Present Laughter -|- Electra -|- The Flies -|- Phèdre -|- Happy Days -|- The Play's the Thing -|- Troilus and Cressida
-|- This Is Our Youth-|-
Il barbiere di Siviglia -|-Prophètes sans dieu -|- Quiet in the Land -|- The Swanne, Part 2:
Princess Charlotte (The Acts of Venus)
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Le Visiteur

Some reviews of 2003

Others here and here

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Present Laughter

by Noel Coward, directed Brian Bedford
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
Jun 26-Nov 1, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Lovable to a Fault"
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

If you're looking for the safest bet of what to see at Stratford this summer, you need look no further than "Present Laughter". Noel Coward's sparkling 1942 comedy is given a gorgeous production played by an excellent cast. Director and star Brian Bedford emphasizes the play's abundance of wit, and while there is more to find in the play than he does, the high calibre of the performances makes for a pleasant evening of light amusement.

West End star Garry Essendine, all too aware he is ageing, is besieged with people obsessed with him. He's so charming he just can't say no to anybody leaving his devoted secretary Monica and his estranged wife Liz to sort everything out. One problem is Daphne, an upper-class debutante, who, claiming she had forgotten her latch-key, has spent the night in his flat. Another is the would-be author Roland Maule, who needs to be near Garry to work out problems in his own psyche. The most dangerous, though, is Joanna Lyppiatt, whose machinations could ruin the Garry circle of friends and producers and jeopardize his upcoming theatrical tour of Africa. Married to one producer, Hugo, she is having an affair with another, Morris Dixon, and soon sets her sights on Garry.

It is poignant and brave of Brian Bedford, himself an ageing star, to be playing Garry Essendine, particularly since he is too old for the role. Noel Coward wrote the role for himself when he was 39 contemplating the big 4-0, while Bedford is more than 25 years older. This does make a difference. Garry's obsession with growing old while in his thirties shows how vain and egocentric he is. When it is more likely old age he faces, a major source of humour and a key to Garry's character is lost.

Bedford also misses two other aspects of Garry's character. We hear repeatedly that Garry is "always acting", yet Bedford plays him as if he were always being himself. Unlike Juan Chioran in Soulpepper's production in 2001, Bedford does not distinguish between Garry being himself (whatever that may be) and Garry playing a role (as he often does). Thus, the play loses a sense of depth that ties in with the frequent allusions to "Peer Gynt", i.e. that people may not have a self beneath all the layers of masks they present to the world.

The other part of Garry's character is his childishness. Bedford admits in the programme that he has heavily cut the text. One of these cuts is Monica's comforting Garry like a mother after he throws a tantrum. This may make the character more likeable, but is also softens Coward's critique not just of Garry but of all people, theatre people in particular, as merely grown-up children. That Bedford still succeeds in the role is due entirely to his unerring sense of timing and ironic delivery.

Bedford's cutting changes the relationships of the other characters. In the original, it is the motherly Monica, Garry's secretary, whose guidance is essential to Garry's survival. Bedford, in eliminating all reference to Garry's childishness has also truncated Monica's part so that she is left with entering, saying a few choice remarks and exiting, while Garry's wife Liz, by default becomes the dominate female of Garry's harem. It is luxury casting indeed to have Seana McKenna play this diminished Monica, but she does have the presence, the withering glare, the pursed expression to help restore some weight to the part. Domini Blythe is wonderful as Liz, exuding all the charm, grace and sparkle the character should have.

Sara Botsford, returning to Stratford after an absence of 30 years, exudes feline sensuality and power as the predatory Joanna. Tim MacDonald makes the cryptohomosexual Roland a hilarious portrait of a mentally unbalanced fan. Michelle Giroux is quite funny for two acts Garry's latest conquest, Daphne, but unaccountably in Act 3 she drops the high-pitched squeal and high-born accent she had been using as if she were a different character.

In smaller roles, Raymond O'Neill and Shane Carty are rather too generic as Garry's producer friends Hugo and Morris. Brian Tree is in top comic form as Garry's dapper valet, Fred as is the hilariously deadpan Patricia Collins as Garry's Swedish spiritualist maid Miss Erikson, though it would help if she adopted the accent of some known Scandinavian country. Lally Cadeau is suitably grand in the cameo role of Daphne's mother, Lady Saltburn.

The action takes place in the elegant two-story high Art Deco apartment Michael Yeargan has designed. Catherine Zuber's stunning costumes makes 1930's fashion plates of all the characters except Miss Erikson and Roland Maule. But there are oversights. Would a valet own a tux much less wear one to the Tottenham Court Road? If Monica is so repressed why does she wear low-cut red blouses?

All is lit by Michael J. Whitfield, who masterfully captures the subtle effects of the changing times of day as seen through the set's massive floor-to-ceiling window. To set the tone, Don Horsburgh has compiled recordings of salon music of the period played before and after the show and during the intermissions.

Indeed, the calibre of the whole production is so high that on exiting one is surprised to find oneself in downtown Stratford instead of London or New York. Only those who know the play and its original dynamics will have a problem with Bedford's rejigging of the text. For everyone else this is the most refreshing two hours of theatre to be had in town this year.

©Christopher Hoile

Electra

by Aeschylus, directed Leon Rubin
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
Jun 28-Aug 30, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Comedy Blooms into Tragedy"
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Rather than following Aeschylus's "Agamemnon" with the other two plays of his trilogy, the "Oresteia", Stratford has decided to replace what would be the next play, "The Libation Bearers", with Jean Giraudoux's "Electra" of 1937. Both plays depict Electra and her brother Orestes taking revenge on their mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus for the murder of their father Agamemnon. Giraudoux's "Electra" is a delightful and thought-provoking play in its own right. But seeing it immediately after "Agamemnon" will throw most people for a loop.

Giraudoux's play requires that we forget some of the most powerful moments in Aeschylus. "Agamemnon" concludes with Clytemnestra boasting to the populace of Argos that she has killed their king and with Aegisthus pledging to repress any resistance to his rule. In Giraudoux, the populace including Electra herself, believe the lie spread by Clytemnestra that Agamemnon slipped when going to his bath and accidentally fell on his sword. Although she lives in the same palace with them, Electra somehow also does not know that Clytemnestra and Aegisthus are lovers. Considered on its own, Giraudoux's premise seems unlikely, except that it makes his overall scheme for the action possible.

The point Giraudoux seeks to demonstrate with "Electra" is explained by the Gardener: "In nature everything becomes what it truly is". Biology and evolution take the place of fate. Electra has been living an unexamined life, instinctively hating her mother but not knowing why. Only when her brother Orestes appears does she begin to look actively for answers about what really happened in the past. The more she learns the clearer it becomes that her role and Orestes will be to wreak revenge. By the end her decision is made more difficult since Argos is under siege from Corinth and demanding the deaths of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra will also entail the fall of Argos.

Giraudoux's notion of growth as fate is reflected in his concept of the Eumenides or Furies, external embodiments of a guilty conscience. When we first meet them the three are mischievous six-year-old schoolgirls. As Electra's knowledge of the past increases, they age until by the end they are attractive adult women. In addition to the Eumenides, Giraudoux provides another, more Brechtian chorus in the form of a beggar who, as often happens in Greek myth, may also be a god. He knows the story and its eventual outcome and sits in the audience with us as an ironic commentator on the action.

