. His sobriquet as "the Polish Molière" doesn't accurately reflect the nature of his plays that seem halfway between Marivaux and Chekhov. He is interested in psychological comedy and intricate plotting like the former but places them in country settings rife with ennui like the latter.

Cousins Klara and Aniela, disgusted by what they have seen of men in life and in the novels they read, have vowed never to marry. This throws a spanner in the plans of their neighbour Albin, who is hopeless in love with Klara, and of Radost, who hopes his ne'er-do-well nephew Gustaw will marry. The girls' vow wakes Gustaw out of his boredom as a kind of challenge. Throughout the rest of the play, he engineers scene after scene with the goal of making the girls break their vow only to find himself falling in love in the process.

Director Sylwia Torsh's production begins unassumingly enough with Magdalena Maciejewska's deceptively simple set and costumes locating the action in the early 19th century. Naturalism is broken when characters step up to one of two spotlights downstage for their asides. Gradually as the action gears up the production changes. First the cousins' costumes then the others shift from the 1830s to the 1920s to the 1970s. Elements of the set also become more modern. The music becomes more heterogeneous shifting among Chopin, Polish pop songs and Philip Glass. We move from candles to electric light. Miroslaw Poznanski's stage lighting becomes increasingly intricate as characters and significant objects are highlighted in ever more rapid patterns. A similar pattern occurs in Piotr Domióski's sound design as sounds of weather, heartbeats and animals are added to the mix. The actors' movements, which began as merely stylized, become increasingly balletic until some scenes are more dance pieces than spoken drama. What evolves is theatrical showpiece of split-second timing as the interaction between the actors with each other and the light and sound cues becomes ever more rapid and intricate.

The cast is uniformly excellent and obviously adept at playing with utmost precision in multiple acting styles. Magdalena Cielecka gives the one cousin Klara the kind of disdain one is glad to be undermined. Maja Ostaszewska, lends the other cousin a delightful wistfulness. The scene where Gustaw tests her by dictating a love letter to her meant for Klara is delicious in its irony. The mesmerizing Redbad Klynstra manages the difficult task of making Gustaw's ennui both attractive and comic. Cezary Kosinski is hilarious as the desperately sincere sad sack Albin. Magdalena Kuta as Mrs. Dorójska, Mariusz Benoit as Radost and Miroslaw Zbrojewicz as Jan all show that the older generation's upholding of standards of restraint only masks their still active desires.

Fredro's play masterfully skewers the pretensions of all seven characters. Torsh's direction expands the play's meaning by having the mise en scène recapitulate the gradually loosening of societal restrictions from the 1830s to the present. Simultaneously the production moves from being a language-based play to a performance piece where the interaction of word, movement, light and sound gradually dominates over the words themselves so that the final wordless tableau has the beauty of a surrealist art installation. This amazing theatrical tour de force is yet another must-see at this year's World Stage Festival.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries

by Mark Dornford-May & Charles Hazlewood, directed by Mark Dornford-May
Broomhill Opera, Elgin Theatre, Toronto April 8-13, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Joyous Evening"

"Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries" is a joyous evening of theatre sure to dazzle the eyes and ears, lift the heart and warm the soul. Presented as part of the du Maurier World Stage Festival 2003, "The Mysteries" is a retelling of the Chester cycles of medieval mystery plays though speech, song and dance in four of South Africa's official languages--English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu.

The production is so theatrical the use of multiple languages poses no problem to understanding the action. The medieval mystery cycles took the key episodes of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, from Creation to the Last Judgement, to illustrate the mystery of the incarnation to the largely illiterate populations of various market towns in England. The stories will be familiar to nearly everyone, Christian or not, whether from the Bible or from the numerous literary works based on it.

Director Mark Dornford-May has had the brilliant idea of relocating the telling of these universal stories to a contemporary South African township. Thus Herod becomes a tribal chieftain and his soldiers are clad in black military outfits with black berets and machine guns. These are the troops who are sent out into native villages to kill all the children. The woman taken in adultery is threatened not with stoning but "necklacing" as the community menacingly bounces tires her way. When Pilate, played by one of the three white members of the cast, washes his hands after Jesus' trial the act takes racial and politic significance. The new setting recreates the essence of the original cycles as a celebration of communion and community through a communal act of story telling.

Dornford-May has added another level of interpretation beyond this. The fall of Lucifer is the first play, but unlike in the originals, this Lucifer despite his spectacular fall into hell, continues to appear through the other plays as an instigator of evil. But while he may revel in what Eve, Cain, Herod or the Roman soldiers do, he is increasingly (and literally) thrust into the wings by every good deed until Christ's resurrection banishes him entirely. At the sound of music or of any celebration he stops his ears. As the spirit of divisiveness he is expelled by whatever brings the community together.

In a bold move the gospel that Jesus preaches is told in the form of a dance that Mary first teaches him. Jesus teaches it to his disciples but after his resurrection when they gather to spread the word, they cannot exactly reproduce it, settle on a version and use that. It is an exceedingly clever way to make a complex point about doctrine.

