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Chocolate Soldier | One Good Marriage | A Phoenix Too Frequent  |  Pélagie | Outlaw | Die Fledermaus |
Hairspray | The Power of the Dog | Urinetown | Under Milk Wood | A Midsummer Night’s Dream
| The Count of Monte Cristo | Sleuth | Timon of Athens | Guys and Dolls | Macbeth | Anything Goes |
| The Triumph of Love | Nathan the Wise |
Man and Superman | Tomfoolery | Rutherford and Son |

Some reviews of 2004

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Rutherford and Son

by Githa Sowerby, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
June 19-October 9, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Shattering"

It’s good to see that new Shaw Festival Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell is continuing the practice of former Artistic Director Christopher Newton in producing rarities from the Shaw Festival mandate. Last year saw the delightful woman’s adventure comedy “Diana of Dobson’s” (1908) by Cicely Hamilton. This year sees the gripping drama “Rutherford and Son” (1912) by Githa Sowerby (1876-1970). You won’t likely have heard of either playwright or play before, but the impact of this superb production is one you won’t soon forget.

Like “Diana”, “Rutherford” was brought again to people’s attention by its inclusion in the anthology “New Woman Plays” (Methuen, 1991) edited by Linda Fitzsimmons and Viv Gardner. This led to a production at the Royal National Theatre in 1994 and to its being named one of the RNT’s “Plays of the Century”. The Shaw’s presentation is the first professional production in Canada.

Where “Diana” was characterized by frothy optimism, “Rutherford” is dominated by a dour pessimism. It concerns Rutherford, tyrannical both as head of his family and of his glass-making company located in a city not unlike Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where Sowerby’s own father was a glass manufacturer. Both the family and the company are in trouble. Rutherford’s eldest son Richard has joined the church. His second son John shows no inclination to work, much less take over the family business. He, his wife Mary and new baby have moved back to the family home “temporarily” until he sorts things out. Rutherford’s daughter Janet seems likely never to marry. John claims to have invented a process that would reduce the cost of producing glass, but rather than giving the formula to his father and thus help turn the business around, he means to patent it and sell it to the highest bidder. To get a experienced judgment, he has shown Rutherford’s longtime foreman the formula, but Rutherford, of course, sees no need to buy what he can get for free.

Unlike Shaw’s plays where characters freely express their opinions at great length, Sowerby creates a realistic North Yorkshire household where if people have opinions they keep them to themselves. The play immediately takes on a modern edge by the great swaths of silence that surround characters’ words. As director Jackie Maxwell says in her insightful programme note, she and the cast came to explore “how much is conveyed by what is NOT said.” When they can no longer be held in any longer emotions do burst out, but what characterizes the Rutherford household and Maxwell’s production is the mounting sense of tension as anger and hatred build up inside the characters. The vehement way Kelli Fox as Janet sets the table for dinner at the start of the play communicates years of pent-up frustration and loathing. Due to Maxwell’s minutely detailed direction we often learn as much from how characters silently react to a speech as from the speech itself.

Designer William Schmuck has created a dark panelled wall for the stern living-room where all the action is set. All seems normal until one notices that the panels seem to be held on by rivets. Under Louise Guinand’s subtle lighting the Rutherford’s living-room can appear more a factory or a prison, as Rutherford’s children claim, than a home. The room is also a crucible for the family’s emotions. In Act 2 when Janet finally breaks her silence and tells Rutherford how he has ruined her life, in a marvelous effect, the walls beginning with the fireplace and slowly spreading outward begin to glow red hot.

The cast and performances could not be bettered. Michael Ball has played quite a few disagreeable old men but nothing quite as intense as Rutherford, who moves with the calm deliberation and piercing gaze of a dragon in his lair. Like his children, he, too, is filled with repressed anger and frustration. He knows times have changed and are leaving him behind. He has thought that life is work but has seen that all this work in the end amounts to nothing.

Part of the point of Sowerby’s play is that the strict patriarchy Rutherford represents ultimately results in its own undoing since it crushes all those beneath it who could carry it on. All three Rutherford children are shown to be weak, all sense of self-worth nearly trampled out of them. Mike Shara’s Richard, head bowed, voice small, unable to meet others’ eyes, seems to be saying “Don’t hurt me” with every move. It’s clear he has sought the church as an escape. Dylan Trowbridge’s John is the most defensive and most confrontational. He expends so much energy to puff himself up to appear strong that it has the opposite effect. His shying away from discussing important matters with Mary bodes ill for their future. If we didn’t have confirmation from Rutherford’s foreman Martin, we would likely doubt if John had made a real discovery at all.

From a feminist point of view Janet is the most obvious victim of patriarchy. She stays in the house doing the work of servants just to save her self from boredom. Her only hope of escape lies in marriage yet Rutherford lets her see no one because no one in town is good enough for her. Yet, Sowerby has painted a more complex portrait than one might expect. She shows that Janet is not Ibsen’s Nora. Janet herself thinks only a husband can be her salvation. Grumble as she does when Rutherford is absent, she is compliant when he is present. The big blow-up in Act 2 is brought on only by Rutherford’s persistent goading. Fox exudes a sullen energy from her first appearance on stage that seems all the more potent for being kept so rigidly under control.

Peter Krantz does an exquisite turn as Rutherford’s foreman Martin. Through him Sowerby expands her critique of society from the evils of patriarchy to social hierarchy itself. Martin has no conception of himself other than as a servant and sees no other virtue in himself but loyalty to his master. Krantz manages to make us see Martin not as dimwitted but as an honest and good man whose world view simply has not iencompassed the notion of freedom, even when finally the chains are broken. Nicole Underhay’s character Mary takes a rather different path. For two acts of the play she is seen merely as meek and polite, doing needlework by the fire, out of place in someone else’s house. Yet, when the time comes at the very end, the keenness she has shown in observation comes to the fore in conversation. Underhay shows us a woman, averse to confrontation, forced to adopt a revolutionary way of thinking for the sake of her own survival and her son’s.

Rounding out the cast Mary Haney plays Ann, Rutherford’s sister and defender, grown old before her time with an empty life while Donna Belleville plays Mrs. Henderson, the indignant mother of a hired employee.

Sowerby’s play is remarkable in moving forward toward a conventional tragic ending but not stopping there. The final scene may at first seem a surprise, but in retrospect it presents a vision of a post-tragic world that Sowerby has had in sight from the very start. While her critique of patriarchal and hierarchal power has been trenchant, she suggests the possibility of a revolution from within. “Rutherford and Son” is an exciting find. In this superb production it will have you firmly in its power to the very last moment.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Man and Superman

by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 3-Oct. 9, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Super Show"

“Man and Superman” is one of Shaw’s most audacious plays and it receives an equally audacious production directed by Neil Munro and featuring an outstanding performance by Ben Carlson as John Tanner.

“Man and Superman” is really two plays in one. The one bearing the main title is a three-act comedy comprising Act 1, 2 and 4 of the play. The second, titled “Don Juan in Hell”, makes up Act 3 and is a two-hour dream sequence in the form of a philosophical debate. The two plays were first performed separately--“Superman” in 1905”, “Don Juan” in 1907. In 1962 “Don Juan”, in fact, was the first-ever play presented in what would be called the Shaw Festival the next year. There are only eleven performances from June 26 to July 25 when the entire four-act play is presented. This takes six hours including two intermissions and a one-hour lunch break. The level of this production is so high that for any Shavian or dedicated theatre-goer this full version is a must-see. Yet, since the plot does not depend on the philosophical excursus of Act 3, the three-act version is still warmly recommended to anyone visiting the Festival.

The plot of the three-act comedy is actually quite straightforward. Ann Whitefield’s father has just died. His will has named both Ann’s grandfather, Roebuck Ramsden, and the notorious revolutionary Jack Tanner as her guardians despite the fact the two men cannot stand each other. The poet Octavius Robinson hopelessly adores Ann, but she has set her sights on Tanner. In a parallel plot, Octavius’ sister Violet has secretly married but refuses to name her husband leading to recriminations and much wild speculation.

Shaw transforms this simple plot into a play of ideas by contrasting Ramsden as a representative of middle class morality with Tanner, who seeks to base all relationships on truth and not the lies, such as the sanctity of marriage, that the middle class uses to protect itself from reality. At the same time the battle between Ann and Tanner becomes a battle between man and womankind in general, the misogynist Tanner convinced that the domesticating goals of women divert men from self-realization.

