A Midwinter Night's Dream - | - The Hunchback of Notre Dame - | - The Taming of the Shrew - | - The King and I -|- Antony and Cloepatra -|- Gigi -|- Top Gun The Musical -|- On the Twentieth Century -|- Blood Relations -|-
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Antony and Cleopatra

by William Shakespeare, directed by Martha Henry
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford May 28-Sep 27, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Cleopatra Abandoned"

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Diane D'Aquila gives a superb performance as the Egyptian Queen in the Stratford Festival production of "Antony and Cleopatra.” Unfortunately, her performance stands abandoned in a desert of mediocrity. Nothing else in the production--not the design, direction or other performances--is up to her level or gives her support. The result is that one of Shakespeare greatest plays comes off as underpowered and unsatisfying.

You know something is wrong as soon as you enter the Tom Patterson Theatre. Upstage is a metal platform that looks like a truncated Eiffel Tower. It turns out that this is Cleopatra's "monument" but it still appears that she has hied herself to Paris. It is clear that the show has been assigned a very low budget. Women in the audience were more expensively dressed and sported more jewels than this Cleopatra ever does even when she asks for her finest array. Nothing ever conjures up the greatness that was Egypt or the grandeur that was Rome. Except for a too-obvious wheel-of-fortune projection, even Louise Guinand's lighting does little to conjure up mood or atmosphere. Surely the Festival could have foregone one of the innumerable costume changes in the over-opulent Siam of "The King and I" to help deck out this play.

Given the budget constraints, designer Allan Wilbee needed to be especially inventive. He is not. Out of their armour, which is most of the time, the Romans wear what seem to be a two-piece form of long johns so that Peter Donaldson is forced vainly to conjure up Antony's greatness while striding about in his underwear. Wilbee's Egyptians sport wigs as historically they did, but these wigs are of such poor quality they make Cleopatra's servants look more like refugees from a caveman movie. And why is one of her servants wearing the double crown of Egypt reserved for royalty? Cleopatra's outfits for most of the show are various ill-fitting shifts seemingly in constant danger of slipping off.

Glamour, of course, is not as important in a play as acting. As in Diane D'Aquila this production has one truly remarkable performance. What makes Shakespeare's Cleopatra one of the greatest female roles is its combination of opposites. She is strong yet capricious, earthy yet divine. Unlike most actors I've seen in the role, D'Aquila captures all of this and makes this coexistence of contradictions seem natural. To accomplish this is a major triumph.

This jewel of a performance would shine brighter if only the rest of the company provided a proper foil to set it off. Peter Donaldson seems to play Mark Antony's loss of honour as if it were a separate tragedy. At no point does he conjure up the love for Cleopatra that is the cause of his losing face. Director Martha Henry does not help matters by having him pinch a Roman servant's bum as if Mark Antony were merely a common lecher than a man bound in love to a great queen. Unusually for Donaldson, he tends to rush his lines seldom bringing out their grandeur.

In the two other major roles, Wayne Best shows Enobarbus' pain at having betrayed Mark Antony, but never establishes the love he has for his master despite, or because of, the great man's faults. Paul Dunn is simply too weak as Octavius Caesar to suggest that this young man represents the harsh puritanical new world order, one that cannot comprehend the magnificence of the world it subdues.

There are good performances in minor roles--Timothy Askew as the Messenger Cleopatra beats and as Eros Antony's servant and Andy Velásquez as Pompey and later as Dolabella. Otherwise, such stalwarts as Ian Deakin (Maecenas), Keith Dinicol (Demetrius/Canidius), Margot Dionne (Iras), John Dolan (Lepidus/Proculeius), Aaron Franks (Decretas/Soothsayer), Brad Rudy (Thidias/Menas) and Paul Soles (Agrippa) general little enthusiasm. Bernard Hopkins might have succeeded as the eunuch Mardian and the Clown who brings Cleopatra her asps except that Henry has decided, contrary to the text, that these are not comic parts. Daniela Lama plays Cleopatra's servant Charmian as if the show were a perfume commercial and Linda Prystawska speaks Octavia's line but seems clueless as to their meaning.

The general lethargy afflicting the production has to put down to Martha Henry's direction. This is a play about the clash of two worlds and two worldviews, but Henry never brings this out. Except for the odd bout of jogging, the Romans seem as listless as the Egyptians. Despite overlapping the beginnings and endings of the play's numerous scenes, the pace is slack and no sense of urgency arises.

Stratford last mounted the play in 1993. I suppose we will now have to wait another ten years for Stratford to stage it again. All the more pity then, having in D'Aquila the first actor at Stratford in decades with more than sufficient intensity and command of nuance to play Cleopatra, that the Festival could not muster the artistic and material resources necessary to make this great play the triumph for her that it could have been.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Gigi

by Frederick Loewe & Alan Jay Lerner, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford May 29-Nov 1, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Musical Champagne"

The musical "Gigi" is a bit of fluff, devoid of pretension, but it is a highly enjoyable bit of fluff. MGM wanted to capitalize on the success of Lerner and Loewe's "My Fair Lady" (1956) and asked the team to write their next musical for the screen. The 1958 film won nine Academy Awards including Best Picture. In the 1970s Lerner and Loewe were encouraged to turn the film into a stage musical. It opening in 1973 but closed after a disappointing run. The story of a girl brought up to be a courtesan who decides to marry was pretty much the opposite of "relevant" in 1973. Now we don't have to care and can enjoy the show for the delightful entertainment it is.

Though based on a story by the French writer Collette, in many ways the musical seems like a retread of "My Fair Lady" set in Paris instead of London. Both are about the education of a recalcitrant young woman so she can succeed in high society. Both feature a climactic social debut. In both the girl's love-interest is a petulant young man whose self-concern blinds him to the fact he is falling in love. And in both a social and psychological barrier must be overcome for the two to wed--besides class differences in both there is the student-teacher barrier in "My Fair Lady" while in "Gigi" it is marrying an underage best friend who has just reached adulthood.

The show is politically incorrect with a vengeance. Our narrator Honoré is an ageing lecher serially working his way through the women of Paris. His well-known song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" promotes the queasy notion of viewing children as future sex objects. The women around our heroine Gigi, especially her Aunt Alicia, view their profession of high-society prostitution as a way to material gain. The "rebellion" of Gigi and Honoré's rich nephew Gaston is to support bourgeois values and marry. Fortunately, Lerner's 1973 adaptation shifts the emphasis in the film from sex to money, a point underlined by the addition of the witty sextet "The Contract,” and in doing so helps make the unsavory aspects of the story more palatable.

Unlike the Festival's other musical, "The King and I,” there is no weak link in the cast. Jennifer Gould is a joy as Gigi and deserves to be the Festival's next musical star. She is not as pouty as Leslie Caron but she does the character a service by showing strength of will beneath the girlish bubbliness. She also has a lovely voice shown to its best advantage in "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.” Dan Chameroy is a clear improvement over Louis Jourdan as Gaston Lachailles. He both more youthful and less aloof, making his friendship with the young Gigi more likely and less patronizing. Chameroy gives us real singing, not Jourdan's talking to music, that lifts his numbers, especially the title song, to operatic heights.