Giraudoux's concept also affects the genre of the play. The first act is quite clearly a comedy. The main difficulty is not revenge and murder but Electra's forthcoming marriage to the gardener. The main battle she has with her mother is whether Clytemnestra did or did not intentionally drop Orestes as a child. The comedy is reinforced by a subplot dealing with an elderly judge and his flirtatious young wife Agatha. But as the characters and the drama itself grow to be the tragedy it truly is, comedy drains out of the action.

This fascinating play receives a delightful production. Lorenzo Savoini's set from "Agamemnon" has cracked further and is bound in red bunting, suggesting perhaps the blood of the House of Atreus has seen. The stage and auditorium is decorated as a garden underscoring the theme of natural growth. Sarah Armstrong's costumes reflecting French styles in the 1930s are a visual treat, especially her sequence of storybook-like matching outfits for the Eumenides. Wendy Greenwood's lighting is always attentive to the work's progressively changing mood. Leon Rubin directs with wit and economy, a refreshing change from some of the excesses of "Henry VI" last year or "Pericles in this.

Rubin has drawn fine performances from nearly all the cast. The principal exception is Sarah Dodd in the title role. While all the others seem to relish the fantasy of the play, Dodd's delivery is flat and her acting unanimated, preventing the production from being the complete artistic success it could have been.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast catches the right mood. Dion Johnstone makes a dashing and sensitive Orestes. Rami Posner captures the self-deprecating humour of Electra's would-be fiancé, the Gardener. Walter Borden and Sara Topham are suitably more exaggerated as the two imports from French farce, the irascible Judge and the vivacious Agatha. Sean Arbuckle is excellent at maintaining the ambiguity of the mysterious Beggar whose imperturbability and wry comments on the action may suggest a more-than-human knowledge.

Karen Robinson and Scott Wentworth reprise the roles of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus they played in "Agamemnon", even though Giraudoux's version of these characters is very different. Robinson aptly finds the comedy in this fussy, willfully forgetful woman, far removed from Aeschylus' imperious, bloodthirsty queen. Wentworth is not Aeschylus' boastful tyrant, but an efficient ruler whose insistence on order hides the guilt that has clearly ravaged him.

Julia Donovan, Randi Helmers and Julie Tepperman are a continualk pleasure as the three Eumenides, precise in choral speaking, clear in capturing each shift in age and hilarious in their pert gestures and delivery.

This production reveals such vitality in Giraudoux that one hopes for more revivals of his work. "The Trojan War Will Not Take Place" would have been good parallel programming for the Festival's upcoming "Troilus and Cressida". Despite a disappointment in the title role, this is overall the most successful production in Stratford's "House of Atreus" series and, in thought and mirth, the most entertaining.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Flies

by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed Peter Lichtenfels
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
Jun 28-Aug 30, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Swatted"

The third of Stratford's "House of Atreus" series is also the least successful. The main culprit is Peter Lichtenfels' awkward direction. When he can't make dramatic sense of the more didactic sections of Sartre's 1943 work, he has them played for laughs which hardly shows much faith in the text. This uncommitted approach leads, unsurprisingly, to a tedious, unengaging evening.

If Stratford had decided to produce Aeschylus' original trilogy, the third play would have been "The Eumenides". After witnessing Clytemnestra's horrific revenge on her husband in "Agamemnon", and her children's revenge on her and her lover Aegisthus in "The Libation Bearers", Aeschylus examines the primitive nature of revenge in "The Eumenides" and shows the establishment of law and trial by jury as the gods' solution for sublimating man's bloodthirsty passions into a more rational system.

Sartre, of course, is an existentialist and has no time for Aeschylus' plaidoyer for the gods and the status quo. In this his first play, Sartre turns Aeschylus' theme into a morality play supporting his own existentialist doctrine. To be free, man must take full responsibility for his actions and not assume there is any other authority over him but himself. Man must rid himself of all concepts of fate, gods or morality dictated from supposedly divine sources. This message is hard to miss since Sartre spells it out in so many words at the play's conclusion.

An audience having seen the first two installments of the "House of Atreus" series will be unhappy to find that the first half of Sartre's play rehashes central plot of Giraudoux's "Electra". Thus we have to witness yet again the meeting of brother and sister, the relating of the Clytemnestra's revenge and the siblings psyching themselves up to commit their own revenge. With such an overlap, "Electra" and "The Flies" should not really be staged sequentially.

Sartre's Electra is a tomboy, made a servant by her mother and stepfather, who carries out daily but ineffectual protests against them as she waits for Orestes to arrive to take action. Argos has become a haven for flies, attracted by the stench of death that infects the place. As the play begins Orestes and his tutor find themselves in Argos on the Day of the Dead, a ceremony instituted by Aegisthus, when the dead supposedly come back to torture the living with guilt. Quite obviously this yearly ceremony is an expansion to the public of Aegisthus' own private suffering.

Spurred on by Orestes' arrival, Electra attempts to demonstrate that the people of Argos are in the throes of a mass delusion and that the "dead" go away if one simply refuses to believe in them. Her plan is thwarted by a mysterious stranger, Jupiter in disguise, who creates a supernatural event to thrust the people back into submission. The second act foregoes drama to preach the existentialist gospel and ends with a debate between Orestes and Jupiter where Orestes proves that Jupiter may need him but he does not need Jupiter. Orestes, unlike the inexplicably weaker Electra, is ready to experience true freedom fully aware of the loneliness it will entail.

Far more imagination than Lichtenfels demonstrates is needed to make so didactic a play involving. His confusion is evident in his treatment of the title characters. Making silly scissors-like hand movements, they first appear in gasmasks, seemingly half muscid, half human, and a clever reference to the time the play was written. Later they turn up without the masks but with dark circles around their eyes as if in a 1920s expressionist film. Even though they have always been identified as the Furies (aka Erinyes or Eumenides), when they are called on to assail Orestes and Electra, their group no longer includes men and they alternately buzz like flies and bark like dogs. (Are they dogflies?) At no time are they frightening, and the show plays out more like a lesser episode of "Star Trek" than Greek myth.

Karen Robinson (Clytemnestra) and Scott Wentworth (Aegisthus) repeat the roles they had in the previous two plays while Dion Johnstone (Orestes) and Sarah Dodd (Electra) reprise the same parts they had in "Electra". Dodd continues to give an underpowered performance, probably meant to convey cynicism, but is too devoid of intensity for the character. Robinson's queen is still the self-absorbed matron she was in Giraudoux. Wentworth's Aegisthus has now become a grotesque caricature seemingly modelled on Marlon Brando in "The Godfather". It falls to Johnstone single-handedly to raise the tone of the production with a sense of heroism, commitment and vision. It's a pity his strong performance has to struggle against so much directorial mediocrity.

Steve Cumyn, rather indifferent in the previous two plays, really blossoms in the major role of Jupiter. Cumyn gives him an attractive personality as a witty observer and sly trickster that helps mitigate play's gloom. He is so effective we ignore the central problem of the play--namely, that Sartre shows us that Jupiter and the Flies exist even though he wants us to realize that they don't.

Walter Borden provides much-needed comic relief and sense of humanity as Orestes' unadventurous Tutor. In smaller roles Sara Topham (the Young Woman), Maria Vacratsis (Old Woman/First Erinye) and Jeffrey Wetsch (the Idiot Boy) all turn in fine performances.

Lorenzo Savoini, designer for all three "House of Atreus" plays, unaccountably adds doors to Agamemnon's palace for "The Flies". Red, used for the carpet of dresses in "Agamemnon" and the bunting in "Electra", now appears in an ill-conceived portrait of Jupiter trailing on the stage so that actors either trip on it or awkwardly avoid it. Wendy Greenwood's dim lighting levels contribute to the picture of Argos as a doomed city and it is a relief when she pulls out all the stops for Jupiter's glorious vision of the world of order he has created.