The “Don Juan in Hell” sequence expands the play’s meaning even further by identifying the characters with their counterparts in the Don Juan legend as found in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. Jack Tanner is the libertine Don Juan Tenorio, Ann becomes Doña Ana and Ramsden the Commendatore who argue their case before the Devil himself. Don Juan is bored with Hell which is dedicated to pleasure and beauty and wants to go to Heaven. The Commendatore is bored with Heaven and seeks entrance to Hell. In the course of their debates Shaw gives us, via Juan/Tanner a detailed account of the “Life-Force” which is shaping mankind to evolve to greater and greater consciousness, towards, in fact, the Nietzschean “Superman” who will have no need for the petty conventions that presently confine men’s aspirations.

Neil Munro’s direction follows up on his deconstructivist production of Shaw’s “Misalliance” last year. In “Misalliance” actors actually took to two lecterns on stage to deliver some of Shaw’s more didactic passages and the stage could be entered through doors or just as often through revolving walls. In “Man and Superman” designer Peter Hartwell has created another non-naturalistic set. Modern bent-metal chairs and footstools represent everything from chairs to benches to car seats to rocks. The painted backdrop for the first two acts is on rollers and winds up to the next scene. Munro has the stage hands change the set for the next scene in front of the audience before each intermission. He has each of the actors appear in silhouette on the backdrop before making their first appearance as if to illustrate, as is so often said, that Shaw’s two-dimensional characters only come alive when on stage. Though the actors wear long coats of the Edwardian period, they have modern hairstyles highlighted with coloured streaks, suggesting that these people are modern thinkers discovered in the trappings of an earlier era. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting is appropriately more expressionistic than naturalistic. Composer Paul Sportelli reinforces the “Don Giovanni” references by giving the characters their own entrance music derived from the opera.

Despite Shaw’s extraordinarily detailed naturalistic descriptions of place and character in his stage directions, a non-naturalistic presentation benefits the play by underscoring its artifice, something Shaw often does himself in the text. In “Man and Superman”, where so much of the discussion involves the illusions men choose to live by, it makes perfect sense to emphasize the world on stage as a theatrical illusion.

The play has been ideally cast from top to bottom. John Tanner is the longest role in any English-language play. After seeing Carlson so effortlessly subsume this character, you’ll have no doubt that he is one of the finest actors of his generation. He accomplishes the great feat of making Tanner speak passionately from his own beliefs rather than seem merely the author’s mouthpiece. Carlson deliciously captures the tension and irony in Tanner, a man who sees so well the flaws in conventional thought but has so little insight into his own emotions. Indeed, as Carlson plays it, we can’t help wondering whether the fervour of his incessant talking, commented on in the play, does not correlate with pent-up sexual energy.

Fiona Byrne has played the innocent so often it’s a pleasure to see her here as a seductress. She makes the most of Ann’s own ironic habit of verbally transforming all her ardent desires into forms of duty. The interplay of her Ann and Carlson’s Tanner is like that of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, except that this Beatrice has been after Benedick from the start. Evan Buliung is hilarious as Octavius, the oversensitive poet she rejects, who falls for every form of sentimentality going. Patrick Galligan is excellent as Tanner’s no-nonsense chauffeur Henry, whose very presence elegantly demonstrates how dependent the upper class is on the lower.

David Schurmann’s Roebuck Ramsden is one of the easily outraged conservative gentleman he so often plays and Schurmann delivers the immaculate, expertly timed comic performance one has come to expect. Lisa Norton and Graeme Somerville are delightful as the secondary lovers Violet and Hector, Norton making her part stronger, Somerville his role subtler, than one might guess simply from the text. Benedict Campbell scores a comic coup as Mendoza the lovesick bandit leader of Act 3. His overblown delivery already marks Mendoza as someone more to ridicule than fear even before he launches into his hopelessly uninventive love poetry.

In its shorter version “Man and Superman” is an ideal show to discover the many virtues of Shaw the playwright and of Shaw the festival. However, anyone already hooked on both won’t want to miss the full six-hour extravaganza and will find this ultimate brain-tickling comdey passes by all too quickly.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Tomfoolery

by Tom Leher
Theatre in Port, till August 29, 2004
Review by James Wegg

SATIRE AND SONG SURE-FIRE FUN

Theatre in Port’s production of American satirist Tom Lehrer’s Tomfoolery is a savvy evening of wit and wisdom that’s just the tonic for the current foibles and terrors of global hysteria in 2004. Four decades since their creation, it’s fascinating to revisit more than two dozen songs that shamelessly send up everything from dismemberment (“I Hold Your Hand in Mine”) to “National Brotherhood Week,” where race relations are bemoaned by the notion that “Hate is as American as apple pie.”

From the opening “March on the Cast,” summoned by Roger Perkins’ ever-steady and supportive on-stage piano, the energetic troupe exudes life to the show, ably directed by Di Nyland Proctor who once again (cross-reference below) makes clever use of the postage-stamp stage and steps, while giving her charges movement and changes that accentuate their skills without pushing their artistic envelopes to exhaustion.

The “Weiner Schnitzel Waltz” is an early example of the ensemble’s ability to swing and sing with aplomb; Stephen Simms’ near word-perfect declamation of “The Elements” (with no apologies required to Gilbert and Sullivan) was a marvel of diction and breath control; Chris Burke’s understatement and engaging facial expressions were just right to set up the near-literal gag of “She’s My Girl.” That was proceeded by “In Old Mexico” where the wonderfully zany Edda Gburek kept her bulls at bay as she slithered around the ring with ease.

Cliff Le Jeune serves as both affable host (saddled as he was with a script that would benefit from a serious trim – the universality of these songs need little introduction or explanation) and expertly delivers the multi-level message of “Masochism Tango,” an Ode to Pain that puzzles the few or immediately transports the many to their darker sides: yum, yum!

Stewart Simpson’s set is functional and simple with the themes of Lehrer’s targets filling the backdrop. Only the brilliant green of the martini’s olives seemed a tad too loud. There weren’t many challenges in the lighting plan, but Peter Servos never left the tireless performers dancing in the dark. Special mention must be made of Michael Greves’ prop selection, using a covey of hats, an over-sized cardigan and bold vestments to seamlessly add plausibility to the constantly changing characterization as each song moved to the next.

Lehrer fans will be rewarded with their favourites: “Wernher Von Braun” with its carefree sentiment “Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down,” is as timeless and telling as ever; the joy of porn unabashedly declaimed in “Smut,” marvellously dredges up memories of plain brown wrappers, and “The Vatican Rag” is still fresh and irreverent, even as some parishes are threatened with bankruptcy for sins that can never be exorcised with a few “Hail Marys.”

Tomfoolery is as relevant as ever – come for the laughs, stay for the insight!

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

 

Nathan the Wise

by G.E. Lessing, directed by Tim Albery
Soulpepper, Harbourfront Theatre Centre, Toronto
June 22-July 31, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

“A Wise and Timely Play”

Thanks to Soulpepper, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s great play “Nathan the Wise” is finally having its Canadian professional premiere. The plea for tolerance among Christians, Jews and Muslims seems even more relevant now than when Lessing wrote it in 1779. Over and over as characters ask first to be regarded as human beings and second as adherents of a particular religion, one marvels that such an important play has taken so long to reach Canada even as one rejoices that it finally has.

The action takes place in 12th-century Jerusalem, recently reconquered from the Crusaders by a sultan of the Egyptian Ayyubid dynasty, Salah-ad-Din (1138-93), known as Saladin in the West, whose most famous battle was against Richard the Lionheart of England. Despite these circumstances, Saladin was renowned in both East and West for his generosity and religious tolerance, allowing the conquered Jews and Christians of Jerusalem to practice their religions.

This history is only the backdrop for the story of Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant, known for his kindness and wisdom. Nathan returns to Jerusalem to hear a strange story. A Christian Knight Templar, just pardoned by Saladin because of his likeness to Saladin’s brother, has rushed into Nathan’s house as it was burning to rescue his only daughter Rachel. The young Rachel is obsessed with her “angel” but Conrad, the Templar, is deeply conflicted and refuses to see her again. His pardon from the member of one “enemy” religion and his rescue of a member of another “enemy” religion cause him anger and consternation. Efforts to bring him closer to Nathan or Saladin only call forth his bigotry.