Neither James Blendick as Honoré nor Domini Blythe as Mamita can efface Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in their finest film roles. Blendick's French accent comes and goes, disappearing entirely when he sings. But he musters enough charm as the old rogue that we gladly accept him, and he has a strong voice to put across such numbers as "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore.” Blythe doesn't attempt to recreate Gingold's eccentricities but as a result is much more believable as a former courtesan. She is excellent at conjuring up a sense of wistfulness that gives the frothy show some semblance of substance. Her duet with Blendick, "I Remember It Well,” is a real treat.

Lerner has beefed up the role of Gigi's domineering Aunt Alicia making her even more of a Parisian Lady Bracknell than in the film. Patricia Collins rises to the challenge magnificently. Her haughty demeanour and razor-sharp sense of timing are impeccable. Since Stratford has adopted the unpleasant Broadway practice of milking the dialogue as well as the singing, someone, should turn down Collins' mike to match the volume level of the other players. Stephanie Graham (Liane), Laird Mackintosh (Manuel the Barber) and Cory O'Brien (the Telephone Installer/Jean-Paul) all do well in their smaller roles.

Richard Monette has directed the show efficiently, bringing a nice balance between its nostalgia and hilarity. However, most of his additions to the script we could do without. His signature screeching cat we've seen far too often, the sneezing fit at the contract signing, the wobbly moulded jelly are more distracting than funny and he makes Liane use her irritating laugh to the point of overkill. Donna Feore's choreography is outstanding from waltzes to can-cans to complex balletic interactions between characters.

Designer Cameron Porteous has thankfully used a palette of pastels rather than the horribly gaudy Technicolor extravaganza of Cecil Beaton's film costumes. His set design includes a revolve facilitating the multiple shifts of scene. Overarching all is an Art Nouveau framework into which panels are inserted to represent different locations. I like the whimsical atmosphere of Raoul Dufy that inspires these panels but it clashes rather badly with Art Nouveau. Porteous should have chosen one style or the other but not both. Lighting designer Kevin Fraser gives the whole work the warm glow of memory. The show is framed with projected credits as in a film that are delightfully done.

On stage "Gigi" is a confection that looks fondly back to the sensibilities of operetta. Anyone seeking mood-lightening escapist entertainment at Stratford need look no further.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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A Midwinter Night's Dream

by Harry Somers, directed by Todd Hammond
Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto May 8-11, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Exciting Music, Static Libretto"

Musicools is the third circumpolar arts festival organized by Lawrence Cherney, founding Artistic Director of Soundstreams Canada. It has presented five operas for children over the past two weeks, becoming the first such festival in North America. The event has included works from Finland, Iceland, Quebec and the rest of Canada. The flagship work and last to open is "A Midwinter's Night Dream" written by Harry Somers to a libretto by children's author Tim Wynne-Jones. The opera premiered in Toronto in 1988. For the current production, Wynne-Jones has rewritten the libretto with Inuit cultural consultant John Houston. But it must be admitted that while Somers' music and the performances are excellent, the libretto still remains the weakest part of the opera.

The story concerns young Jimmy Moonwok, who is uninterested in joining in the midwinter feast celebrated in his Arctic village of Mary's Bay. He's been to Edmonton and seen "Star Wars" and now looks down on native traditions. Because of this the local shaman Ai'o'u chooses Jimmy to go on a vision quest during which he meets a talking seal, ghosts of the dead and hears the Northern Lights. He returns to his village with renewed faith in tradition and community.

The main difficulty with the libretto is that it is not dramatic. More than half of its 70-minute is taken up in showing Jimmy's boredom with the midwinter feast. A librettist can't expect people, young or old, automatically to be caught up in a sequence of celebrations at a party if we don't know what the party is about and especially if we are waiting for the plot finally to kick in. When the plot involving Jimmy's quest does start it immediately comes to a halt again. The first episode, involving talking, card-playing seal, owes more to Lewis Carroll than Inuit legend and includes lots of punning on card-playing terms that only adults will appreciate. Worse, its static nature dissipates whatever excitement was roused with the launch of the quest. With Jimmy's slip beneath the ice and meeting with the ghosts of the dead, we feel we're finally under way again. But then Wynne-Jones introduces the choirmaster of the Northern Lights, another non-Inuit touch, and assumes we will immediately find the situation humorous. The quest seems to end barely after it began.

Having already preached at the party about how story-telling is more real than movies and how remembering one's people and traditions should be one's goal, Wynne-Jones concludes the opera with more preaching on the same topics. How much better the effect would be if he had exercised more imagination in extending and detailing Jimmy's quest itself. How much stronger the work would be if had relied not on exhortations but on our own experience of Jimmy's quest make us realize the moral of the story. From the children's positive reaction to Jimmy's being tossed in a blanket, more action, less didacticism, is what the story needs to engage its intended audience.

Flawed as it is, the opera can be enjoyed for Harry Somers' music alone, especially when given such a persuasive performance by the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus under Ann Cooper Gay. The work covers a wide range from the spooky whispers and moans that conjure up the cold North, to the boisterous syncopated party music, to rhythmic speech, folksong, Britten-like chorales and the Ligetiesque sounds of the Northern Lights. The contrasts in the music almost make up for the lack of drama in the text. Gay's vigorous, precise conducting ensures that the work is always musically exciting.

Stage director Todd Hammond proves he is adept at managing the large cast of nearly 70. How to make the encounter with the seal for visually interesting defeats him as does the introduction of the Northern Lights, which would seem to require a stage with a balcony to work properly. It seems Hammond wants us to think Jimmy's quest really begins when he is first spotted by Ai'o'u before the feast. If so, that point has to be made more clearly. Julia Tribe's design does well at conjuring the Arctic wastes and is quite inventive in depicting Jimmy's fall through the ice. The children's costumes, however, are so varied and colourful at the party that, given all the Caucasian faces, it took far too long time to realize these were supposed to be Inuit children in the North rather than ordinary Albertan children ready for winter in the South.

Robert McCollum's choreography is imaginative and enthusiastically performed. Luckily, Somers and Wynne-Jones thought to include an interlude in the midwinter feast for actual Inuit drum dancers. The troupe Aqsarniit (Sylvia Cloutier, Sarah Laakkuluk Williamson, June Shappa) provide a welcome dose of authenticity in the opera, so intriguing in itself I hoped for such another interlude in the celebrations at the end. Michael Kruse's lighting is effective in recreating the chill light of the North and the warmth of interiors. His Northern Lights display is the highpoint it is meant to be.

The three adult singer are excellent--tenor Michael Colvin clear and firm as Ai'o'u, baritone James Westman warm-toned as Jimmy's father and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy sympathetic as Jimmy's mother. As Jimmy, John Michael Schneider (alternating with Matthew Galloway) is an extraordinary performer. His acting skills, as he demonstrated last year as Miles in the COC's "The Turn of the Screw", are very advanced for one his age and he has clearly mastered Somers' tricky rhythms and intervals. The CCOC, expert in producing lovely harmonies, readily communicates its joy in singing to the audience.