With Sartre's first and second plays both on the playbill at Stratford, it becomes clear why he is better known as a philosopher than a playwright. Shaw and Brecht are both accused of didacticism, but Sartre doesn't have the wit of the former or the dramatic flair of the latter. To make the plays work the director must supply what they lack. Neither Jim Warren in "No Exit" nor Peter Lichtenfels in "The Flies" has developed a sufficiently imaginative strategy for their productions. Besides this, Sartre's version of Aeschylus can only have its fullest effect if an audience is already familiar with Aeschylus' version. How much better it would have been to have presented Ted Hughes' translation of Aeschylus' complete trilogy first before moving on to later interpretations of it.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Phèdre

by Jean Racine, directed by Daniel Brooks
Soulpepper, du Maurier Theatre Centre, Toronto
July 18-Aug 16, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Phèdre Undone"

Racine's "Phèdre" (1677) is considered the pinnacle of French dramatic literature. For French actresses the title role is what Hamlet is for actors in the English-speaking world. Soulpepper's first foray into French neoclassical tragedy could have been a triumph were it not for director Daniel Brooks's annoyingly wrong-headed production. That the play's greatness still shines through is due to the efforts of a very strong cast.

The story, based on Euripides' "Hippolytus" (428 BC), finds Phèdre is dying from the strain of hiding her unquenchable passion for her stepson Hippolytus. When a report comes that her husband, Hippolytus' father, Theseus is dead, she reveals her love to her stepson. When the report is proved false, Phèdre's nurse Oenone encourages her to accuse Hippolytus of incest to save herself. Theseus' curse, Oenone's guilt and Phèdre's shame lead to a tragic outcome. Phèdre, like her half-brother the Minotaur, is lost in a maze of passion. In this existential examination of sin, Phèdre, the granddaughter of Helios the sun god and daughter of Minos a judge in hell, sees no escape from shame in this life or the next.

Brooks has deservedly won kudos for his tightly controlled, minimalist style. He might be thought the perfect match for Racine, who deliberately pared down both plot and vocabulary to a minimum beyond that dictated by 17th-century French poetics. Brooks's style has previously suited modern minimalists writers like Beckett and Pinter and caught the essence of an expansive writer like Goethe. With "Phèdre", however, he focusses so intently on underscoring the artificiality of the play that he risks suffocating its drama beneath his affectations.

Brooks has stylized and restricted the actors' blocking, gestures and movement. While it does create a sense of restraint to counter the characters' raging passions, it also soon becomes precious. One frequently has the impression that Brooks is more interested in how the actors are positioned and lit than in what they are saying. In a play where the sun is not just a theme but the immortal grandfather of the title character, he has strangely not encouraged lighting designer Andrea Lundy to locate the source of outside light in any precise way except at the very end. He asks for a non-naturalistic style from Lundy, creating many pretty chiaroscuro pictures punctuated by periodic whiteouts, but unrelated to the play's imagery.

Brooks' worst decision is to have Richard Feren's soundscape play throughout the entire length of the play. Stratford's habit of underscoring famous speeches with music is bad enough, but this is truly irritating and points to a lack of confidence in the spoken word. It also turns Racine's dialogue where silence is as important as in Beckett literally into melodrama. On its own Feren's music with its twinklings and whooshes is attractive but it seem more suited to the soundtrack of a sci-fi movie than a drama of human passion.

It's hard to know what Dany Lyne's gloomy set means. Is it the furnace where Phèdre says she lives? Is it the pit that Theseus says he finds himself? Are the increasingly smaller doors behind the main door mean to suggest a maze? If so why is there direct entrance from the outside? Or do they present the story as a series of Chinese boxes? Lyne's costumes mixing old and new are dull for the men, beautiful for the women, but it's hard to understand why Phèdre, a woman who longs only to die, should accoutre herself an elegant gown that makes her seem vain.

If Phèdre is one of the Everests for an actress, Nancy Palk makes a noble effort but does not reach the top. She is far too vital for someone who has lost her will to live. Phèdre's frequent bouts of self-laceration should be seen as her attempts to define and punish herself at the same time, while Palk can't remove the tone of complaint from her voice that makes these scenes sound like overdramatized ramblings. When Phèdre confesses her love for Hippolytus, Palk allows coyness to enter where she should show the horror of being compelled to speak the unspeakable.

Jonathan Watton does very well as Hippolytus even if he doesn't fully project the character's all-consuming pride. Tanja Jacobs also does not fully explore the motivations of Phèdre's nurse and confidante Oenone, whose name the cast is consistent in mispronouncing. Jacobs gives us a woman who seems kindly, constantly pressing her mistress to live, but is this pressure compassionate? There must be more to someone who so easily can lie and scheme. Yet, Jacobs does makes us feel Oenone's devastation when Phèdre finally rejects her.

In luxury casting Yanna McIntosh and Kate Hennig, both of whom could play Phèdre when the time comes, are Hippolytus' forbidden beloved Aricia and her confidante Ismène. McIntosh's presence insures that Aricia is not the frightened captive as she is sometimes played. Rather, this Aricia is full of anger and pride and makes her acceptance of Hippolytus' declaration of love believable.

William Webster turns in one of his best ever performances as Hippolytus' confidant Théramène. His chilling relation of the supernatural catastrophe that befalls Hippolytus held the audience in rapt silence clinging to his ever word.

Diego Matamoros might seem an odd choice for the aging hero Theseus, but yet again he proves that he is one of Canada's greatest actors. Along with Webster he is the one who captures the precise tone of the play. Only with his entrance after the intermission does the play finally come together. Showing superb control of pace and inflection, he makes the rough poetry of Ted Hughes's translation actually sound like poetry and finds greater nuance in the lines than do the other principals.

Those who think that French neoclassical tragedy cannot succeed in English have not seen the thrilling "Phèdre" starring Patricia Conolly that Brian Bedford directed for Stratford in 1990 or the "Phèdre" and "Britannicus", both starring Diana Rigg, that Jonathan Kent directed at the Almeida in 1998. In the right hands the power of these plays can sweep you up in their forward momentum and leave you gasping for breath. Daniel Brooks's affectations chop up the action and undermine its power. It draws attention to itself and not to the characters whose conflicts he has not deeply enough considered. Nevertheless, enough of the performances are good that the play still hits home, if only in its conclusion, despite Brooks' tricks. Let's hope that Soulpepper continues to explore this genre that has so many riches to discover.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Happy Days

by Samuel Beckett, directed by Vikki Anderson
Soulpepper and DVxT Theatre, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto
July 16-August 16, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Fear No More the Heat o' the Sun"

The curtain opens. A deafening alarm bell rings. Several minutes later a woman in a party dress buried up to her waist in earth under a blazing sun awakens. This is Winnie, the central figure of Beckett's 1963 play "Happy Days". Despite the oddity of her situation, she declares, "Another heavenly day".

So begins Beckett's depiction of the conflict between the mind that likes to believe in its freedom and control and the finite, decaying body where it is trapped and whose death extinguishes both. Unlike Beckett's better-known "Waiting for Godot" and "Endgame", the elements of "Happy Days" because they involve everyday activities hit closer to home. To help herself pass the time in her fixed position, Winnie busies herself with brushing her teeth, considers combing her hair, putting on her hat, chatting with taciturn, largely unseen husband Willie, imperfectly recalling "immortal lines" of poetry, bringing up memories of the past, telling stories and deciding whether to sing her song from "The Merry Widow". The bag, the objects in it, especially the Browning revolver, her parasol, are all "mercies", comforts to ease the torture of days that now are signalled by a bell for sleeping and a bell for waking. As usual in Beckett, life on earth is hell.