In the play all of the characters carry a secret concerning either their own identity or that of someone else. Lessing has so constructed the plot that no one character holds all the pieces of a puzzle that will fully explain his true relationships to each others. Yet, as the action moves forward secret after secret comes to light forming a complete picture by the end. Thus the plot itself mirrors the play’s theme of the need for communal cooperation among members of different religions.

Designer Dany Lyne has updated the action to the 1940s which works very well except for the Templar, whose hooded robe seems out of place. This may, however, be deliberate since the Templar is the principal character who seem not to fit in to a Jerusalem governed by an enlightened Muslim ruler. Half of the Harbourfront Theatre Centre stage is covered with red sand, including the suggestion of a wadi, and is dominated by massive fallen scorched timbers, reminders both of the fire at Nathan’s house and of the battles of the Crusades. The surrounding back three walls are covered with books, suggested perhaps by the text that places native reason above book learning as a guide for action. All is atmospherically lit by Sharon DiGenova and accompanied by the Middle Eastern sounds of Yair Dalal’s music.

The prime virtue of Tim Albery’s direction is in making the involved plot and relations of the characters absolutely clear and in leading the action to its moving conclusion. His blocking rather oddly places much of the most important action as far upstage as possible, and he lets the play down by not picking up the pace, especially in the second half, when, as in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”, revelation precipitates revelation. Edward Kemp’s contemporary prose translation is itself a problem since it never suggests that Lessing’s original text was written in blank verse, or indeed, in poetry of any kind.

The play is a triumph for William Webster in the title role. He brings to the role all the humility and common sense that Nathan is said to have. He uses subtle variations of intonation to suggest a Jewish accent and successfully avoids any hint of caricature. He fully communicates Nathan’s decency and humanity and gives a masterful reading of the play’s most famous speech, the “Parable of the Three Rings”, in which Nathan subtly answers Saladin’s question concerning which of the three Abrahamic religions is the true one. Webster’s is a performance of such quiet strength it supports the entire play.

In his one appearance David Calderisi is chilling as the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Nathan’s and Saladin’s nemesis and the most irredeemably bigoted character in the play. Finely decked out to visit the poor, he casually mentions assassination and burning at the stake as useful religious tools. Derek Boyes also gives a fine performance as Bonafides, a lay brother, torn between duty to the Patriarch and a sense of simple human decency. Karen Robinson creates a very positive portrayal of Sittah, Saladin’s sister and, as Lessing shows it, effectively co-ruler with her brother. She makes the most of the charm and wit Lessing gives her, in fact, making Sittah, in a protofeminist way, seem more aware and self-assured than her brother.

If all the other performances were on the same level as these the play would have much greater impact. Andrew Moodie, however, never seems like a warrior and ruler or even a man with great power. His diction is not clear or emphatic enough and his has not worked out how to present a man who is both familiar with majesty yet personally humble. Cara Pifko as Nathan’s daughter Rachel has scenes of girlish infatuation and sceneof a more mature Rachel criticizing her servant’s narrow views, but she doesn’t seem to be able to show more than one side of Rachel at a time. Nathan’s Christian servant Daya is a more ambiguous character than Barbara Gordon plays her, someone who, when the moment comes, is ready to betray the master who has always been kind to her. Vik Sahay tries too hard to make the dervish Al-Hafi a comic figure but does play his final renunciation of the world movingly.

The Templar Conrad is, perhaps, the most difficult role in the play. He is angry and moody throughout much of the action, yet he must garner some sympathy despite this for the play to work. Dusan Dukic gives us what seems most like a bored, annoyed teenager rather than a man deeply troubled for reasons he cannot fully express. We should see that the foundations of the Templar’s prejudice are crumbling under personal contact with people of other religions. Yet the more he tries to eliminate these contacts the less happy he is.

The message throughout the play is that we live too close to one another to harbour blind animosity, that accepting every person’s basic humanity must override any perceived differences. If Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” states that “all men will become brothers”, Lessing’s play states that all men already are brothers and should respect each other in that way. Soulpepper could hardly have chosen a more appropriate time to stage this play. We need an infusion of the rationality and hope Lessing embodied in 1779. Whatever the production’s imperfections, Albery’s clarity of purpose and Webster’s Nathan create a thrill of discovery and a sense of moral uplift you will long remember.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Triumph of Love

by Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
June 30-Sep 25, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“The Triumph of Gimmicks”

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

“The Triumph of Love” marks the first appearance of any play by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763) at the Stratford Festival. That alone should be cause for celebration since it means Stratford has finally caught up with Europe and America in rediscovering this master of comedy. John Van Burek’s Pleiades Theatre gave the play its Canadian English-language premiere in Toronto in 2001 in Van Burek’s own translation. Van Burek’s production clearly demonstrated the self-conscious artifice and subtle psychology that make Marivaux seem so modern. Though not perfect, it was infinitely superior to director Richard Monette’s current Stratford production that uses Van Burek’s translation but misinterprets key characters and ruins the play’s tone and subtlety.

Marivaux’s comedies provide a link between Molière and the realist drama that would appear a century later. Marivaux uses devices such as multiple disguises and commedia dell’arte characters inherited from the past but his interest is in psychology not in farce. In “The Triumph of Love” (1732), Princess Léonide has disguised herself as a man to woo the prince Agis, the man she has loved from afar. Agis is guarded by brother and sister philosophers Hermocrate and Léontine, who have brought him up since childhood follow their views, to worship reason and abhor passion. To gain access to Agis, Léonide finds she must court both brother and sister, revealing her disguise to Hermocrate but not to Léontine. The main source of comedy in the play is in watching how Hermocrate, Léontine and Agis all rationalize their attraction to Léonide and the passion they suddenly feel as their theoretical attachment to reason begins to crumble under the pressure of real emotion.

Working with a fine cast, Monette gets the play right in the exposition in Act 1, in the scenes between Léontine (Claire Jullien) and Hermocrate (James Blendick) and in the melancholy closing scene between brother and sister, but everywhere else he goes seriously wrong. He feels compelled to toss into the action the uncalled-for stuffed animals he unfortunately thinks are his trademark, a pigeon in Act 1 and a dead skunk in Act 3. The gimmicks he lards the play with not only are unnecessary but destroy the sense of refinement that is Marivaux’s hallmark.

While Blendick is allowed to play Hermocrate straight, Monette loads Lucy Peacock’s Léontine with so many idiosyncrasies that he pushes the character directly into the kind of farce Marivaux studiously avoided. Rather than portraying her as an ascetic intellectual like her brother, Monette forces Peacock to play Léontine as a silly old biddy. He makes her extremely nearsighted so that she can see only wearing thick glasses. He frequently forgets this, however, in seeking to garner laughs by making her bump into people, trees and furniture even with glasses on. By Act 3 he has so forgotten her nearsightedness, he has her distinguish miniature portraits while wearing her glasses. He makes her sneeze at ever mention of the word “love” and emphasizes this by having her jingle a beaker of marbles with every sneeze (though she loses this trait, too, after Act 1).

Although the siblings employ a gardener, Monette has Léontine enter in Act 2 carrying a load of cabbages, at which point the act becomes more about tricks one can do with cabbages than Marivaux’s dialogue. The gardener dribbles one cabbage like a basketball and later stuffs two in his vest to shock Hermocrate. For the servant Harlequin, Monette borrows an idea from his execrable “Merchant of Venice” of 2001 where he had Launcelot Gobbo converse with himself via a rag doll. Here he has Harlequin relate a conversation by using a cabbage as a puppet to represent the person overheard. Needless to say, none of this is in Marivaux. Worse, the gimmicks, funny voices and funny poses are so distracting they obliterate the import to character and plot of Marivaux’s precise, elegant prose.

There are other problems. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco has imagined a lovely set given an autumnal glow by Ereca Hassell’s lighting and created beautiful period costumes in a palette of ivories, silvers and yellows, but he errs in giving such richly wrought costumes to Hermocrate and Léontine. These hardly reflect the unworldly, ascetic life the two are repeatedly said to lead. Van Burek’s 2001 production more sensibly clad them in severe, almost monastic garb. Visually this made their internal struggle in giving into passion both clearer and funnier.

In a play that revolves around nuance, Monette has encouraged most of the cast to overact. The worst offender is Lucy Peacock, whose constant mugging, fidgeting and awkward posturing do not make for a realistic biddy, much less a refined rationalist in or out of love. Andy Velásquez tries much too hard as Harlequin, a role that should be as smooth and elegant as a china figurine. Jeffrey Renn’s Damis the Gardener is characterized primarily by pointlessly making loud noises at every opportunity. As Agis, David Snelgrove is far too bland and completely misses the humour of psychological readjustment when the “boy” he has just sworn eternal friendship to reveals himself to be a girl. He similarly fails to react later on when he discovers his beloved is his sworn enemy.