It is rare enough to see such a full-scale work written for children much less a Canadian one. Anyone interested in Harry Somers or in children's opera in general need not hesitate.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame

by Rick Whelan, directed by Dennis Garnhum
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford May 30-Nov 2, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Torture for the Whole Family"

Do not even consider seeing "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the Stratford Festival. If someone offers you a ticket, do not accept it. Cleaning the septic tank would be more enjoyable. Above all, do not take your family to see it. It is NOT, I repeat NOT, a family show despite what the Festival says.

The Stratford Festival season brochure recommends "Hunchback" as part of the "Family Experience.” Perhaps, if you're the Manson family. On stage in graphic detail in its two and a half hours a man tries to rape a woman, a deformed man is flogged in public while chained to a wheel, a woman is tortured on the rack, a woman sees a man break her mother's neck before her eyes, a woman is hanged, poor people are massacred by bowmen, people are burned with molten lead and this does not include the continual discussion and threat of violence throughout the show. Do you want to explain to your children why a priest and an affianced officer lust after a gypsy girl and harm her if they don't get their way with her? Do you want to explain why the gypsy girl loves the officer because of his sword and his boots and lifts her skirt to him saying "Drink me up"?

Disney was taken to task for its 1996 animated feature of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel. Even though it was sanitized, this bleak work about sexual obsession where evil triumphs over good was deemed a bizarre subject for a children's movie. But Stratford playwright Rick Whelan and director and dramaturge Dennis Garnhum, contrary to the Festival's marketing plans, have vowed to present the work unsanitized. Where does the idea come from that 19th-century novels written for adults are today good fodder for children? What's next--"Madame Bovary, the Family Experience"?

Even so, judged merely on its own merits, the play is dreck. Whelan's language is composed solely of the worst clichés from 1950s costume epics-- "Your burning eyes pierce me like a thousand daggers.” Christmas trees and sandwiches are mentioned although they didn't exist in 1482, the time of the action. The effect would be laughable if the cumulative banality were not so deadening.

In condensing the lengthy novel to the short stage time, Whelan and Garnhum create a sort of Classic Comics version of a complex masterpiece, all plot and no character development. As in a horror movie, they intentionally linger on the work's most sickening scenes while barely telegraphing the emotions that might help make sense of them. But then, in a ludicrously miscalculated attempt at cutesiness, they have an actor, Krista Leis, play Djali, Esmeralda's goat, to accompany her mistress throughout her misfortunes. "What were they thinking?" echoes in the mind as you watch. How was this idiotic script ever approved?

As if this weren't bad enough, the show very poorly acted. I am not exaggerating when I say I have seen high school productions that were much better performed. Only a handful of actors manage to survive with any dignity: Jennifer Gould (the gypsy Esmeralda), Joyce Campion (Falourdel), David Hogan (Charmolue), Philip Griffith Pace (the King's advisor Olivier) and Joseph Shaw (the judge Henri Poteau). Otherwise, Whelan's text and Garnhum's direction makes even Stephen Russell (the lust-wracked priest Frollo) and Dan Chameroy (using a funny voice as the poet Gringoire) look foolish.

Nicolas Van Burek as Quasimodo gives a very physical performance, but he is all intensity without the subtlety that marks the great Quasimodos of the screen. David Snelgrove (Phoebus), Michael Therriault (Jehan), Robert King (Clopin) and Brigit Wilson (Paquette) are overwrought and little else. And Dorian Foley (subbing for Douglas Chamberlain as Louis XI), Naomi Costain (Fleur-de-Lys) and Dayna Tekatch (Clopin's favourite) among others should not be allowed on stage.

Alexander Dodge's set consists of huge cubes covered in black-and-white photographic collages of Notre Dame Cathedral. The effect would not work at all if Michael Whitfield's highly nuanced lighting did not help to give the flat surfaces the illusion of depth. Indeed, Whitfield's lighting creates subtler moods and greater atmosphere than anything in the script. Kelly Wolf's "Ye Olde Mediaeval" costumes are unremarkable.

A bad script badly directed, badly acted and with a perverse view of its target audience is not a show for any audience, let alone a family audience. This show marks a new low for Stratford. Avoid it like the plague.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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The Taming of the Shrew

by William Shakespeare, directed by Miles Potter
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford May 26-Nov 1, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The No Good, the Bad and the Ugly"

There's no point in beating around the sagebrush. "The Taming of the Shrew" that opened Stratford's 51st season is one of the worst productions of the play in the Festival's history. The Wild West setting is not the problem; rather it's how the setting is misused. Add to that sloppy direction and poor acting, and the show becomes one actively to avoid.

Stratford had a big hit with a Wild West "Shrew" in 1954 directed by Tyrone Guthrie. A time when men were men and women were in the kitchen is a good period to set a play often accused of misogyny. Director Miles Potter, however, has decided that this "Shrew" is not just a western but a spaghetti western, with little regard for the consequences. Graham Abbey's Petruchio appears in a long coat framed in a doorway or in a serape at a saloon entrance accompanied by reminiscences of Ennio Morricone's music for Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" films. Why doesn't this work? The main characteristic of Clint Eastwood's character, the "Man with No Name,” is his silence; Petruchio's main characteristic is his love of speaking. A garrulous Clint Eastwood?--I don't think so. Besides this, Clint Eastwood's character is a loner while Petruchio has a servant. Potter transforms Grumio into Petruchio's sidekick, but, switching sub-genres, forces Wayne Best to imitate Walter Brennan. This alone makes nonsense of the spaghetti western set-up.

What is worse, Potter has decided that the show is not just a spaghetti western but a spoof of a spaghetti western, so much so that virtually all the would-be humour in the show is generated by pratfalls, slapstick violence, crowd reactions to the sight of guns or spitting or to the sound of hoof beats or theme music on Jim Neil's soundtrack--in short anything but what occurs in Shakespeare's play. Potter, usually a fine director, has fallen into the anything-for-a-joke method of directing comedy that has reigned far too long at this festival. You can't see the play for the schlock.

Besides this, the added schlock often goes counter to what the text dictates. Lucentio (Kyle Blair) and his servant Tranio (Jonathan Goad) are said to look so much alike that one could pass for the other. Yet, Potter has Lucentio blond and clean-shaven and Tranio, dark-haired with beard and moustache and a thick Mexican accent. Petruchio is said to be wealthy from an inheritance, yet the production portrays him as poor and thus misses the point of his intentional deprivation of Katherina at his house. Again and again fundamental plot points are missed by cavalier disregard of the text.

It's not surprising that such a slovenly approach encourages poor performances from some of the Festival's best actors. Graham Abbey may be made to look like Clint Eastwood, but as soon as he opens his mouth he falls into his all-purpose Shakespeare mode and might as well be playing Prince Hal or Romeo. He gives no suggestion of guile, greed, ardour or spite that would help explain Petruchio's interest in taming such a shrew. For her part Seana McKenna is totally unconvincing as Katherina. Giving her an array of jiu-jitsu moves doesn't help explain her character. Her voice loses all quality at a yell, which is frequent and thus ineffective. Potter's conceit is that Katherina actually comes to love Petruchio, but McKenna gives us no clue as to why. Does she enjoy humiliation?