Simplicity is the hallmark of the whole production. Dornford-May and Dan Watkins's set is merely a raked wooden platform with scaffolding on three sides. Leigh Bishop and Jessica Dornford-May's costumes look like everyday modern clothing whether European or tribal. Charles Hazlewood's rhythmically exuberant music is played entirely on found objects--plastic or metal trash cans, bottles, hubcaps, glasses of water. Noah's ark is a piece of expanding lattice fence, a blue blanket that had just represented water become Mary's cloak, the incarnation is shown when God removes his tribal skirt to reveal blue jean cut-offs underneath. The show contains one such brilliant stroke after the next.

Dornford-May auditioned almost 2000 South Africans to make up the troupe of 35. While the work is truly an ensemble piece several performances do stand out. Vumile Nomanyama is a virile Deus/ Jesus, who is demanding as a schoolmaster is because he wants humanity, his pupils, to learn. Andries Mbali's Lucifer falls because of his pride and takes out the private hurt of his exile on humanity, never understanding why he has fallen or why his revenges always fail. Sibusiso "Otto" Ziqubu is hilarious as Noah, who can't fully comprehend God's demands and who has such difficulties with his shrewish wife equally well played by Ruby Mthethwa. The wonderfully expressive Pauline Malefane is radiant as Mary, signalling the conception with a subtle smile of surprise and pleasure or reacting to Jesus' crucifixion with a heartrending scream of agony.

"The Mysteries" is what theatre is all about: making something out of nothing, creating an energy that enlivens the whole community of players and observers. At every moment the actors' immense vitality and utter engagement with their characters communicates its power directly to the audience. When they break into song and dance the production soars. The final "Gloria" is so uplifting a less staid group than a Canadian audience on an opening night would have been dancing in the aisles. Certainly their hearts were dancing.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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The Mikado

by Gilbert & Sullivan, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto May 2-11, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Laughing Song and Merry Dance"

The Toronto Operetta Theatre's current production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" is musically and dramatically one of the best the company has presented. The cast of young professional opera singers communicates the melody and vigour of Sullivan as his most inspired. That these singers are also fine actors insures that none of Gilbert's wit is lost.

Those familiar with G&S only from amateur productions with be delighted to hear how Sullivan's music blooms when opera singers sing it. Eric Shaw, with his burnished tenor, is ideal as Nanki-Poo, the disguised son of the Mikado of Japan. His excellent phrasing brings out the Handelian parody of Nanki-Poo's recitatives and his voice soars effortlessly in his solos and duets. He is well matched with Elizabeth DeGrazia as Yum-Yum. Her bright, clear soprano brings out the full beauty of her Act 2 aria "The Sun Whose Rays".

Under Guillermo Silva-Marin's insightful direction they are not the bland lovers as they are so often presented. Silva-Marin has the conspiracy against Ko-Ko begin much earlier than I've ever seen before. Shaw's knowing looks and wary glances suggest that it already begins with Nanki-Poo's attempted suicide and that ever further step is proceeding as he has foreseen. At the same time, Yum-Yum is not simply a delicate little blossom. DeGrazia shows that she is, in fact, a quintessential Gilbertian character motivated primarily by self-interest. DeGrazia's use of ultra-precise upper-class diction amusingly reveals how vain this teenaged girl really is.

Gregory Cross is appropriately stuffy and full of himself as Pooh-Bah and very funny in "Long Life to You" solo of Act 1. Deborah Overes' Katisha is more like a disgruntled schoolmarm than a tigress, but this fits well with the sympathy she arouses in her beautiful singing of "The Hour of Gladness" in Act 1 and "Alone, and Yet Alive" of Act 2. Gregory Dahl captures the youthful glee of the Mikado but not much of his menace. Rather more maniacal laughter in "My Object All Sublime" might be in order. But it is wonderful to hear this famous song by so powerful a voice. Newcomer Giles Tomkins displays a warm baritone in the role of Pish-Tush, and Rosalind Lewis as Peep-Bo and Heather Shaw as Pitti-Sing well distinguish Yum-Yum's fellow schoolmates. There is little doubt that the crowd favourite is Keith Savage as a rather more befuddled than dim-witted Ko-Ko. His expert comic timing alone is a delight. With an excellent sense of movement, his is a far more physically active Lord High Executioner than usual. His voice quality and phrasing will remind devoted Savoyards of John Reed, who sang the "crabby old man" roles in the much-loved D'Oyly Carte series in the 1960s.

Guillermo Silva-Marin has followed a good policy in updating Gilbert's text. For Ko-Ko's "little list" or the Mikado's "punishment fits the crime", we hear the original without additions and then have a reprise with up-to-date references to Enron, cell-phone users, Harry Potter and, of course, Dubya. Since there is no credit for it, it seems Silva-Marin has also choreographed the show. The singers are in constant movement during songs, sometimes in complex patterns, sometimes as the "three little girls from school" doing the Macarena.

Some may be disappointed to see that the orchestra consists of only nine members. (The budget has obviously gone toward the rental of the gorgeous costumes and wigs.) But as soon as Derek Bate begins the overture you know the show is in good hands. During the overture the bond sounds like a refined salon orchestra. While with one player to a part the ensemble can never achieve the full force the finales require, the benefit is that each of the line of Sullivan's writing can be better heard and Gilbert's words are always crystal clear.

Five red poles decorated with twelve paper umbrellas each are enough to suggest the setting while Cameron A. More's effective lighting enhances the changing moods. Ontario has seen more elaborate productions of "The Mikado", but rarely one as well sung as this. If Gilbert's words and Sullivan's music is what you prize most, this "Mikado" should be just your cup of tea.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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