A situation we might have thought intolerable in Act 1 becomes worse in Act 2. There Winnie is buried up to her neck and can only recall what comforts the bag and revolver used to be. She continues to cheer herself with the small things that make her day "happy", but we and she are now all too aware of what will happen in Act 3, if there were one.

Director and designer Vikki Anderson has decided to make Winnie's situation more humiliating by making the enclosing mound of earth, under Bonnie Beecher's deliberately hash light, look like a giant cow patty. Rather than having the mound grow higher as in some productions making the powers that be seem actively malevolent, Anderson has Winnie sink in this filth up to neck, as if living were really a gradual sinking into the grave.

Al Beckett's plays are all theatrical metaphors. Winnie, with the generally unresponsive Willie as audience, is constantly prompting herself--"Now begin Winnie. Now begin your day"--to keep herself going through her intolerable allotted time. Anderson highlights this aspect by placing an old-fashioned proscenium arch around the central mound and within the modern proscenium of the Premiere Dance Theatre.

As a director, Anderson takes a common view of the text, playing up Winnie's unflagging optimism, heroism in fact, in trying to triumph over adversity by keeping her spirit high as she sinks ever lower. Only in Act 2 does she allow Winnie to realize the full horror of her situation. While this makes a clear contrast between the two acts, it comes at the expense of preventing Winnie's role from being richer in Act 1, aware of her plight but deliberately suppressing her fear. In Beckett's own production in London in 1979, Winnie was already coming unhinged in Act 1, undertaking her daily ritual with an air of desperation and sense of futility. Nevertheless, Anderson does manage Act 2 beautifully by bringing out the full ambiguity of the final image. Is Willie reaching out to Winnie or, a final blow to Winnie's self-confidence, to the revolver?

Given Anderson's directorial approach that doesn't allow her to mine as much from the text in Act 1 as she otherwise could, Martha Burns gives a sterling performance as Winnie. Burns is really too young and healthy looking for the role, making Winnie seem like someone who was taken in her prime. But Burns overcomes this by playing Winnie as a Rosedale socialite whose preoccupation with minutia has successfully overridden concern about the larger issues in life. This may not be a deep reading but it is hilarious and perfectly executed.

That Burns could have made more out of Act 1 is obvious in Act 2. She commands the stage simply with her voice and facial gestures. Now desperation has crept into her tone. Her single sottovoce cry of "Help" is chilling. The story she tells herself about a mouse running up a girl's leg is clearly an excuse for her finally to scream, to react to the horror. It is a harrowing moment. Her final look at Willie when doubt about his goal enters her mind is devastating.

Michael Simpson is also excellent in the rather thankless role of Willie. His few remarks both reveal a real link to Winnie and his mental preoccupation. His only full appearance on stage is fittingly, as often in Beckett, both ridiculous and pitiful.

Though Anderson could have brought out more from the text than she does, this is still a very good production and shows yet again what a superb actor Martha Burns is. On the evening I attended the audience sat in respectful silence throughout as if they had come determined to endure a depressing play. Yet the play overflows with humour based on truthful observations of human behaviour. Yes, Beckett does confront us with the undeniably unpleasant facts of existence, but he encourages to laugh at our shared, inescapable plight . After all, what is the alternative?

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Play's the Thing

by Ferenc Molnár, directed by László Marton
Soulpepper, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto
Sep 5-27, 2003
by Christopher Hole, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"A Delectable Treat"

Soulpepper first presented Ferenc Molnár's delightful 1926 comedy, "The Play's the Thing", in 1999 in only its second season. It showed that the company could not only encompass the grand drama of Schiller's "Don Carlos" and the satirical formality of Molière's "The Misanthrope" but also the urbane wit tinged with nostalgia of Central European comedy. The current revival is even better than the 1999 production. Everything about the dialogue and the action is crisper, cleaner, more precise. The show runs like clockwork.

The Hungarian Molnár (1878-1952) uses a simple farcical plot for sophisticated look at the interplay of reality and illusion uncovering the artifice of the former and the truth of the latter. Unlike the anxiety and despair such a subject produces in Pirandello's "Six Characters in search of an Author", Molnár accepts the intermingling of real and unreal as a fact of life, gently amused that this should trouble anyone. Adapter P. G. Wodehouse of Jeeves and Wooster fame gives the work his own brand of witty absurdity.

Successful dramatist Sandor Turai and his collaborator Mansky have written the libretto of a new operetta set to music by their protégé the young composer Albert Adam. Albert is engaged to the prima donna Ilona Szabo and all seems well until Turai and Mansky discover that Ilona's former lover Almady is also staying in the same castle they are and may be trying to rekindle his romance with Ilona. Outside Ilona's door the three operetta writers overhear Almady in passionate conversation with Ilona and assume the worst. The strife this causes makes Albert want to tear up his score and break with Ilona, but Turai has a plan to save the situation. He will try to convince Albert that what he overheard was merely Ilona and Almady rehearsing a play. Thus what was real will be made a fiction to cause a beneficial real effect.

Anyone who thinks self-referentiality is a postmodern invention will be surprised to hear Molnár's characters speak of how a play should begin in actually beginning the play and enacting three possible Act 2 conclusions. When Ilona and Almady rehearse their actual conversation as Turai's play, mirrors reflects mirrors to wonderfully dizzying effect.

With two exceptions the cast is the same as in 1999. Allegra Fulton plays Ilona, the role played by Karen Robinson and Jonathan Watton plays Albert, the role played by Mike Shara. Fulton waits until Act 3 to give Ilona much personality, a mixture of caprice and shame, but the show would be stronger if she had established this from the start. Watton emphasizes the composer's intensity over his youth making the part funnier and more believable.

The other five actors make a welcome return. Diego Matamoros is the wry, witty Turai, masterfully in control of the action. William Webster is perfect as his foil Mansky, less intellectual and more prey to emotion. Michael Hanrahan is the ultra-proper servant Dwornitschek who contrasts with Jim Warren as the scatterbrained secretary Mell. Again the actor who garners the most laughter of the evening is C. David Johnson as the pompous actor Almady. His performance in the rehearsal scene of Act 3 is priceless, as it dawns on him that Turai is punishing him by filling his lines with impossibly long French names. Showing Almady's attempts to maintain his dignity despite the risibility of his dialogue has the audience literally doubled over in laughter.

Director Marton has sharpened the performances and the timing. He has encouraged a slight formality in the actors' gestures to underscore Molnár's view of the play as play. Julie Fox's set places highly ornate doorways and a window against black-curtained nothingness, again to bring out the sense of knowing artifice. Victoria Wallace's costumes complement the set and Kevin Lamotte's lighting reflects the precision given the whole work.

This Viennese pastry of a play is even more delectable this time around. Give yourself a treat and see it.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Troilus and Cressida

by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
Aug 13-Sep 28, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"The Anti-'Romeo and Juliet'"

For more than 400 years most criticism of "Troilus and Cressida" was devoted to proving Shakespeare had nothing to do with it. Its unrelievedly bitter tone, its depiction of a world where there is no room for heroism or romantic love, its pervasive imagery of sex, disease and waste hardy fit with sentimental views of the Bard of Avon. Yet, after the outrages of the 20th century and this, the play seems more relevant than ever.