Jonathan Goad's outfit suggests he is supposed to be Mexican. Yet though the play his accent makes excursions into Castilian and Irish before settling down into Italian. Whatever he thinks he's doing, you can hardly understand a word he says. The same goes for Wayne Best. Walter Brennan you could understand--not Best's imitation which, in any case, soon grows tiresome.

Anyone who has seen Deborah Hay in Toronto knows she has a pleasant voice and can belt out a great country tune. Here she is forced to act Katherina's sister Bianca in a silly, high-pitched tone and the only time she sings is intentionally off-key, the words incomprehensible.

Donald Carrier (Hortensio) Paul Dunn (Biondello) and Paul Soles (Katherina's father, Baptista Minola) all give passable, uninteresting performances. Aaron Franks creates a fine miniature portrait of Petruchio's layabout servant Curtis. But the finest performances come from Kyle Blair (a clear and intelligent Lucentio), Barry MacGregor (a very British Man from Mantua) and Brad Rudy (a Scottish Gremio). The last two could teach the company much about how to do an accent and still be clearly understood and funny.

Patrick Clark's detailed period design and Steven Hawkins's subtle lighting both capture the flavour and atmosphere of the Old West with greater integrity than anything else in the production.

Potter's one good insight is to have Petruchio kneel to raise Katherina up after she gives her infamous speech extolling woman's inferiority to man in Act 5. It is one moment of humanity at the end of a dreadfully unfunny evening. To treat a play by Shakespeare as a clothesline for a series of pop cultural references, as Potter does, insults both the play and the audience.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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The King and I

by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II, directed by Susan H. Schulman
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford May 27-Nov 9, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Something Nearly Wonderful"

The Stratford Festival production of "The King and I" is spectacular--spectacular to the point of lunacy. While the human drama at the heart of this classic musical does peep out, it has to struggle through a production revelling in its own excess. The national touring production that played at the O'Keefe Centre in 1997, designed by the same designer and featuring some of the same personnel but directed by Christopher Renshaw, was much more satisfying because it was simpler and staged on a much more human scale.

The current production suffers from two major flaws. The first and perhaps the most disappointing is that Lucy Peacock as Anna Leonowens, the British woman who became the tutor of the children of the King of Siam, can't sing. Her acting is excellent. She shows the subtle change in character in this strong-willed woman from the prig we first meet to someone who has come to respect the alien culture she finds herself in. She shows how Leonowens' abhorrence of the king gradually turns to something akin to love.

If this were the play "Anna and the King of Siam" on which the musical is based everything would be fine. However, this is a musical and one of the greatest written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Peacock's voice would not get her kicked out of a church choir but it never gets her promoted to soloist. The string of hits written originally for Gertrude Lawrence--"Whistle a Happy Tune,” "Hello Young Lovers,” "Getting to Know You" and "Shall We Dance?"--never crystallize the show's energy as they should in Peacock's thin, short-breathed, fluttering renditions. Only "Shall I Tell You What I Think of You" succeeds because it involves more talking to music than singing. The problem is all the more noticeable since everyone else in the show, including Ian McLennan, who plays her young son, has stronger voices than she does. One wonders why the Festival would mount such an extravagant production without the right actor for the central character.

The second major problem is Debra Hanson's gigantic set. Yes, it is impressive when it is far-too-laboriously unveiled, but over the course of three hours it is not a neutral enough background for the various locations of the action. It makes all the scenes seem to occur in the throne room. The two oversized gold-and-blue statues of deities supporting the roof beam literally dwarf the actors and irritatingly distract attention away from the stage. The stage floor itself is elaborately painted to look like the lid of a lacquer box. Hanson's colours and patterns seem to have been designed with no concern for how they would work with Roger Kirk's extraordinarily beautiful costumes. Kirk, who designed the Australian production that stopped in Toronto between Broadway and the West End, uses a palette of pastels that clash more often than not with the colours of the set. The set is so busily ornamented it makes it difficult to appreciate the exquisite detail of the costumes or some of the patterns of Kevin Fraser's lighting. In such an obviously expensive production, why did the director, Susan H, Schulman, not take action to prevent the set and costumes from being at war?

The production also involves a great deal of waste. There are innumerable unnecessary costume changes for both main characters and extras to the point where they come to distract from the focus of the drama itself. No matter where a show is set, the focus should be on the people wearing the costumes not on the costumes themselves. Reams of satin and cloth-of-gold are fine but, people singing and acting is, I hope, what we come to see in the theatre.

These flaws are a pity since so much of the production is so near perfection. Victor Talmadge creates a very sympathetic portrait of the King as a man caught between his own prejudices and the reforms he wants to bring his country but does not fully understand. His songs are all the stronger for being sung rather than spoken to music as is so often the case. The "young lovers,” Anne Marie Ramos as Tuptim and Charles Azulay as Lun Tha, both have strong, trained voices. But it is Helen Yu as Lady Thiang who provides the musical highlight of the evening with her rapt account of "Something Wonderful.”

Among the others Thom Allison is powerful presence as the Kralahome while Robert Hamilton is far too weak as Sir Edward Ramsay, a man who loved Anna in the past. Sir Edward represents the kind of secure life that Anna is foregoing by living in Siam and must appear as a strong figure for her sacrifice to have weight.

Tuptim's dance-drama "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" is a masterpiece in itself and is staged beautifully by choreographer Michael Lichtefeld. Karla Jang gives a stunning performance as Eliza but indeed the whole corps of dancers is marvelous. The cute troupe of children playing some of the king’s numerous offspring gives alert, professional performances.

"The King and I" will undoubtedly be the hit of the season. With better casting of the central role and more coordination between the designers the show might have reached perfection. As it is, the show's core of human drama is nearly smothered under physical opulence.

©Christopher Hoile

 

Top Gun! The Musical

by Scott White & Denis McGrath, directed by Colin Viebrock
The TG!TM Co-Op, Factory Theatre, Toronto Jun 5-Jun 22, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Rough Landing"

"Top Gun! The Musical,” a satire of the current fad for turning movies into musicals, was the most popular show at the 2002 Toronto Fringe Festival. This led to the show's US premiere at the Houston TheaterLab later that year. Now the show returns to Toronto for a limited run. "Top Gun" has been heaped with acclaim but one brings a more critical eye to bear when viewing the show during a commercial run than one does at the Fringe. If the creators want the show to go any farther there is still a lot of fixing to do. At present the book and music are highly uneven as is the production itself.

The show is set in a rehearsal hall as the director Billy runs through a new musical set to open in four weeks. The show comprises both excerpts from "Top Gun!” the musical-within-the-musical, and the backstage scenes involving the actors themselves. Billy's previous two efforts, "Die Hard: The Musical" and "Apocalypse Wow,” have flopped and he needs a hit badly. He and the cast soldier on even though neither rights to the film nor sufficient financial backing has been secured.