On the other hand, Claire Jullien gives a fine, solid performance and is the mainstay of the production. Under a more sensitive director she could have more clearly distinguished the different approaches necessary to woo brother, sister and beloved. Nevertheless, she provides the kind of multifaceted interpretation we long for in Agis and Léontine. James Blendick plays his part with great seriousness and sensitivity thus making Hermocrate’s conversion to love all the more dramatic. Brigit Wilson as Léonide’s servant Corinne is steady if unremarkable.

One leaves this production with a sense of irritation. Van Burek’s 2001 production revealed this work for the delightful play it is. By eliminating the gimmicks, treating the sister as seriously as the brother and taking a simple, straightforward approach to Marivaux’s elegant text, this production could easily, with the same cast, have been just as rewarding. Sadly, Monette has thrown a dead skunk into Marivaux’s charming play in more ways than one.

©Christopher Hoile.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Anything Goes

by Cole Porter, directed by Anne Allan
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
June 6-Oct 31, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Not Quite De-Lovely"

“Anything Goes,” Cole Porter’s hit musical from 1934, featuring a string of classic songs, tap dancing and a book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, is a delightful confection. Like whipped cream it needs a light touch and a director who knows when to stop before it turns to butter. Anne Allan, director/choreographer of Stratford’s current production, has not stopped beating quite in time so that a sodden feeling has crept in to undermine this frothiest of musicals.

Stratford is not presenting the original “Anything Goes” but the version used for the 1987 Lincoln Center revival. This has a new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman and adds four songs to the score, most notably the classics “It’s De-Lovely” and “Friendship”. Crouse and Weidman rev up the plot twists in this zany farce set on an ocean liner to Marx Brothers proportions. In brief, Billy Crocker has pursued his beloved Hope Harcourt onto the S.S. American to tell her he loves her and dissuade her from marrying British toff Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. When the ship sets sail he finds himself on board without ticket or passport and so is forced to assume a number of disguises to avoid detection by the crew and his own boss Elisha Whitney. In this he is helped by his friend nightclub singer Reno Sweeney and another stowaway, Public Enemy #13 Moonface Martin.

In the Stratford production one senses things are not quite right as soon as the overture begins. Music director Berthold Carrière drives the music much too hard and continues to race through the numbers until the end. This may be an attempt to conjure up the manic, breathless pace of 1930s screwball comedies, but it has a negative effect on some of Porter’s most famous songs. “You’re the Top”, “Friendship” and “Anything Goes” have some of the wittiest lyrics ever written for Broadway, yet Carrière’s speeds don’t allow enough time for the clever rhymes to register much less for the audience to react. Just compare Porter’s own recording of these songs or the 1987 cast recording and benefits of slower tempi become immediately apparent. Fast speeds also rob numbers like “Easy to Love” and “It’s De-Lovely” of the sensuousness needed to establish the love between Billy and Hope.

Similarly, director Allan has encouraged self-conscious, look-at-me-I’m-funny performances from the cast in a show that doesn’t need any boosting and is only harmed by it. The worst offender is New York import Jimmy Spadola as Moonface Martin who mugs his way through the show playing almost entirely to the audience. The sad sack, low energy approach of Bill McCutcheon in the 1987 New York production was both funnier and more endearing. Another New York import, Michael Gruber as Billy, seems more in love with himself and the audience than with anyone on stage. Though he sings and dances well, the comedy of an ordinary guy forced into one extraordinary situation after the other is lost when Billy is made slick and overconfident.

As for the Ethel Merman role of Reno Sweeney, there is a problem of another kind. Try as she might to act sexy and talk tough, Cynthia Dale is never convincing. She seems like a Girl Scout playing at Mae West, not the real thing. Her voice doesn’t have the bite to it to bring off songs like “Anything Goes” or especially the big nightclub number “Blow, Gabriel, Blow”. It’s easy to see why someone would want to sing the string of classics Porter gives Reno, but Dale, suffering from Julie Andrews syndrome, is just not the right person to do it.

Fortunately, the casting problems end there. Douglas Chamberlain is a treat as the Wall Street tycoon Whitney in vain romantic pursuit of Hope’s mother Evangeline, played with equal relish by Patricia Collins. As Hope, Elizabeth DeGrazia has a lovely cultured soprano. If Carrière would let her songs breathe more, she could provide the romantic core the show needs to ground all the manic goings-on. Laird Mackintosh gives his best ever performance at Stratford as Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. While he could stand to tone down the British twit act a notch, he shows a flair for physical comedy and timing that makes the hilarious “Gypsy In Me” one of the highlights of the show. The talented Sheila McCarthy is sadly relegated to the small part of Erma, Moonface’s confederate, but she makes the most of her one number “Buddy, Beware”.

Patrick Clark has designed a two-tier set of the ship’s deck very much like that used in the New York production. With a couple exceptions he is much more creative with the women’s costumes. Why is DeGrazia given a gown that does not flow as well as the four women who mirror her dance in “Easy to Love”? Why is McCarthy, whose Erma is supposed to be such a sexpot, given a wig and outfits that are so unflattering?

Finally, in a Stratford musical we have tap numbers where the dancers actually use tap shoes. Tap moves without the taps are all very nice, but the tap sound itself is the marker of precision. As choreographer, Allan pulls out so many stops for the big tap number to the title song in the Act 1 finale, it’s truly thrilling, but we wonder if she’s left anything in reserve. As it turns out, she hasn’t. Except for the gimmicky but very funny “Gypsy In Me” in Act 2, she seems to have exhausted her invention in Act 1.

The average theatre-goer will hardly mind the show’s various flaws. Cole Porter songs plus tap dancing equals a mood lift no matter what. Yet, it’s easy to see that with some key cast changes and a more stylish directorial approach, this frothy show could have much more delectable, delirious and de-lovely.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Macbeth

by William Shakespeare, directed by John Wood
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 4-October 30, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Portrait of the Murderer as a Young Man"

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Stratford Festival is currently presenting its ninth production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. The play may not interest you because it is so often done and so often done poorly. But, having seen five of those nine productions, I can say that this is the most intelligent production of “Macbeth” I have ever seen at Stratford. Sadly, not all of the acting is up to scratch, but director John Wood has created an exciting production that makes us look at this familiar work in new ways.

Far too many productions of “Macbeth” get so carried away trying to conjure up visions of horror they ignore the psychological horror of the characters. Too many directors assume that the Weird Sisters are identical with the Three Fates of Greek myth or the Norns of Norse myth and portray Macbeth and his wife as puppets of fate, a silly view that absolves the Macbeths of the guilt they clearly feel. Wood has realized that “Macbeth” is about perception. He even has young Fleance play with a pair of lenses throughout the first part of the play to objectify this theme. Banquo’s comment to Macbeth on meeting the Weird Sisters is “Oftentimes to win us to our harm, The instruments of Darkness tell us truths”. Macbeth’s last comment on them in the play is “Be these juggling fiends no more believ’d, That palter with us in a double sense”. Wood makes clear that Macbeth and his wife see in the witches’ ambiguous remarks only what they wish to see. The world itself is ambiguous, “fair and foul”, and is what we perceive it to be.

Wood first removes any hint of the supernatural by first showing us the witches as ragged women--two old (Rita Howell and Sheena Larkin), one young (Tanya Low)--scavenging among the bodies of war dead. The young witch is led by rope around her waist and their actions lead us to think the three are not merely poor but insane. That Macbeth should credit them clearly becomes his will to do so. Unlike so many productions, Wood does not use special effects to show us the dagger Macbeth sees or Banquo’s ghost. Rather there simply is nothing there and both are imagined by Macbeth. In a neat trick, a goblet of wine overturns on its own after all but Lady Macbeth have left the table. Supernatural or accidental?--Wood thus puts us in the same interpretative position as the Macbeths.

Unlike most directors, Wood includes the “Hecate” scene of Act 3 that seems to support the “puppets of fate” view of the play. But even this Wood turns around. In a programme note he identifies the Weird sisters and Hecate as “travellers”, not “gypsies” who came from outside, but Scotland’s own nomadic workers. Hecate is their “Queen”, he says, and Joyce Campion plays her as if she were a madwoman. The cauldron used in Macbeth’s second visit to the witches is introduced as the pot where a group of these “travellers” is having its communal meal. When Macbeth appears to spy on them, that’s when the “Double double” chant starts as if we are seeing what Macbeth imagines in an otherwise innocent situation. The succeeding visions thus appear more from Macbeth’s fancy than from magic.