The current production, only the third in Stratford's history, is far superior to David William's disastrous staging in 1985 that seemed more determined to shock than make sense of the play. The great virtue of Richard Monette's production is how clearly it tells the tale. The plot involving the Trojan Troilus' love for Cressida, daughter of a Greek priest, is played mostly upstage and is pitted against the action downstage involving the Greeks' attempt after seven pointless years of war to encourage their greatest hero Achilles to end his fit of sulking to fight again. Just as the Trojan Pandarus woos his niece to love Troilus, so Ulysses woos Achilles to fight by making it seem the Greeks favour the ox-like Ajax as their champion. But the world, at war for an unworthy cause, ruins any possibility for romantic love or true heroism.

Monette's production is marred by occasional excess. He makes Helen, who is supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world, into a sex-crazed blond bimbo and Paris, her Trojan lover, into a brain-fried surfer dude complete with silly blond wig. Shakespeare may not give Helen any hidden depths, but we do have to see how two nations could go to war over her. As for Paris, he wants to keep Helen not but he's so horny but because three goddesses awarded her to him as a prize even though she was already married. Monette has the two deliver their lines while trying out various sexual positions so that we can't hear what they say for all the panting. Achilles and his lover Patroclus may be the only homosexual couple Shakespeare depicted. But having Patroclus flash himself to Ulysses as some kind of rebuke makes no sense since the Greeks were so used to male nudity and to homosexuality.

Monette has decided that Pandarus should come down with some sort of venereal disease after Cressida leaves him signalled to the audience with increasing layers of horror makeup. This sentimentalizes a character in an unsentimental play who likely already has the "diseases" (plural) he refers to from the very start. The rap song Keith Thomas has given him in Act 1 is totally out of character with the rest of the play as is the track from Nine Inch Nails at the end. Monette makes doomed love the thread to guide us through the plethora of scenes and characters though at the expense of the equally important political scenes that don't receive the same degree of detail.

If one can look beyond these flaws, there are some fine performances on offer. Chief among these is Bernard Hopkins, who accomplishes the difficult task of making us believe Pandarus truly cares for Cressida even while we censure his unchecked libido for any male under thirty. For the first time Cressida's parting from Pandarus has real emotional resonance. Also outstanding is Stephen Ouimette, who manages to give Shakespeare's grungiest, bitterest fool Thersites a deadpan humour that works.

In the titles roles David Snelgrove and Claire Jullien work very well together. Jullien gives Cressida a frivolous nature from the start so that her later betrayal of Troilus is believable. Snelgrove captures the idealism of Troilus' ardour and shows how Troilus channels his frustration over losing Cressida into lust for battle. Both in their weeping and wailing miss a sense of fatality as their vow of Act 3 comes terribly true.

Jeffrey Renn brings out the humour in the dim-witted Ajax. Geordie Johnson, subbing for Andy Velásquez, is a noble but vulnerable Hector. As his rival Achilles, Jamie Robinson fumes but can't match the physical or vocal presence of Johnson. David Shelley is thankfully not the effete Patroclus as he is so often played and brings a sense of tragedy to Patroclus' death. Peter Donaldson would be a fine Ulysses if he could emphasize more fully the cunning that informs his every speech.

As Paris and Helen, Tim Campbell and Linda Prystawska can't help the cartoons Monette has made of them, but even so Prystawska doesn't make sense of her lines. Andrew Massingham, subbing for Wayne Best, plays Agamemnon more as if her were a baseball coach than noble leader. Roger Shank's flat line readings as Diomedes don't help in explaining why Cressida should give up Troilus for him.

Ann Curtis's design helpfully sets the earth-toned Trojans apart from the black-clad Greeks, but Patroclus wrap-around terry skirt seems anachronistic as do the black Speedos Ajax and Achilles wear. Kevin Fraser's captures the mood of every scene and his use of spotlights helps reinforce parallels among the various couples. The normally excellent fight director John Stead seems to run out of ideas how to make the long sequence of one-on-one battles in Act 5 interesting.

"Troilus and Cressida" is so seldom done at Stratford many will not want to wait another 18 years for a better one to come along. If Monette had managed to hold back on his various excesses, this staging would be much more recommendable since it so clearly reveals the play as a kind of anti-"Romeo and Juliet". Given the state of the world, "Troilus and Cressida" deserves to be programmed more often if only to show those in the past have thought our own worst thoughts.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

This Is Our Youth

by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Woody Harrelson
macIDeas, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
Sep 22-Oct 18, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Values and Valuables"

"This Is Our Youth" has opened the fall theatre season with a bang. It's the Toronto premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's 1996 play, a recent success in London's West End, and features three young Canadian actors under the direction of Hollywood actor Woody Harrelson. Though still rather rough and ready, the show deserves to be a success.

Lonergan is best known as the screenwriter and director of the indie film "You Can Count on Me" (2000). Only three months ago his "Lobby Hero" (2001) played on the same stage at Berkeley Street. What links these with "This is Our Youth" is a focus on people making moral decisions in a seemingly amoral world and the belief that people, no matter how chaotic their lives might be, have the capacity to change for the better.

"This is Our Youth" is set in March 1982 in Dennis Ziegler's apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. Rather than go to university, Dennis has asked his wealthy parents to pay for his own place. He has been dealing drugs for five years and is a user himself, bursting with barely controlled aggression against everyone around him. Into his space steps his nerdy friend Warren Straub, who after a fight with his business tycoon father, has stolen $15,000 in cash from him. When Dennis is out to do a deal, Jessica Goldman, a girl Warren has had his eye on, drops by and their attempt to kill time till Dennis comes back leads to a sexual encounter.

Character, not plot, is what this play is about. These teenagers, all from wealthy, messed up families, try to play adult by playing mental and physical games with each other. They feign the indifference of "whatever" when in fact they are unable to cope with the confused emotions they feel. Gradually it beomes clear that they have each unconsciously patterned their behaviour on the parents they claim they hate. While the play is a funny-sad portrait of the so called "slacker" generation, it is also a critique of the characters' parents who abandoned the ideals of the 1960s for the accumulation of wealth. It is no accident that Lonergan shows that the three, espcially the collector Warren, treasure artefacts and music of the 1950s and '60s, a time both of their own innocence and their parents' social conscience.

Autobiographical in nature, this is Lonergan's first play and the scenes do have a tendancy to meander, showing none of the crispness of "Lobby Hero". Lonergan has reproduced teenspeak with amazingly accuracy, peppering lines with "like", "um" and "totally", snippets of school learning mixed in with vulgarity and the bluster of exaggeration. The one exception is Jessica, whom Lonergan gives fairly uncolloquial speeches, meant rather too obviously to be keys to the plays.

Harrelson has encouraged an improvisorial quality to the action and delivery that seems as naturalistic as it is messy. Given the highly physical performances he has asked for, it's no wonder that Fabrizio Filippo (Dennis) should have been injured in rehearsal. (Harrelson obtained from Lonergan himself a few lines to help explain Dennis's foot injury.) The opening night featured an unusual amount of unintentional falls, broken props and scenery.

Dennis is supposed to be charismatic and Filippo makes sure that he is, commanding the stage with vigour and bravado. Yet, Filippo reveals Dennis's flaws beneath the façade. His miniscule attention span, his overreactions, his mood swings all suggest all suggest that Dennis's life is spinning out of control. Soon we realize, as does Warren, that his "hero"'s life is empty and that he has a less firm grasp on reality than Warren does. As Dennis says of himself late in the play, "I am high on fear".