The most hilarious scenes in the show by far are the excerpts from "Top Gun!" that the cast is rehearsing. Here lyricist Denis McGrath and composer Scott White are spot on in skewering the pretensions of modern musicals and action films by highlighting their worst dramatic and musical clichés. Top gun Maverick holding his dead copilot Goose in his arms and coming to his Important Realization in the song "That Goose is Cooked" is almost worth the price of admission. As portentous chords rise one horrid metaphor, one grating rhyme, follows the next convulsing the audience with laughter. The witty "Public Domain Medley" where the cast tries to fit ideas from the plot to a series of well known, but inappropriate, tunes is another treat. "We Got a Plane to Catch" has fun with the loud banality of Broadway songs and sexual connotations make the finale "You Can Ride My Tail" intentionally ridiculous.

It's when White and McGrath move away from parody that the results are less interesting. None of the other seven songs really matches the four above in either musical invention or wit. The same is true when the show shifts focus from the musical-within-a-musical to the actors themselves. All the backstage characters--the dumb leading man, the prima donna, the harried director, the neglected stage manager--are also clichés, but McGrath and White seem to want us to take them seriously as the stage manager's song "Waiting in the Wings", the prima donna's "Something to Play" and the dénouement would indicate. Here the humour becomes scattershot and, without a clear point of view, less effective.

The cast itself is uneven. The star of the show, Dmitry Chepovetsky as Maverick is clearly brimming with talent. As a dumb lunk who pours conviction into the meaningless "Top Gun” songs his performance is deliciously humorous on many levels. He has the strongest singing voice and most consistent acting of the troupe. Steve Gallagher as the Iceman, Maverick's main rival in "Top Gun,” is hilarious at showing how his personal attraction for the actor playing Maverick undermines their characters' ultra macho scenes together. Gallagher makes Iceman the only source of backstage humour that consistently works.

The strongest female singer is Racheal McCaig as Goose. She knows how to belt out a song and is great at the mock seriousness of the "Top Gun" scenes. It's too bad, then that McGrath has neglected to give her a definable character in the backstage scenes. And why is there no explanation why Goose is male in the film but female in the musical?

Both Drew Carnwath as Billy and Mary Francis Moore as Charlie are miscast. Carwath is too young to play a man who has directed so many shows and never conjures up enough authority to appear in charge. There's a big build-up for Charlie as the prima donna, but Moore doesn't have the presence, diction or voice to carry it off. It's no help that McGrath hasn't written her any zingers to match her supposedly acidic personality.

As Wendy the stage manager, Alison Lawrence's acting may be stronger than her singing but it benefits the show by being consistent. David Collins as the producer called The General injects some much-needed energy towards the end when the show's creators seem to run out of ideas for the backstage scenes. He expands the show's satire from musicals themselves to musicals as part of American cultural imperialism. Unfortunately, when Collins get revved up it's hard to understand anything he says or sings.

Director Colin Viebrock could tighten the action and should help the cast towards a punchier delivery. As it is, they tend to swallow the ends of their lines. Michael McGinn's musical staging needs to be much more precise. As lighting and production designer Doug Morum accomplishes a lot with little. Patrick Burwell does a heroic job at the piano. He has enough to do, but it would be nice to integrate him more as a character into the backstage scenes.

There is a big market for small-scale musicals and "Top Gun! The Musical" has the potential to go on to more success. At present the show feels more like a workshop of a musical than a finished product. But, if the creators can bring the backstage scenes up to the same hilarious level as the "Top Gun!" excerpts, then they really will have a sure hit.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Blood Relations

by Sharon Pollock, directed by Eda Holmes
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 21-Nov 30, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Whacking Good Mystery"

Filling the traditional mystery slot at the Shaw Festival this year is a play about a real murder and a real mystery. Sharon Pollock's most popular play "Blood Relations" (1980) deals with the axe murders of Andrew Borden and his second wife Abigail on August 4, 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Andrew Borden's younger daughter Lizzie was accused of the crime, but a jury found her not guilty. Nevertheless, suspicion regarding her guilt made a pariah of her for the rest of her life.

"Did she do it or didn't she?" "And if she did what drove her to it?" These are questions the play examines. To the second question, it provides very clear motives. To the first, it follows history and suggests why we will never know. The Shaw Festival gives the play the best production one could ever hope for.

Drawing on Lizzie's known close friendship with the actress Nance O'Neil, Pollock imagines a day in 1902 when the Actress, as she is known, visits Lizzie and asks her yet again, "Did you do it?" To answer the question Lizzie agrees to fill in the background and have the Actress take her part while Lizzie plays the Bordens' maid Bridget. As their acting takes shape Borden family and friends appear allowing the Actress and Lizzie sometimes to observe their actions, sometimes to participate in them. The game of role-playing allows Lizzie to place the Actress in her position ten years earlier so that the Actress will discover if she, the Actress, would have done it if faced with the same conditions.

Pollock paints a feminist portrait of a woman living in a time when her individuality and freedom are stifled. Forbidden to work, Lizzie's only way of escaping her family is to marry, something she has no desire to do. Her father insists she marry their neighbour, a widower with three children. Meanwhile, he has been signing over money and property to Lizzie's stepmother Abigail and Abigail's unsavoury brother. Since Mr. Borden has not made a will, on his death everything will go to his wife, whom Lizzie despises.

As the Actress who plays the 1892 Lizzie through most of the play, Laurie Paton gives an electrifying performance. She shows us a highly complex woman in whom vulnerability and steely resolve, despair and cunning, continually contend until a moment of terrifying calm arrives when she sees what she believes is the only way out of her dilemma. This is the first role at the Shaw for Paton that has allowed her to show so full and complex a range of emotion. It is marvelous to see her meet the challenges so fearlessly and succeed with such triumph.

As is usual at the Shaw Festival the role of the Actress is not portrayed as a star turn but is fully integrated with the rest of the ensemble. And that ensemble is cast from strength. Jane Perry in one of her best performances plays the 1902 Lizzie as a likable, unassertive woman who has clearly suffered a devastating experience in the past. Clare Coulter in the Tarragon's 1981 production presented Lizzie as more than slightly deranged. While this added the theme of madness to the play, it did not really suit the text that insists on the difference between Lizzie's demeanour and the savagery she is accused of. To present Lizzie a seemingly "normal" makes much more sense. Perry's adoption of a firm Irish accent as Bridget ensures that we are never in doubt about what role she plays or whether it is 1892 or 1902.

All the other roles similarly gain through understatement. It is too easy to portray Andrew and Abigail Borden as outright villains. This cheapens the play by removing much of its ambiguity. Nora McLellan never lives up to Lizzie's negative description of her as simply a "fat cow.” Rather, McLellan makes Abigail seem justly uncomfortable with her combative stepdaughter. Michael Ball makes Andrew earnest and weak-willed. They may be conspiring to disinherit Lizzie, but their very drabness seems incommensurate with the violence they inspire in her.