Graham Abbey might not be thought the right actor for Macbeth. He might seem too young and there is still a boyishness about his delivery. Yet, he suits Wood’s interpretation very well. Wood sets Abbey’s boyishness against the husky intensity of Lucy Peacock’s Lady Macbeth to establish the sexual dynamics that drive their actions. Lady Macbeth chides her husband for not be “man” enough to murder Duncan. Abbey fully captures Macbeth’s sense of doubt and insecurity particularly after the murder when he seems ready to collapse in fear. Wood’s Macbeth becomes a kind of anti-Hamlet who does wicked deed after deed to prove to himself an his wife that he has power. Only toward the end of the play might one wish an actor other than Abbey, who could more fully express Macbeth’s total disillusionment and despair.

Peacock’s Lady Macbeth is so strong she and her husband interact more like mother and son than wife and husband. She shows a strange mix of sexual excitement and motherly anger when urging her husband on or in bidding to calm himself. Wood shows that she has exhausted herself by the end of the banquet scene, where in an enigmatic pose of shame or despair she does not rise from the empty table. In Wood’s brilliant staging of the sleepwalking scene, Peacock captures the horror of someone who finds herself sinking alive into hell.

Walter Borden gives us a Duncan who far from being the kindly, frail old man we usually get, is vigorous and assertive. For once his comments on arrival at Inverness do not seem naive but rather expressions of a love of life. This only makes his murder seem all the worse. Sean Arbuckle gives Banquo a sense of assurance and common sense that contrasts well with Macbeth’s apparent weakness. Robert Persichini plays an entirely different Porter than you’ve seen before. He’s completely sober. The “Knock knock” lines are played as knock-knock jokes with the young Fleance. This change makes us pay more attention to lines and forces us to see that the Macbeths, not he, are the ones who are drunk.

Unfortunately, many of the other performances weaken the impact of the production. Gareth Potter plays Malcolm like a moody Hollywood star and needs to learn better voice control. Michael McLachlan speaks his lines well as Macduff but can’t rise to the emotional challenge when Macduff learns that his entire family has been slaughtered. Sarah McVie, a fairly generic Lady Macduff, doesn’t seem all that interested in her children. Roger Forbes as Ross and Keith Dinicol as Lenox use a orotund, overly theatrical way of speaking Shakespeare that contrasts with plain speaking of the rest. Paul Hopkins can’t seem to muster enough concern as the Doctor.

John Ferguson’s designs are appropriately minimalist. Only the requisite few pieces of furniture are brought on for each scene. The back of the stage is bare and the balcony removed creating an entrance to the dark unknown. His men’s costumes have modern trousers below and a smock with vests suggesting the medieval above, thus making the characters partake of both worlds.

Given the simplicity of the design, it falls to Gil Wechsler’s expressionist lighting effects to create mood. He has scenes gradually grow light and fade back into darkness or abruptly shift from dark to light, giving the production an hallucinatory feel. He and Wood create series of powerful stage pictures--Macbeth and his wife in shadow after the murder, divided by a huge shaft of light from an open door, or unforgettably Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene in blazing white light. Some may quibble with Wood’s interpolations of Scottish songs and certain mimed passages not found in Shakespeare’s text, but their effect is to underscore the normality that the Macbeths actions destroy.

This is the kind of Shakespeare production one wants to see at Stratford. Not the usual practice of merely setting a play in another time and place but an actual interpretation based on a close reading of the text. Unlike many directors at Stratford, Wood has challenged his actors not just to give their best to explore new areas of emotion. He has brought out qualities in Abbey and Peacock I never seen before. The result is a production that delves deeply into the text and without any gimmicks is riveting from first to last. Let’s hope for more at Stratford from this challenging, insightful director.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

And speaking of your views ...

"A good interpretation....how about a thumbs up for the little guy....11 year old Jake Nothdurft in his debut performance with no previous theatre training. He plays Sirrah and when he speaks, the audience is in his hands! Way to go for the little guy!!! We want to see more of Jake!" -- Mak Vidalla


Guys and Dolls

by Frank Loesser, directed by Kelly Robinson
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 3-November 7, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Luck is a Lady"

The Stratford Festival has a winner in the Frank Loesser musical “Guys and Dolls”. Director Kelly Robinson and his talented cast have captured the spirit of this classic musical for an evening of irresistible fun.

Stratford last presented “Guys and Dolls” in 1990 directed and choreographed by Brian McDonald and designed by Susan Benson. That, too, was a great success. In general, this production is better and acted and directed, the earlier one better choreographed and designed though neither has or had a perfect cast. If you enjoyed the 1990 production you will enjoy this one, too, and will see why this is one of the greatest musical comedies ever written.

The show is set in the mythical New York underworld created by Damon Runyon of criminals and showgirls, where no one swears, where “girl” rhymes with “boil” and lowlifes try to elevate their speech with polysyllables they don’t understand. This is 1950 when the goal of gangster, chlorine or Sally Ann girl is marriage, children and a house in the country. Loesser justly subtitled the show “A Musical Fable”.

This is one of those rare musicals where the plot is clever, the dialogue, mostly by Abe Burrows, itself is funny, the lyrics are witty and the music is bright and daring. The actors sing with such clear enunciation that this is the first time since the famous Gilbert and Sullivan series in the 1980s that I have heard an audience laugh out loud at witty lyrics.

The production’s main flaw is Debra Hanson’s design. The floor of the Festival stage for the musicals has expanded throughout the years until now it is about as big as it can possibly get. You’d hate to sit in the front row seats because all you’d see are the soles of the dancers’ feet. The three-arched set suggesting the trestle for an elevated train is attractive only in the dark when the neon signs crowded above it are turned on. I never got used to the sickly pea-soup green of the massive floor. Where Benson’s costumes had a witty simplicity, Hanson’s are overblown and garish. Geordie Johnson playing Nathan Detroit looks lost in his overlarge suit, the tunics for the down-and-out Salvation Army members all seemed to be brand new and dancers, including Sheila McCarthy, stumble over their gowns in the big Hot Box number “Take Back Your Mink”.

The other flaw is the miscasting of Geordie Johnson. Johnson is best known for portraits of conflicted characters in modern drama, not for comedy, much less for musicals. He never gets the hang of the New-Yorkese dialect or how to deliver the lines for comic effect. Sunken as he is in his costume, he never has the stage presence that even some of the shorter non-speaking dancers do. To compensate he gesticulates wildly but that has the negative effect of undercutting his speech.

Otherwise, the casting is very strong. Cynthia Dale gives one of her best ever performances as Sarah Brown, the Sally Ann girl who falls for gangster Sky Masterson. Up to now, one might have thought “perky” was all Dale could do. But watch her slowly get drunk and disorderly in the Cuban scene and you’ll see how very funny she can be. She also seems far more engaged with the changing moods of her songs than she has in previous musicals. Scott Wentworth, reprising his role as Sky Masterson from 1990, is actually even better than he was then. He’s grown in authority, commanding the stage whenever he appears, and his singing, still strong, has more character. Sheila McCarthy is an absolute delight as Miss Adelaide. Her timing in delivering a comic line is second to none. She doesn’t just give us the usual Adelaide as ditzy showgirl but instead wrings a surprising poignancy from the role. Adelaide’s outer silliness hides a real inner hurt at having been put off for fourteen years by Nathan, her marriage-shy “fiancé”. McCarthy single-handedly gives this raucous fable a sense of heart.

The other roles are all well cast. Bruce Dow with his spot-on delivery is super as Nicely-Nicely and he shines in his big number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat”. Shawn Wright holds his own as Nicely’s companion Benny Southstreet. Douglas Chamberlain, reprising the role of Sarah’s grandfather, Arvide Abernathy, is all warmth and good humour, and Patricia Collins is suitably imposing as the strict General Cartwright. When these two break down and dance in the big “Sit Down” number, the crowd goes wild.