Marcello Cabezas gives an excellent performance as Warren that grows in power throughout the evening. We first view him as the clumsy, geeky nebbish as Dennis sees him. But gradually we see that Dennis's constant barrage of insults only makes Warren less secure. His suitcase full of childhood junk are actually collector's items and show that Warren had some sense, unlike Dennis, that there are things of value beside what can be bought and sold. Cabezas shows that passive as Warren may seem, he is constantly evaluating himself and those around him and finding he is not the idiot his best friend thinks he is.

As Jessica, Marya Delver has the least naturalistic dialogue to work with. Though Jessica is far more "together" than Warren or Dennis, Delver's level of intensity doesn't match that of Cabezas and Filippo as it should. Though she is on the right track, not only should she project her character with greater strength but also her voice.

Michael Gianfrancesco has designed the suitably grungy set and Lyon Smith the realistic sound. Tara Posluns has a good sense of the ordinary 1980s look and shows that Jessica may be studying design but hasn't graduated beyond simply colour coordination. Kimberly Purtell's lighting deliberately enhances the unpleasantness of Dennis apartment but softens in response to the abatement of characters' harsher emotions.

If Woody Harrelson's name brings a younger crowd to the theatre see this play, so much the better, because they will find a stage work that speaks to them on their own terms. But "This is Our Youth" has much to say to the older generation who created so callous a world while poorly equipping its children to cope with it.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Prophètes sans dieu

written and directed by Slimane Benaïssa
Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto Oct 29-Nov 2, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Abraham's Descendants"

The Théâtre français de Toronto is offering Torontonians with a knowledge of French the chance to see an acclaimed play written and directed by the Algerian author Slimane Benaïssa. The theme of "Prophètes sans dieu" from 1998 could hardly be more pertinent: "Why are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which preach peace, always at war?" Even if the play does not answer the question, it provides an intriguing perspective on what the three religions share in common.

The play concerns a playwright (played by Sliman Benaïssa himself) who has had a lifelong fascination with the three holy books of the West--the Torah, the Bible and the Koran. He has always been curious about the profession of prophet and the lack of peace their teachings seem to have engendered and so summons a meeting of Moses, Jesus and Mohammed. First Moses, then Jesus appears and immediately they begin to provoke each other about the differing points of their belief. Jesus tells Moses his journey was horizontal whereas his own was vertical, contrasting Moses' freeing of the Israelites and leading them on a journey to the Promised Land as opposed to Jesus' sacrifice leading mankind from earth to heaven.

Even in their good-natured arguments they notes similar patterns in their lives. Moses was discovered in the rushes by the Pharaoh's daughter, Jesus in the manger by the Three Magi; both faced wanderings in the desert; both performed miracles; both want to lead people to a better life.

The difficulties come when it is clear that Mohammed will not appear to join their discussion. The playwright must explain that in Islam it is forbidden to represent Mohammed in a figurative fashion, especially not on stage, and that Islam forbids even thinking of Mohammed in doing anything not already described in the Koran. Naturally, Moses and Jesus want to know how it is that they can appear on stage, to which the playwright says that Judaism and Christianity have place no interdiction of presents them as figures and what is more, in a revelation astounding to them, they are his creations!

In a key passage the author tells Moses and Jesus that he is a "prophet without a god" (as in the title). Religious prophets tell stories about God to man, while authors tell stories about man to men. That's the difference between religion and theatre. This coup de théâtre reveals the play as cross between Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" and Lessing's "Nathan the Wise". In saying that Jesus and Moses are each his creations, the author provides a response for why different religions exists. Each prophet came back with a different revelation because each asked God a different question.

As the author playing the Author, Slimane Benaïssa projects an appealing aura of childlike innocence even when he reveals his control of the events. Louis-Basile Samier creates a warmly human portrait of Moses, much like a beloved grandfather than the overwrought Cecil B. DeMille hero. Gérald Châtelain's Jesus is not what you would expect. He is a strongly built man in late middle age with an intense stare but hardly the pallid, gentle young man of familiar iconography. Châtelain's rapid-fire delivery further underscores his characterization of Jesus as an inflexible ideologue. There's no question that the humbler Moses with the greater sense of humour is more appealing.

The play features musical interludes drawn from the medieval musical traditions of each religion. Singer Magali Paliès has a rich, strong voice and Jalil Charraf accompanies her on the violin. Emmanuelle Sachet's minimalist design involves only three coloured panels, with inscriptions to represent each religion and a number of low stools. Given the spareness, it is up to Pierre Bergan's highly inventive lighting to create different spaces and realities on stage. Isolating the Author in light with darkness all around helps to reinforce the others as products of his imagination and by extension prophets of world religion as products of God's.

This is a simple, humorous and thought-provoking work that emanates a strong sense of humanism and a respect for all three religions. All three religions take Abraham as their patriarch. If only an awareness of this commonality and sense of complementarity could pervade the discourse in the outside world as its does for 90 short minutes in the theatre.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Il barbiere di Siviglia

by Gioacchino Rossini, directed by Alison Greene
Opera Ontario, Hamilton Place, Hamilton October 4, 9 & 11, 2003
Centre in the Square, Kitchener October 17, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Sparkling Debuts Save 'Barber'"

Opera Ontario's production of Rossini's "Il barbiere di Siviglia" is most notable for introducing to Ontario audiences Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, an exciting young singer from British Columbia. With a rich yet agile voice, a charismatic presence and great comic timing, he seems born to play the role of Figaro. He connects with the audience the instant he strides on stage and lights up every scene he's in. Besides this, he really does play the guitar during Lindoro's serenade and can juggle three oranges while singing a fantastic "Largo al factotum". Nicholson is a talent to watch and I hope Opera Ontario already has him booked for another appearance.

Nicholson is one of an excellent all-Canadian cast that Opera Ontario has assembled. Shannon Mercer, also debuting with Opera Ontario, is a delight as the spritely Rosina. She, too, creates a immediate link with the audience, forged with a beautifully sung "Una voce poco fa". The combination of her bright, clear soprano and effortless runs with the ability to project a natural, attractive persona makes her a pleasure throughout. Let's hope she's been signed up for a future season at Opera Ontario.

There is fine work from the rest of the cast. Benjamin Butterfield is an appealing Almaviva, with a light tenor and graceful sense of line perfect for this role. Sean Watson's Bartolo is more befuddled than menacing, but he is gifted with a strong, warm baritone. The venerable bass Joseph Rouleau seems more like the local tramp than a music teacher, but his singing is full of character. Melissa Schiel's alluring mezzo seems at odds with the doddery maid she plays, but she vindicates the inclusion of the often-cut maid's aria of Act 3 by making it lovely moment of reflection and a welcome respite from the manic goings-on. Nelson Sierra makes a positive impression in his two small roles as Fiorello and an Officer.

Allen Moyer's set, co-owned by three companies including Minnesota Opera, places a 19th-century style proscenium, complemented with a rank of faux footlights, within the stage opening. The sets are flats, or more often two-dimensional drops, painted to simulate engravings of early stage productions. I assume the jarring Day-Glo colouring is meant to make us aware that this is a playful allusion to past performance practice not a dutiful recreation of it.

With such a strong cast and such a pleasantly whimsical set design, little would have been needed to make this production a solid hit. Unfortunately, inept stage direction and conducting with little feeling for the music continually conspire to drag down the best efforts of the cast.