Lorne Kennedy shows Harry, Abigail's brother, to be rough and scornful, the only character whose behaviour is overtly suspicious. Sharry Flett gives a fine performance as Emma, Lizzie's sister, whose weakness of character makes her flee not confront the difficulties in the house both in 1892 and in 1902. Anthony Bekenn has a firmer grip on his accent as Lizzie's Boston defense lawyer than as the Irish Dr. Patrick, but he, too, reveals the weakness of character underlying the married doctor's continual flirting.

Director Eda Holmes's superb pacing causes an atmosphere of menace to build inexorably through the play. She increases the volatile atmosphere by treating Pollock as if she were Pinter so that even some of the otherwise banal exchanges become charges with repressed emotion.

William Schmuck's design fittingly combines realistic and non-realistic modes. At the beginning, we see through the outlined shuttered outer walls of the Borden home. When the action begins these slide a way to reveal a detailed realistic interior where the wall to the side hallway is missing. At the end, the walls shut the house up again reinforcing the theme of the house as cage and of the past events as sealed off from any final appraisal. Andrea Lundy's highly nuanced lighting is instrumental in making the switches from 1902 to 1892 and back absolutely clear and in underscoring the increasing mood of threat.

The performances, direction and design are so insightful and on such a high level, it's impossible to imagine a better production of this Canadian classic. The play does not finally tell you "whodunit" but challenges you to consider the greater mystery of what actually can be known about another person or an historical event. And it does so in a way that will have you on the edge of your seat.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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On the Twentieth Century

by Cy Coleman, Betty Comden & Adolph Green; directed by Valerie Moore & Patricia Hamilton
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 22-Nov 2, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Off the Rails"

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's 1932 play "Twentieth Century" has been adapted twice. In 1934, Howard Hawks' film of the same name became one of the greatest American comic films. In 1978 the musical "On the Twentieth Century" by Cy Coleman with book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, became a moderate success, but no one would list it as one of the greatest American musicals. The Shaw Festival gives this mock-Thirties musical a nearly impeccable production, but one can't help feeling its energies would have been better spent on the real thing.

In both film and musical theatre, the imperious theatre director Oscar Jaffee ("Jaffe" in the film) has to flee Chicago to avoid creditors after his fourth disastrous show in a row. On the Twentieth Century limited, the most glamorous American train of the day, he meets Lily Garland (née Mildred Plotka) whom he discovered and turned into a star. (The meeting is accidental in the film, intentional in the musical.) If Oscar can get Lily to sign a contract to appear in his next production, her name alone will guarantee investors and help him out of his financial plight. The only problem is that Lily now loathes her former mentor and lover and wants nothing to do with him. Mixed up in all this is a religious nut Letitia Peabody Primrose (a gender switch from "Mathew J. Clark" in the film), who is willing to finance Oscar's next project, the life of Mary Magdalene, since it is based on a religious theme.

At least one third of the film is devoted to Jaffe's discovery and transformation of Ms. Plotka into Ms. Garland and details their mutually dependent relationship before they later happen to find themselves in adjoining drawing rooms on the train. Once the train sets off the mayhem never relents. The musical, however, is keen to get everyone on the train as soon as possible. This causes three problems. First, while some songs move the action forward, just as many reflect on it so that real tension never develops. Second, two extended scenes, a flashback in Act 1 and a fantasy scene in Act 2, take place off the train thus ruining the pressure cooker atmosphere that the film so carefully develops. And third, while Oscar's background is sufficiently filled in, Lily's never is so that their attraction-repulsion, so vital to understanding their relationship, is missing. Also missing is the sense, so clear in the film, that Lily's personality is the mirror image of Oscar's. Both are fantasists who often can't tell reality from illusion.

None of the musical's creators is in top form. Cy Coleman's score is a pastiche of song and dance forms from the 1920s and '30s, none particularly memorable. But that is not as much a problem as the lyrics by the veteran team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. You would never know from this show that they were responsible for "On the Town" or "Singing' in the Rain.” Far too often lyrics for a song consist of a single phrase repeated endlessly as in "Sign Lily, Sign,” "She's a Nut,” and "Oscar/Lily.” There is fine music for a quartet of singing porters, but Comden and Green give them nothing to sing about. The only song in the show were both music and lyrics rise to the occasion is the hilarious "Repent" sung by Miss Primrose.

The show is as enjoyable as it is because the fine cast puts it across with so much energy and conviction. Gary Krawford (Oscar) and Patty Jamieson (Lily) aren't John Barrymore and Carole Lombard and don't pretend to be. Krawford comes off more as a likable old ham than a mad director and Jamieson seems more like a wealthy ingénue than a grand star. Both bring off their roles with panache, Krawford especially in "I Rise Again,” and Jamieson so much so in the "Veronique" number one wishes the Shaw would showcase her in an operetta.

Ultimately, it’s Brigitte Robinson (Miss Primrose) who steals the show. She always suggests mischief and lunacy lurking just beneath her innocent dowdiness. William Vickers and Patrick R. Brown make a great pair as Oscar's loyal but exasperated minions, Oliver Webb and Owen O'Malley. Lisa Horner is hilarious as actress Imelda Horner (a character invented for the musical), who can't sing a note without the help of her accompanist. Jeff Madden exudes energy as Oscar's rival, director Max Jacobs. Evan Builung seems to try to make Lily's boy toy Bruce Granit an interesting character when strong and dumb would do just fine.

Co-directors actor Patricia Hamilton and choreographer Valerie Moore have created highly intricate blocking that makes the show seem more interesting than it really is. Surprisingly Moore doesn't make Oscar and Bruce mirror each other’s actions in the mirror duet "Mine" in Act 1. Since the book doesn't emphasize it enough, they pair should have tried to create more chemistry between the leads. Although model trains in different gauges pass overhead, only once does a character do anything on stage to suggest the motion of a speeding train.

Yvonne Sauriol's costume design is much indebted to the film. While her tea tray with the Twentieth Century logo is clever, she has not solved the show's main challenge of how to depict two adjoining drawing rooms on stage. Her rooms are two open platforms. The two corridor doors and the connecting door thus have to mimed making Harry Frehner's lighting crucial to tell us where to look. As in a farce where "who's where when" is important, real doors need to be used.

"On the Twentieth Century" is another 1970s attempt to recreate the innocent fun of the musical comedies of the 1920s and '30s. All you get, however, is the silliness without the great songs to go with it. The Shaw has had such success with musicals by Gershwin, Kern and Ellis, I wish they'd return to them again instead of to such pale imitations.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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The Birds

by Aristophanes, directed Nikos Dionysios Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Jun 25-Sep 27, 2003 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“As in Dodo”

The current Stratford production of Aristophanes’ “The Birds” is a major disappointment. Stratford has mounted tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides and has a tragedy by Aeschylus opening later this week. But only now has it attempted to stage an ancient Greek comedy. How sad then that the various components of text, music and design do not go together and that a show that begins with such promise quickly outstays its welcome.