Robinson has directed the show with detail and panache. He pays uncommon attention to the dialogue ensuring it as funny as the songs so that comic momentum of the piece increases as it rolls on. Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography shows more imagination for the men’s dances than the women’s, especially in “The Crapshooters’ Dance” of Act 2 featuring the acrobatics of brothers Jason and Julius Sermonia. The Cuban nightclub scene, so memorable in Brian MacDonald’s production, here is set during Carnival. This crams the stage with people in costume but not the spectacular dancing the music demands.

The production has its flaws, but Robinson and the cast have caught the tone of the piece so well you probably won’t care. It leaves you with such a positive rush, you can see why musicals, when this well performed, can be so addictive.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

And speaking of your views ...

"I went to see this musical after nearly a 30 year absence from Stratford (why so long? - moved to Alberta, then Nova Scotia, then was too busy raising kids). I was thoroughly and absolutely enchanted with the production. Granted, this musical does rank as one of my all-time favourites, but this only meant that I went in to it with many preconceived ideas. Although not much of a fan of her film and TV work, I thought that Cynthia Dale was excellent. Sheila McCarthy, however, stole the show. She made a believer out of me. I thought that she was too bony and lean to play the role of Adelaide. She shocked me with her immense talent. I felt truly blessed to see this performance. About the men, I fell hopelessly in love with Scott Wentworth, and marvelled at the acrobatic dancing in the big musical numbers.

"Well, it sure won't take me another 30 years to get to Stratford. It was worth every penny I spent to bring my 20 year old son down in the middle of summer." -- M. Mullan

 


Timon of Athens

by William Shakespeare, directed by Stephen Ouimette
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
June 5-Sep 25, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Donaldson Triumphs in ‘Timon’"

Few fans of Shakespeare, if any, would claim “Timon of Athens” as their favourite play. It is one of Shakespeare most cynical, most schematic and least compromising works. Yet, for those very reasons it also seems very modern. Director Stephen Ouimette’s updating of the play to the present capitalizes on this. A stellar performance by Peter Donaldson in the title role plus fine work from the rest of the cast make this the best of the three Shakespeare productions now playing in Stratford.

The play is like a more mundane version of “King Lear”. Timon, a wealthy nobleman of Athens, is renowned for his generosity. Rather than giving his kingdom away to his daughters in one fell swoop like Lear, Timon has been giving away his wealth in the form of gifts and lavsih parties to his friends over a period of years. Like Lear, Timon mistakes the friendship professed to him as real, rather than seeing the greed his largesse has spawned. When Timon discovers he is bankrupt, he assumes his friends will help him, but, like Goneril and Regan, Timon’s supposed friends reveal their true natures, refuse to help and allow him to fall into poverty. Outraged at the hypocrisy of mankind and railing at the world in general, Timon leaves Athens to live in the desert where his stinging rebukes thrust all visitors away. The play’s abrupt conclusion has suggested to many that it was left unfinished.

The play neatly falls into two contrasting halves--the first filled with opulence and populated with groups of Timon’s friends, servants and hangers-on culminating in an orgiastic party, the second barren and desolate, structured as a seemingly random series of isolated visits by individuals to Timon’s cave. The team of designers, Lorenzo Savoini (set), Dana Osborne (costumes) and Bonnie Beecher (lighting) have underscored this contrast by casting the first half in cool blues versus the yellows and earth tones of the second. Significantly, the two characters who do not fit into the colour scheme of the first half are Alcibiades, a soldier who incurs exile and becomes so disillusioned with Athens he leads a rebellion against it, and the philosopher Apemantus, whose cynical view of society anticipates the perspective Timon will adopt.

Though it has a cast of 27, “Timon” stand or falls depending on the actor in the title role. As Timon, Peter Donaldson gives a great performance, indeed one of the best he has ever given. In the first half he captures the ambiguity of man who, even before we learn of his finances, is truly generous to a fault. The fault is not merely in giving away too much money or in thinking his gift-giving will create friendship but in thinking he can control the world (his friends) through his actions. Donaldson’s demeanour and the glint in his eye suggest that Timon does not merely enjoy the happiness his wealth creates in others but is also proud of his power, a factor crucial in relating this play to tragedy. Unlike Lear, Timon receives the blows he suffers not with immediate rage but with a slow-burn, Donaldson masterfully evoking a combination of disbelief and anger, that finally flares out at the mocking anti-dinner party he gives his false friends. The play’s episodic second half consists almost entirely of Timon’s bitter invective against the world. Ouimette and Donaldson know how to use the comedy in Timon’s game-playing with his visitors to vary this torrent of vented spleen. Donaldson paces himself, rising to a peak of rage during Apemantus’ visit, before gradually subsiding. Frequently one hears the authoritative ring of William Hutt’s voice in Donaldson’s making one think that perhaps this is the actor who will be his heir.

Donaldson is supported by an excellent cast. Bernard Hopkins is moving as Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward, the Kent of the play, stricken by both extremes of his master’s behaviour. He makes Flavius our one example of selflessness that contradicts Timon’s blanket condemnation of humanity. Tom McCamus is perfect as Apemantus, framed as a kind of leftist student, whose cynicism may be true but is not based on personal experience. The debate between Apemantus and Timon in the second part over who has more right to be outraged is as intriginng as it is funny. Yet, beneath it all McCamus shows the hurt Apemantus feels at being rejected by someone who should now be his comrade.

Timon’s three best “friends” are each repellent in his own way. Ron Kennell’s unctuous Lucullus encounters Timon’s request for money with annoyed disbelief. Roger Forbes hearty Sempronius when asked becomes sanctimonious. And best of all, metrosexual Robert Persichini in the midst of a facial answers the request with smug distaste.

Sean Arbuckle is a stalwart Alcibiades, though his delivery of his key speech defending a soldier accused of murder is so garbled an important point is lost. The same lack of clarity taints Andrew Muir’s first speech as the Poet which sets up the entire action as a fable, a pitfall Jamie Robinson as the Painter avoids.

Stephen Ouimette joins the illustrious company of Michael Langham and Robin Phillips as a director who has been able to make this difficult play a success. He builds tension throughout the first half that subtly makes obvious that Timon’s generosity and its effects are not wholly admirable. The veil falls after Timon’s first dinner party when the guests join the invited female entertainers in a frenzied bacchannale choreographed by Nicola Pantin to Tom Jones’s 1988 hit “Kiss”. When Timon leaves Athens for the desert, Ouimette gives us the sounds of a storm brewing, thus reinforcing the play’s parallel with “Lear”. In the second half Ouimette uses Beckett-like silences to create tension in the bleak landscape Timon inhabits. Timon may not have been able to keep his old friends, but Ouimette’s clear-sighted vision will likely win the play new ones.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Count of Monte Cristo

by Marshall Borden, directed by Andrey Tarasiuk
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
June 2-Oct 30, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“All Buckle, No Swash”

Last year as part of what Stratford calls its “Family Experience”, the Festival presented an adaptation of a 19th-century French novel, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. The frequent depictions of violence not to mention the poor quality of the writing, acting and direction led many to call this the worst show Stratford had ever mounted. Undaunted, this year as part of its “Family Experience”, the Festival presents another adaptation of a 19th-century French novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. On the plus side there is nothing so bad in it, as in “Hunchback”, that one should actively avoid it. On the minus side there is nothing so good in it that would compel anyone to see it.

The novel “The of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas, père, appeared in installments during 1844-45. In book form it runs to almost 1500 pages. Dumas’ own adaptation of the novel in 1848 turned it into a ten-act play to be performed over two evenings. American actor and director Marshall Borden’s adaptation runs a little over two hours. Obviously, much has to be omitted, but what Borden has omitted--cleverness of language, depth of character, development of theme--are all the qualities that might make the play worth seeing.

Briefly, the young sailor Edmond Dantes receives the dying request from his captain to deliver a letter from Napoleon exiled on Elba to Bonapartist agents in France. Though apolitical himself, he does so to honour the captain’s wishes. This leaves him prey to enemies in France. Danglars wants Dantes out of the way to become captain. Fernand wants Dantes dead because he loves Edmond’s fiancée Mercedes. Villefort wants to remove Edmond because only Dantes knows Villefort’s brother, “procureur” under Louis XVIII, is a Bonapartist agent. Their combined villainies lead Dantes to be falsely imprisoned for fourteen years in the infamous Château d’If. After learning the location of a fabulous treasure, Dantes finally escapes the prison and armed with the treasure and a new name, the “Count of Monte Cristo”, he proceeds to wreak vengeance on the men who ruined his life.