Alison Greene's blocking not only looks clumsy but often distracts from a focus on the singers. She repeatedly errs in trying to make the opera funnier by adding stage business unrelated to what the characters are doing or singing about. In the Act 2 finale she has an old man enter waving a huge blunderbuss, forcing us literally to look away from the tight group of singers in the centre stage where we should be focussed. During Rosina's Act 3 music lesson, Greene gets so involved in creating a comic interchange between Almaviva and the conductor in the pit that she totally neglects what is supposed to be the humour of the scene that Almaviva and Rosina woo each other via the words of the song they sing right under the nose of the jealous Doctor Bartolo. It would have been better to leave the singers to their own devices than inflict such distractions on them.

The conducting is another major problem. Lior Shambadal bludgeons his way through Rossini's score beating what should be whipped cream into a lump of butter. Rossini's airy rhythms turn to heaving plodding and all forward momentum is lost in painfully slow pacing and overly sustained orchestral chords at the end of each number. One senses that all the singers are chafing to sing their solos at a more natural pace but are held back by Shambadal's leaden approach.

The combination of poor direction and conducting would normally sink an opera. But such is the ebullience of this gifted group of singers that, despite everything, the strength of their talent and commitment raises the spirits and buoys up the evening.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Swanne, Part 2:
Princess Charlotte (The Acts of Venus)

by Peter Hinton, directed by Peter Hinton
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford Sep 3-28, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Swanne Takes Off"

The second part of Peter Hinton's ambitious but enervating "Swanne" trilogy, "Princess Charlotte (The Acts of Venus)", proves to be far superior to its predecessor "George III (The Death of Cupid)". The construction is less cluttered and the plot lines and themes are clearer. People put off by the murkiness of Part 1 may have their faith restored in Part 2 that beneath all the excess verbiage Hinton may actually have a story worth telling.

The main problem with Part 2 is that much of its three hours is spent filling in the background of the actions of Part 1. Part 1 covered a period from 1819, the year of Queen Victoria's birth, to 1837, the year of her accession, when we were led to believe she is writing the plays we are seeing. In Part 2 it turns out that Victoria is writing the plays in 1833--rather hard to credit since she would be describing events whose outcome she doesn't yet know. Otherwise, most of the action is set in 1817 to show how Princess Charlotte bore a child fathered by the Prince Regent's black equerry at the same time that the lowborn Jaquenetta bears a child to the villainous and already married St. John Voranguish and how the two babies were switched at birth to protect Charlotte's reputation.

In Part 1 we met the two boys at age 16, Jeremy the white boy, and William the black boy. We saw how the two attempted to escape from the orphanage where they were imprisoned, Jeremy dying in the attempt, William succeeding. Rather than the 18 year time span of Part 1, Part 2 progresses only to the point of William's escape from the brothel that the actress named "The Scarecrow" told him of in Part 1. He then begins a search for his mother with one of the prostitutes. Thus, Part 2, like an enormous flashback, barely advances the action at all. The goddess Venus, who throughout the action searches for her son Cupid, discovers with surprise at the end of Part 2 that her son is dead--something we already knew in Part 1 (note the subtitle).

Nevertheless, Part 2 answers many questions that arose in Part 1. One of my main objections in Part 1 was that it was internally inconsistent by minutely outlining a line of succession and yet stating that an illegitimate black boy is the heir to the throne. Part 2 begins with Victoria addressing that very issue. Her play, written as a gift to Leopold, Charlotte's husband, is a fantasy. She knows that the black boy is not the legitimate heir to the throne, but wants to speculate on the question of what kind of person ought to rule in England.

Second, the themes that seemed so disparate in Part 1 are now more closely tied together. The brothel, the theatre and the church are all said to be different versions of the same thing. Hinton sets scenes of the first two in close proximity, though he switches from the church to politics for the third for unknown reasons. Prostitution becomes the uniting metaphor. Why to the inhabitants of Mother Needham's brothel prostitute themselves? Why do actors do the same? Charlotte intentionally draws a parallel between her taking a lover and that of Jaquenetta's assignation with Voranguish. Jaquenetta's former lover, Fred Dobing, feels he's prostituted his talents in the world of the theatre and seeks "reality" in the world of action, of politics, only to find more disillusionment.

In contrast with the series of overblown performances that helped make Part 1 so tiresome, in Part 2 Hinton as director has toned down the acting levels and drawn fine, committed ensemble work from nearly the whole cast. The most memorable is Jane Spidell as Jaquenetta. She maintains a fierce intensity as the unhappy woman, first in her love for the actor Fred Dobing, then in allowing herself to fall into a relationship with Voranguish. Spidell suggests a background of pain even in Jaquenetta's happiest moments.

Julia Donovan shows Charlotte as a woman suffused with bitterness who takes a black lover in self-destructive spite. Dion Johnstone as Charlotte's lover Mr. Stowe (and, seemingly, Cupid as he was in Part 1) communicates both nobility and fervor. Sean Arbuckle proves to be a rather good Lieder singer in his main role as Charlotte's husband, the emotionally preoccupied Leopold. (Hinton has decided Leopold is homosexual despite history's record of his intense love for Charlotte, resulting in three children and inconsolable grief at her death.) As Jaquenetta's lover Voranguish, Scott Wentworth accomplishes the difficult task of making us believe this otherwise villainous character's love is real.

Among the brothel inhabitants Maria Vacratsis manages to make the clichéd figure of the madam, Mother Needham, a crusty and cynical outside hiding a kind heart, into a well-rounded portrait. Steve Cumyn in his main role as Queer Rue is excellent in showing how this male prostitute's armour of cynicism is shattered when he learns one of his clients is truly in love with him. Randi Helmers has a fine comic turn as the vociferous Button Undone Betty. Shrouded in foggy writing, Karen Robinson can't make the helpful prostitute Mary Robinson distinctive nor can Sara Topham make Dot Peabody's motivation in undermining Mother Needham clear.

John Dolan makes Fred Dobing interesting neither as actor or politician. Diane D'Aquila is richly funny as the domineering actor-manager Mrs. Cox, but after the accident that turns her into "The Scarecrow", she can't seem to communicate the woman's devastation without nibbling at the scenery. Margot Dionne plays Venus with such spooky, affected tones you'd think she was the goddess of histrionics not love.

The most prominent part of Eo Sharp's set design is a large, handsome, circular portrait of Venus set in the Studio Theatre stage. Carolyn M. Smith's costumes remain within the Georgian period but move from the realistic (Charlotte and the court) to the satiric (the brothel inmates) to the fantastic (Venus). Robert Thomson's lighting remains set to dim and dimmer.

The prime advantage Part 2 has over Part 1 is that is does actually make one to curious to find out what happens next. On the other hand, there is the frustration of having spent three hours moving backwards in the story instead of forwards. I assume that Hinton is following convention of epic poetry by beginning in media res before explaining how the central conflict came about. But what works in epic poetry does not necessarily work on stage. Brecht's epic theatre, after all, tells narratives in chronological order through compact significant scenes. Hinton's continual time shifts are needlessly complex and his scenes self-indulgently bloated. In Part 1 "The Swanne", rather more like an overfed duck, produced lots of flapping but no lift. In Part 2 "The Swanne" finally takes off. Only Part 3 can answer where it is going or if it can stay aloft

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Quiet in the Land

by Anne Chislett, directed by Andrey Tarasiuk
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford August 20-September 26, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Not Quite Successful"

It was exciting to sit in the Tom Patterson Theatre at Stratford and see a play written about the lives of people living within twenty miles from the theatre. This is the kind of theatre the Blyth Festival specializes in and it was for that festival that Anne Chislett's "Quiet in the Land", about the Amish of Southwestern Ontario, was commissioned and where it was first performed in 1981. Though the play has obvious flaws, it was a rare occasion when the Festival made a direct connection to the community where it is located.