If theatregoers have encountered ancient comedy before, it is most likely to have been the type known as New Comedy that formed the basis of the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence. This is the world of wily servants, character types and farcical plots later adapted by Ben Jonson and Molière to Sondheim in his musical “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

Aristophanes (c. 448-388 BC) represents the earlier form known as Old Comedy, a type based on a critique of current events, often pressing its satire into the realm of fantasy, all interspersed with song and dance. If you were to cross the topicality, parody and topsy-turvydom of Gilbert and Sullivan with the rudeness of and absurdity Monty Python, you’d get a pretty good idea of what Aristophanes is like.

In “The Birds” two friends, Pisthetairos and Euelpides, seek the quiet life away from an Athens at war with Sparta. They have used their pet ravens to guide them to the realm of Tereus, now known as Epops, an Athenian changed by the gods into a hoopoe. The two humans, happy among the birds, decide to stay, but to get the birds on their side they have to encourage them to regain their former revered status versus the gods and found their own city, Cloudcuckooland. By intercepting the smoke from animal sacrifices on which the gods live and by charging taxes on passage between heaven and earth, they and the birds will become rich.

The play is rife with irony and given the themes of war, religion, demagoguery and taxes could easily be framed as a satire of modern current events. Unfortunately, director Nikos Dionysios has treated Dudley Fitts’s 1959 translation with too much reverence. In 1996 when the Ancient Comic Opera Company in mounted its long-running production of Aristophanes’ “Clouds” in Toronto, it constantly updated Aristophanes’ references to apply to the news of the day. In Dionysios’s “The Birds,” we are continually being asked to laugh at references that may have been hilarious in 414 BC but are obscure now even to classical scholars. As it is, Aristophanes’ plentiful allusions to Greek mythology, history and geography and especially to specific members of his audience, require projected footnotes to let us in on what the characters on stage think is so funny.

Dionysios’ academic approach is all the more out of place since the design and music have been updated. Teresa Przybylski has costumed Pisthetairos and Euelpides like two early 20th-century explorers. The parade of visitors to Cloudcuckooland all appear in exaggerated modern garb with the Parricide as a leather-and-stud clad punk. The three gods are in modern business suits. Only the goddess Iris and Pisthetairos’ symbolic bride Basilea wear the ancient chiton. For the chorus of birds, Przybylski has designed light frames covered with coloured streamers, long-beaked half-masks and dance boots in a matching colour. Delightful as these costumes are, she has done nothing to connect each chorus member with the specific type of bird or even the specific colour mentioned in the text. Her abstract set consists of what looks like a large white burr serving as both cloud and nest against a blue background. The arrival of the goddess Iris on a metal crane is the visual highlight of the show. Louise Guinand’s lighting seems to have only two settings--bright and dim.

Unlike Przybylski’s postmodern design, Michael Vieira’s music for the many songs takes us back to the 1960s. The settings are so awkward you would think Fitts’s translation was in prose not poetry. They all sound like rejects from “Godspell,” their soft-grained tone contrasting so much with the acerbic satire they kill what little momentum the dialogue generates. Dionysios takes credit as choreographer if grade school hopping and skipping and locker-room drills are choreography. When the birds listen to Pisthetairos, he has them strike poses after every phrase. This may be amusing once or twice, but over two hours becomes quite annoying.

Besides failing to update the text, Dionysios’ main flaw is not making the central action clear. The play begins well enough with our two Athenians feeling their way through a strange fantasy world. But as soon as the chorus appears the narrative line is lost. He lets Act 2 turn into a kind of ancient version of “Laugh In” with a stream of wacky guest appearances but gives us no clue of where the story is heading. The point he completely misses is that Pisthetairos, who has left Athens because of unfair laws and warfare, founds a utopia based on both and becomes just like the rulers he despised. We should get some sense of his growing autocracy and hubris, but we never do. Unlike tragedy, Aristophanes’ comedy rewards Pisthetairos’ hubris with the symbolic Basilea (“royal power”), but the irony and artifice of the ending must be clear. Dionysios ends with a portentous fade-out on Pisthetairos staring a bird, but only Dionysios knows what it’s supposed to signify.

At the beginning Keith Dinicol and Bernard Hopkins play Pisthetairos and Euelpides like the ancestors of Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon. The encounter with the genial Epops, David Kirby in a fine physical performance, augurs a coming adventure. With the arrival of the birds, however, Dinicol pitches his style so high it has nowhere to go and so loses any sense of his character’s gradual development.

David Francis, Tim Campbell and Joanna Schellenberg make an excellent set of koryphairoi (choral leaders), though Campbell’s continual imitation of the Chicken Lady rapidly wears thin. (Besides he’s supposed to be a woodpecker.) Daniela Lama creates a sense of nobility as Iris. Kim Horsman as Messengers #1 and #3 is one of the few actors in the chorus who, when playing an individual part, can make sense of her lines.

It is possible to make Aristophanes’ comedies work today as the Ancient Comic Opera Company proved with its “Clouds” that ran in Toronto for more than a year. The current Stratford production will give most people the impression that Aristophanes’ brand of comedy has rightly become extinct. It hasn’t. It’s the director’s imagination that is wanting.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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No Exit

by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed by Jim Warren Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Jun 24-Aug 29, 2003 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Hell is an Old Hotel”

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit” is one of those plays more read about than seen. The play is historically important as one of the more succinct expressions of existentialism in drama. Director Jim Warren gives it a straightforward but not particularly engaging production. Rather than highlighting the aspects of the play that are still modern, the direction and design conspire to seal the play off as a museum piece.

Songs sung by Jimmy Durante and Edith Piaf greet the audience as it enters the Tom Patterson Theatre. Before the show begins a dapper bellboy removes dustcovers from two ottomans and a pouf on a carpet in a fairly ghastly mixture of colours. First he escorts in Vincent Cradeau, a journalist, a bit later Inez Serrano, a secretary, and finally a young socialite Estelle Delaunay. All three have died recently and have never met before. They are in hell. But no one expected it to look like a dowdy hotel.

Where are the thumbscrews, where are the flames, where are the torturers? Of all their speculations, Inez’s idea turns out to be correct. Everything--the room, their companions for eternity, their preoccupations--has been deliberately planned to give them the maximum pain.

Inez is a lesbian--”one of those women already damned” according to Paul Bowles awkward translation of “femmes damnées.” She can’t stand to see the attraction develop between Vincent and Estelle. Vincent, who was shot by firing squad as a deserter, needs the women to believe he is not a coward. But they don’t oblige him. Estelle needs to be the centre of attention, but she doesn’t want Inez’s attention and Vincent can’t love her unless she says tells him he is a hero. Vincent thus concludes in the most famous line of the play that “Hell is other people.”

The themes of eternal waiting, that people’s lives are the sum of their acts, that there is no inherent meaning in the world, look forward to the Theatre of the Absurd and Beckett. But while the characters propound existential ideas, existentialism has not yet influenced the language or structure of the play. Unlike Beckett’s characters, Sartre’s coherently discourse on their situation. Unlike Beckett, Sartre is writing an existential melodrama where characters intentionally hurt each other and yet bewail the horror of their predicament.