The prime interest in the novel is fascination with a man who believes he is acting the role of divine justice. The Dantes of Dumas calls himself the “Hammer of God” and says he will bring “salvation” to Mercedes. Over ten years this Dantes insinuates himself into his enemies’ lives so that their punishment seems to occur of its own accord. Danglars falls into poverty and ages prematurely, Fernand commits suicide and Villefort goes mad.

All this is lost in Borden’s adaptation. Borden’s pedestrian text is primarily preoccupied with getting through the plot. There is the odd bon mot but no time for the psychology of characters that might draw one into the story or for the theme of divine providence that might make one think the story were worth telling. The result is a production that is pretty to look at but ultimately dull. On stage action consists mostly of people writing, reading and delivering letters. Children who want to be letter carriers when they grow up might find this interesting. Or perhaps the incongruous scene at a party where Dantes tries to bankrupt Danglars through use of carte blanche may intrigue budding financiers. The dispatch of the three villains comes not through Dantes' cunning but through three quick duels at the end. Except for these, the vast majority of the play hardly lives up to the adjective “swashbuckling” used to promote it.

Theoretically, the progress of a man from bright, innocent youth to cold-hearted avenger could provide a tour de force of acting. But even this potential is ruined by dividing the role between David Snelgrove as the young Dantes before incarceration and Brad Rudy as the older Dantes who escapes. Each plays his half of the role well, but the interest in seeing one actor’s transformation is lost. Snelgrove has some compensation in also playing Albert, Dantes’ hot-headed son and does distinguish him from the young Dantes.

Among the three villains, only one stands out--Andy Velásquez as Fernand, the future Count of Morcerf. His younger self seethes with rage; his older self has learned how to hide it, but the sense of his unpredictability remains. Neither Jeffrey Renn as Danglars nor Donald Carrier as Villefort have enough intensity to make his character noteworthy, let alone villainous, and neither suggests the passage of 35 years.

Borden’s miserly script tends to dole out only one personality trait per character. Robert King is all wry impertinence as Villefort’s brother Noirtier and Dana Green is all endless worry as Dantes fiancée Mercedes. Andrew Massingham overdoes it as the drunken innkeeper Caderousse as does Brigit Wilson as his nagging wife Carconte. On the other hand, Thom Marriott creates a good Dickensian portrait as the flustered ship-owner Morel and Joseph Shaw in his 22nd season at Stratford sounds the single note of poignancy of the evening as the dying prisoner Abbé Faria.

Guido Tondino has devised an ingenious set that can quickly transform itself from ship to inn to prison although his decision to make the set an island on the stage means the acting space is limited especially given a cast of 30. François St-Aubin has designed the attractive period costumes. Robert Thomson creates a golden glow for the scenes in the inn, but has drenched the rest of the play in an unrelieved haze of dark blue. Berthold Carrière has composed an accompanying score for synthesizer in the symphonic style now used in Hollywood blockbusters. Director Andrey Tarasiuk has paced and blocked the action well but adds nothing to compensate for the script’s deficiencies,

Unlike last year’s “Hunchback”, there is nothing in “Monte Cristo” to offend. If the idea of the “Family Experience” shows is to introduce children to the theatre, this production is likely to teach children the sad lesson that plays can be boring. To prefer these half-baked adaptations to real plays is like preferring Classics Illustrated comics to the novels themselves. Rather than this, what Stratford should focus on for families are excellent productions of excellent plays.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

by William Shakespeare, directed by Leon Rubin
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 1-Oct 31, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“The Fairies from Brazil”

Far too often at Stratford when directors take on Shakespeare they ask not “How can I make the text clear?” but “How can I gussy it up?” That’s exactly the case with Leon Rubin’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that opened Stratford’s 2004 season. Rubin has chosen to relocate the action to a setting that makes nonsense of text and loaded it with gags to aim it at a teenaged audience.

Instead of Athens and its nearby woods, Rubin has chosen a city in modern Brazil and the Amazonian rainforest. Rubin writes in his programme note that because there aren’t any uncharted forests in Europe anymore, “the vastness and other-worldliness of the South American rainforests is similar to what Shakespeare envisioned.” Yes, but only if you pay no attention to Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s woods with its “hillocks”, “hawthorn” and “dewdrops” is hardly a deadly jungle. It is where two pairs of young lovers choose to meet and where a troupe of amateur actors choose to rehearse. To choose to meet in a woods we can imagine, but in a jungle?--I think not.

More important, crucial to understanding the meaning of the play is the change of seasons. Just note the title. The dissention between Oberon and Titania has caused chaos in the natural world so that the seasons no longer follow their natural course. Given that the Amazonian rainforest is equatorial, it has no seasons. Besides that, Titania’s speech puts the blame for nature’s destruction on its own inhabitants. That works for a symbolic “woods” but not for the ecopolitics of a rainforest.

Adding to this foolishness, Rubin and designer John Pennoyer have related Shakespeare’s fairies to the native people of the forest through the use of tribal paint. They clearly make Theseus and his court inhabitants of a modern city. The rainforest setting forces symbolism of the play’s ending where the fairies bless the house of Theseus to go terribly awry. Man and nature end in harmony in Shakespeare’s play. “City” and “rainforest”, however, are concepts we know are not in harmony, so and ending that claims that they are strikes us as either false or foolishly naïve. The production becomes insulting when Rubin shows us the indigenous fairies getting drunk on the six-pack of Bavaria beer snout has lugged into the forest.

Rubin has thus chosen a concept but not thought through its implications. But then he has not thought through the play very deeply in any case. Over and over it is not Shakespeare’s lines that get a laugh, but added stage business--slapstick, funny voices, funny poses, modern intrusions. During Pyramus’ speech in the mechanicals’ play, a cellphone goes off. The audience looks around, but the cellphone belongs to Demetrius. That, nothing by Shakespeare, gets the biggest laugh of the evening. Puck leads off a troupe of fairies to the military call back of “I don’t know but I’ve been told.” Bottom does rock star kicks while playing his air guitar. Stratford has denied that it is “dumbing down” Shakespeare’s plays. Yet, the amount of added stage business of this sort only proves that it is.

The acting is generally unimpressive. All of the actors speak their words clearly, but they give little sense that they understand what they are saying. If they did, they wouldn’t chop up Shakespeare’s clauses and phrases with so many ill-placed pauses.

Jonathan Goad, who plays both Theseus and Oberon, and Dana Green, who plays both Hippolyta and Titania, do nothing, not even using gesture or intonation, to distinguish their supernatural from their human roles. It’s hard to know what Nicolas Van Burek is doing as Puck. He speaks with so much emphasis and effort that one might think he was attempting a crude imitation of a mentally challenged person, that is until the epilogue when he returns to normal speech.

We first meet the Helena of Michelle Giroux as a nerdy schoolgirl, but after that that characterization completely vanishes. Neither Nazneen Contractor nor Jeffrey Wetsch as Lysander speak well enough to be convincing, leaving only Haysam Kadri, whose Demetrius is a kind of uptight boy scout, as the only one of the four who speaks well and stays in character.

Overall, the mechanicals are more fully individualized. Donald Carrier is fussbudget Peter Quince, though he doesn’t know how to speak Quince’s speech before the court so that we know what Quince is doing wrong. Rubin has had a good idea in casting a large guy, Brendan Averett, as Flute, rather than the usual shrimp. This makes Flute-as-Thisbe even funnier as does Averett’s skill in having Flute attempt to imitate high class femininity. The star of the show is Thom Marriott’s Bottom, a cocky macho guy in love with his own voice. His death scene in slow motion as Pyramus is hilarious, but he unaccountably throws away Bottom’s key speech when he awakes without the ass’s head.

Pennoyer’s costumes for the fairies, bodystockings evoking both the animal and plant kingdoms, are colourful and high imaginative. His costumes for the mortals are less consistent. Theseus and Hippolyta, king and queen, dress no differently than those they rule. If we are in Brazil, why do Theseus, Hippolyta and Egeus hunt in Asian, Russian and British costumes? If we are in Brazil, why does Theseus have a zebra rug on his floor and why do he and Hippolyta wear Chinese-style kimonos to watch the mechanicals’ play?

Rubin tries to conjure up the rainforest canopy through the use of four bungee trapeze artists. It’s fun the first time, though all you think is “Cirque du Soleil” and not “rainforest”. In fact, you wish he had junked the whole Amazon idea and chosen to make the woods a circus. Donna Feore’s choreography is exciting in the tango that begins the show, but becomes increasingly hectic and unfocussed as the show proceeds, especially in the final celebration when it has to compete with bungee trapeze artists bobbing down from above. Lighting designer Michael Whitfield has come up with a surprising range of effects from coloured lights that seem to burst into bloom on the stage to the retro psychedelics for the court’s final celebration.