Concerned with pacifism and patriotism in time of war, "Quiet in the Land" is also a play with a timely subject. In 1917 young Yock Bauman has come to question the very fundamentals upon which his community is based--its seclusion from the outside world and its pacifism that allows its men an exemption from fighting in the Great War. As German-speakers and people who seem to be profiting while others suffer, the Amish become an object of resentment. The elders say that what the "high people" do is of no concern to them, but Yock feels a duty to his nation more than his isolated community. So, rather than accept an exemption on religious grounds from military service, he deliberately enlists, incurring the wrath of his father Christy and the distress of his beloved Katie.

Act 1 sets up a clear series of conflicts--son against father, individual against the community, the community against the nation and, with the rise of an evangelical movement among the Amish, one community against another. At the end of this first act one feels that here is a Canadian play unafraid to take on a rich, complex subject.

After this Act 2 comes as a disappointment. Yock, who has been set up as the central character, is off at war and absent from most of the remaining action. Chislett focusses now on Christy's becoming bishop, his intransigence in dealing with the evangelical movement, and the wooing of Yock's would-be fiancée Katie by Yock's best friend Menno. Chislett seems deliberately to avoid the characters-to-character confrontations that would resolve the conflicts of Act 1 dramatically. She has Yock, now a hero returned from the war, deliver a speech of explanation to himself since Christy won't admit him to his house. Then, minutes later, it happens that both are outdoors and meet. Why prevent Christy so artificially from directly facing his son's new views?

Another factor that prevents the work from being as more effective is the relentlessly prosaic dialogue. Chislett does have the characters allude to the bible and adopt certain turns of phrase to suggest the German dialect they are supposedly speaking. But she hasn't managed to find a poetry in everyday speech as any number of playwrights (e.g., Florence Gibson, Timothy Findley, Michel Tremblay) have done. This is all the more puzzling in a play about a community where religion infuses every aspect of life.

Director Andrey Tarasiuk has drawn fine ensemble acting from most of the cast. As Christy Stephen Russell gives a portrait of a man whose conservatism is not merely ideological. The more he fears disorder the more intolerant he becomes. Joyce Campion is a delight as Christy's mother Hannah, who remembers the old ways but also how often people did not adhere to them. As Yock's intended wife Katie, newcomer Lara Jean Chorostecki effectively makes the transition from the excitement of first love to the restrained acceptance of practical realities.

It's always difficult to make good, ordinary people interesting, but Robert King as Katie's father Zepp, pulls it off by making the most of Zepp's wry sense of humour. Jason Mitchell is excellent at

communicating the desire without malice of Menno Miller for Katie. David Francis plays two completely opposite roles of the sanctimonious Bishop Eli Frey, the one historical figure in the play, and the drunken Irish farmer Mr. O'Rourke.

Yock is supposed to be different from all the others, but Michael Therriault plays him as if he grew up in New York City rather than an Amish community. Yock has gained his new ideas by mingling with non-Amish people in town, but Therriault should still show where Yock's origins lie, at least by taming his gestures and vocal effusiveness to some degree. The same situation applies to Brigit Wilson as Zepp's wife Lydie. Even more than Therriault, Wilson plays her character far too big more as if she were in a Neil Simon comedy than in this muted drama.

John Ferguson has created a beautiful production, all black, white and earthen tones, capturing the simplicity Amish life without a hint of quaintness. Ereca Hassell's lighting sensitively conveys the change both of mood and season. Keith Thomas's music reinforces the community's religious background.

Despite flaws in the play and in some performances, "Quiet in the Land" provides insight into the lives of the Amish in Ontario without condescension. After seeing the play, if you see a horse and buggy when driving in the countryside around Stratford, you will not think of the people inside the same way again.

©Christopher Hoile


 

Le Visiteur

by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, directed by Guy Mignault
Théâtre français de Toronto, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
Nov 14-29, 2003
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Freud's Knock on the Door"

Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of France's most popular contemporary playwrights. Toronto's first experience of his work was the Mirvish production in 2000 of "Enigma Variations" starring Donald Sutherland that later travelled to London. Now the
Théâtre français de Toronto brings us the 1993 play that first brought Schmitt fame. In 1994 "Le Visiteur" won three Molières (Paris's Tony Awards)--Best Play, Best Author and "Révélation théâtrale" (Discovery of the Year). It's an entertaining and enjoyable work given an especially fine production, but compared to other plays of ideas like Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia", Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" or Slimane Benaïssa's "Prophètes sans dieu" seen last month at the TfT, "Le Visiteur" seems rather superficial.

In Vienna in 1938 a month after the Anschluss, Sigmund Freud's daughter Anna tries to convince her father to flee Austria. Freud, however, though he has never entered a synagogue in his life, feels he ought to remain to show his solidarity with the Jews. When a Gestapo officer takes Anna away for questioning, Freud despairs, whereupon a strange visitor appears who claims to be God.

The best aspect of Schmitt's play is his characterization of God as a nonchalant dandy. What are major worries to Freud are beneath consideration for the omniscient Visitor, who already knows Freud and Anna will escape to London, where Freud will write "Moses and Monotheism". The most amusing section of the play is when Freud, assuming the Visitor is demanding a private session, tries to psychoanalyze him with no success.

The play would be more involving if Schmitt kept the identity of the Visitor in doubt. Schmitt tries to suggest he may be an escapee from a mental institution or a figment of Freud's imagination, but he doesn't allow us to maintain these doubts long enough to create any ambiguity. Nina Okens' elegant costume for the Visitor hardly suggests the madhouse and director Guy Mignault has him enter through a wall rather than the open widow beside it, thus underscoring his supernatural powers.

The debate between the atheist Freud and the Visitor at the heart of the piece is more like a summary of a textbook discussion of the subject. Freud takes the existential view of Marx, Nietzsche, Camus and Sartre that the concept of God inhibits man from achieving self-awareness and dignity while the Visitor iterates Pascal's wager that believing in God and being wrong is better than not believing and being wrong. Besides, the Visitor senses that Freud actually does want to believe though his emphasis on reason prevents him. Believing in God, following Kierkegaard, has nothing to do with reason.

Supposedly this debate gives Freud hope and leads him to the decision to flee Vienna, but it is not clear why. Given the setting the most pertinent questions--"Why is there evil?" "Where is justice?" "Why did God create such a world?"--are all too glibly fobbed off by the Visitor. That God created the world out of love hardly explains such things. Also, the presence of Nazis and mention of Jewish persecution and death camps in a play with the tone of a boulevard comedy may strike some as trivializing the subject.

Whatever doubts may exist about the play itself, the production is excellent. Dennis O'Connor does not give us Freud the icon but paints a vivid, very human portrait of a father and passionate intellectual. Martin-David Peters plays the Visitor with charm, poise and assurance. Patricia Marceau captures the inner strength of Freud's daughter Anna. And Martin Randez does well at showing a glimmer of weakness in a Gestapo officer who has something to hide.

Glen Charles Landry's design for Freud's study is not only very attractive but also highly imaginative. What seems to be a brick wall is really made of alternating books that are Torahs and Bibles. This highlights the play's debate about whether religion is a defense or a barrier. When lit from behind the chinks between the books look like a myriad of candles. It's one of the best-conceived designs of the year.

Unlike the best plays of ideas, "Le Visiteur" does not leave the audience with much to ponder at the close. What makes the piece enjoyable is obviously intense commitment of all involved.

©Christopher Hoile
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