Warren’s task ought to have been to rethink the play and reveal what is modern about it. Instead, the music, Sue LePage’s 1940s costumes and decor, the dustcovers suggest that the play is set in the past and that the director sees the play more as a product of its time than of any relevance today. Not only does this run counter to the idea of hell as eternal, but it underlines the aspects of the play that have dated. Inez’s instant sickening at male-female attraction makes her seem a comic stereotype not a tragic figure. Vincent’s explanations of his crisis, of his need to be told he’s not a coward, even in the midst of sexual passion, meets with unintended laughter as does his longing to be away from women and among “manly men in shirtsleeves.”

As Vincent, Stephen Ouimette is best when the play calls for dry wit as it does at the beginning. He is not able to make Vincent’s visions of the present credible. Chick Reid benefits from playing the most lucid of the three, Inez. Reid gives her authority as an ironic commentator on others and herself. Claire Jullien presents Estelle as an airhead debutante, although Estelle’s nymphomania and murder of her child ought suggest that Estelle is much more complex. Andrew Massingham shows a wry humour as the Bellboy making one wish Sartre had made it a bigger role.

Louise Guinand’s lighting of the infernal hotel room is not harsh enough to convey the pain of the sleepless, unblinking eternity the characters complain of. The normally competent James Binkley has arranged struggles between Vincent and the two women that are so awkward they look ridiculous.

A theatre festival is an ideal place to present an historically important play like “No Exit.” But to present it as a period piece does no service to the work itself or the audience. Current events prove only too well that “Hell is other people.” It’s too bad that through direction, design or a new translation this production is unable to make this point hit home harder. Besides, full price for tickets to a show that is only 75 minutes long is a bit steep. A double bill, say with Beckett’s 1963 “Play,” also about a man and two women in hell, would have made for a more satisfying evening.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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Agamemnon

by Aeschylus, directed David Latham Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford Jun 27-Aug 29, 2003 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“The Seer Steals the Show”

Stratford has previously presented tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides, but “Agamemnon” is the first tragedy by Aeschylus the Festival has ever mounted. Aeschylus (c. 525-456 BC) is earliest of the three great Greek tragedians whose works still survive. All ancient Greek tragedies were presented in trilogies and “Agamemnon” is the first play of Aeschylus’ “Oresteia” (458 BC), the only trilogy that has come down to us complete and a cornerstone of Western drama. Anyone who saw the “Oresteia” staged in Toronto by the Royal National Theatre during the World Stage Festival in 2000 will know how powerful an experience the complete trilogy can be. It is a shame, then, that the Festival has opted not to present the “Oresteia” but rather a trilogy of its own devising called “The House of Atreus” following “Agamemnon” with “Electra” (1937) by Jean Giraudoux and “The Flies” (1943) by Jean-Paul Sartre.

To fill in the background, when the Greek warships assembled at Aulis for the voyage to Troy, the winds ceased to blow. The goddess Artemis demands Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to let them sail. For the ten years of the Trojan War Agamemnon’s queen, Clytemnestra, has planned revenge against her husband for the deed. Now the war has ended, Agamemnon returns home with the prophetess Cassandra as his slave to the bloody welcome Clytemnestra has prepared.

Director David Latham is obviously familiar with Katie Mitchell’s production for the RNT. He uses the wonderfully image-rich Ted Hughes translation which the RNT first performed. He treats the chorus as a group of individuals and divides the lines among them. He plays up the comedy of the sentinel who has been watching for a sign of Troy’s fall for ten years. Like Mitchell, he presents Cassandra to us in a head-to-toe white veil and directs her prophesies as painful birthings. And, shamelessly, he borrows the primary symbol of Mitchell’s production--the red carpet Clytemnestra bids Agamemnon walk on to enter his palace made up of a child’s dresses sewn together.

Despite these “borrowings” Latham does have his own take on the tragedy. Unlike the high tech-plus-1940s RNT design, this production is set in the indeterminate past. Lorenzo Savoini’s set consists of a square pool in front of traditional Greek façade, the broken pediment over the central doorway picking up the frequent mention in the text of how the House of Atreus cracked when Atreus exacted an horrific revenge on his brother Thyestes. Dana Osborne costumes the people of Argos as individuals wearing the kind of Middle Eastern peasant garb one can still see today. Agamemnon’s armour (looking more Roman than Greek) is the only visual reminder that we are in ancient times.

Latham has altered the text in a way most will find both unnecessary and confusing. The scene when Cassandra tells the chorus how she gained her gift of prophesy from Apollo and how he punished her when she rebuffed him is repeated four times--as a prologue to the action, again before her first appearance, in its proper place in the drama and again at the end with Cassandra as a disembodied voice. With a heavy hand Latham is underscoring the irony that Cassandra’s punishment is not to be believed, and probably by extension, that we have not learned from history given Aeschylus’ theme that revenge only begets revenge. The overuse of a child’s doll to illustrate Iphigenia’s plight suggests he thinks we won’t get the point from the chorus’s words.

The best aspect of Latham’s direction is his handling of the chorus. They are not the group of male Argive elders as in the original, but a mixed assembly of Argive citizens of all ages. Latham has carefully divvied up the lines among the group of eleven and directed them so they each have quite distinct personalities. Their individualized reactions create a rich background for the principals’ speeches, though it would be wonderful if all had the same resonance and expressiveness of members Walter Borden or Maria Vacratsis.

Karen Robinson comes close to capturing Clytemnestra’s intensity. In her imagining of the fall of Troy and in her detailing of Agamemnon’s murder, she portrays the queen in an eerie delirium of bloodthirstiness. However, a sense of cruelty and ghoulish anticipation should underlie all of her lines, especially in the profession of love of Agamemnon she gives the Messenger, to make the role truly chilling. This does not happen, Robinson falling back on a kind of coyness that does not suit the queen’s ferocity.

Sean Arbuckle does not have the physical or vocal weight to play Agamemnon. He looks like a young guy in a phony beard, not a mighty warrior and the Greeks’ “King of Kings.” Where he should display a pride so overweening it makes us complicit in Clytemnestra’s plan, we get only bluster.

Sara Topham, in contrast, gives a hair-raising performance as Cassandra. Violent convulsions precede her utterances as if what she has to say is too horrible to speak, to sickening to keep in. The journey from re-living the horror of the House of Atreus, to foreseeing her own death to accepting her fate is both riveting and terrifying.

Scott Wentworth plays a cruel, self-assured Aegisthus. Steve Cumyn could be subtler as the comic Watchman and becomes so later as the Herald. Wendy Greenwood’s lighting is effective, especially in illustrating the sequence of bonfire signals and the conflagration of Troy.

Those who saw the RNT “Oresteia” can rest assured that they saw the more compelling production. But productions of “Agamemnon” don’t come around very often. Once caught up in Aeschylus’ drama and in the sinewy language of Hughes’ translation, you will probably wish you could continue through the story in their company. If nothing else, Stratford’s “Agamemnon” shows what power this tragedy still holds.

© 2003 Christopher Hoile

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