Amid all the acrobatics and pratfalls what’s lost is any sense of magic, wonder, sexual tension or reconciliation. By encumbering the play with a nonsensical concept and distracting additions, Rubin has achieved the difficult task of making one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays unengaging. All colour and noise without content turns laughter to yawns.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Under Milk Wood

by Dylan Thomas, directed by Douglas Campbell
Wax Poetic Productions, Mercury Theatre, St. Marys
May 14-June 6, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Waking and Dreaming in St. Marys"

St Marys’ new performance space, the Mercury Theatre at 14 Church Street North, has been inaugurated in high style with a performance of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” directed by well-known Stratford actor Douglas Campbell. It is an imaginative production that brings Thomas’s portrait of the waking and dreaming lives of a small town in Wales to zestful life.

“Under Milk Wood” is subtitled “A Play for Voices”. It was originally written as a radio play and first broadcast in 1954. Radio is, in fact, the perfect medium for the play that shifts through the imaginings and mostly unspoken thoughts of 53 characters in the small town of Llaregyb. Bringing Thomas’s highly charged, evocative poetry to the stage can risk losing the fluidity and mystery of the original.

Campbell overcomes this by making the mechanics of staging the play visible. Actors, seemingly in their street clothes, mill about the playing area until called on by stage manager, Robert Pel, to begin. Five lecterns, three on the downstairs area, one on the house left staircase and one in the second level of the stage, hold the scripts that the First and Second Voices, the main narrators of the action, read from as they move about the playing area. The stage itself is a raised circular dais that the actors walk around as much as play on. Hanging from the stage balcony are iridescent blue curtains that reveal scenes when illumined from behind. They seem to represent the haze of alcohol, dreams and the sea. Campbell has ensured that the transitions from narration to acting and from character to character are swift, seamless and magical. He closes the show with a choral version of Reverend Jenkins’ morning poem that aptly concludes, “And to the sun we all will bow And say goodbye--but just for now!”

With only six actors playing the 53 roles, the theme of transformation in general becomes related to the ability of actors to transform themselves. Stratford actor Richard Curnock plays the First Voice and former Stratford Festival Artistic Director David William plays the Second Voice, the warmth and gusto of Curnock nicely contrasting with the coolness and restrain of William. Among Curnock’s three other roles, the most important is blind Captain Cat, who movingly still mourns Rosy Probert, the only woman he ever loved. Among William’s eight other roles, the ever optimistic Reverend Eli Jenkins and the poetic love-letter writer Mog Edwards stand out as does the servile, henpecked Mr. Pugh, whose secret revenge is to nurture fantasies of poisoning his wife.

Marion Day plays nine strong women, among them the sensuous, dying Rosie Probert, Myfanwy Price who passionately corresponds with Mog Edwards and, most hilariously, the strict, cleanliness-obsessed Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard. Among her ten roles Philippa Domville is bitingly funny as the horribly mean Mrs. Pugh, earthy as Mrs. Cherry Owen, dreamy as Mae Rose Cottage and sings Polly Garter’s song about Willy Wee, her own dead love, with great feeling. David Kirby also plays ten roles, many of them the male partners of Domville’s characters. The matter-of-fact nosiness of his postman Willy Nilly, who reads everyone’s mail, is priceless as is the jolliness of Butcher Beynon, who teases his wife about the stray animals or people who may have found their way into their dinner, and he brings unexpected pathos to the town rake Nogood Boyo. Anika Johnson, still a high school student, rounds out the cast with six roles.

“Under Milk Wood” is a beautiful play that portrays the interplay of dualities in the everyday, from life and death to waking and dreaming, restraint and passion, togetherness and loneliness. Campbell has made this celebration of life into a celebration of the theatre and its power of transformation. The new Mercury Theatre has only 72 seats. Seldom will you find so much talent and so much poetry in so small a space. The Mercury Theatre is off to a very auspicious start.

©Christopher Hoile

 

Hairspray

by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan;
directed by Jack O’Brien
Mirvish Productions, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
May 5-Sept 27, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Musical with Hold"

Hairspray, winner of the 2002 Tony Award for Best Musical, is like the bouffant hair-dos that feature so prominently in the show—lots of air and little substance. Just as an external lacquer keeps those ‘dos in shape, so the musical is held together by the highly inventive 1960s-style music of Marc Shaiman and the clever lyrics of Shaiman and Scott Wishman. In fact, Hairspray is the first Tony-Award-winning musical since Crazy for You in 1992 that is actually jam-packed with one good song from start to finish.

The musical is based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same title, the least offensive he ever made. The musical like the film is really a satiric fairy-tale constructed from 1960s kitsch and pop references. In 1962 Baltimore, chubby, bubbly Tracy Turnblad dreams of one day appearing on her favourite television dance show, the local American Bandstand rip-off called “The Corny Collins Show”. Despite the fact that Tracy looks nothing like the slim teenaged in-crowd called “The Council”, when a vacancy opens, Tracy, who knows she’s a better dancer than most of the Council, decides to audition. Producer and former beauty-queen Velma Von Tussle and hairspray sponsor Harriman F. Spritzer laugh her out of the theatre. When they also do so to black girl Little Inez, Tracy sees the link between lookism and racism and assumes the new goal of fully integrating “The Corny Collins Show” that sets aside only one day per month for “Negro Day”.

Reinforcing the theme that “It’s not how you look but what’s inside that counts”, are three couples. Link Larkin and Amber Von Tussle are the Ken and Barbie of the Council, but when Link and Tracy’s eyes meet, it’s true love. They literally hear bells ring. The same happens when Tracy’s best friend, the white Penny Pingleton, meets Little Inez’s big brother, the black Seaweed J. Stubbs. And then there are Tracy’s own parents, the thin-as-a-rail Wilbur and his wife Edna, fat-as-whale and ugly-as-sin, played in the film by Waters’ favourite hefty transvestite Divine.

Unlike many faux ‘60s musicals, Shaiman’s score thoroughly gets inside the idiom instead of mocking it. Many songs like the final “You Can’t Stop the Beat” seem just like the real thing. Shaiman makes reference to all manner of styles, black and white, from TV commercials to gospel, Elvis-like ballad to novelty number, weepy girl numbers to the Supremes. Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s lyrics are clever and spiced with unexpected rhymes. It’s pity that the sound is so often balanced in favour of the 12-man orchestra so that the words aren’t always clear. The book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan doesn’t overcome the lack of forward momentum inherent in the movie’s plot. In fact, in Act 2, three of the first four numbers, “The Big Dollhouse”, “Timeless to Me” and “I Know Where I’ve Been” completely stop the action rather than move it on. “I Know Where I’ve Been” is also the sole attempt to treat the pain of segregation seriously in what is clearly not a realistic show. Luckily, both it and “Timelesss to Me” are so well written and performed that most people will not notice that they are filler.

As Tracy former American Idol contestant Vanessa Olivarez is as bouncy and effervescent as one could wish. She has a big voice akin to Leslie Gore, though nothing we see really demonstrates that she can dance as well let alone better than Amber Van Tussle. As Edna, Jay Bazeau looks and sounds a lot more like Jabba the Hutt than Divine, but that only makes the role funnier. Tom Rooney as Wilbur has a loopy sense of humour that makes it seem almost plausible that such a mild-mannered guy should be in love with the Brobdinganian Edna. Their duet, “Timeless to Me” is patterned after a vaudeville routine and as performed by Brazeau and Rooney is one of the biggest hits of the show.

Paul McQuillan is well cast as a Corny Collins managing the difficult task of projecting the TV host’s satirical slickness but suggesting that a social conscience may lurk underneath. Susan Henley frequently goes over the top as the Velma the villain, while Tara Macri gets the pampered Amber just right. The same is true of the third mother-daughter pair, Prudy and Penny Pingleton. Charlotte Moore moves beyond satirical to cartoonish as Penny’s prudish mother and doesn’t differentiate her character much from her other roles as a gym teacher and jail matron. Jennifer Stewart, however, does a fine job of transforming the shy, geeky girl we first into the confident, shimmying stunner she becomes at the end. Michael Torontow is a find as Link, good-looking, rich voiced, who makes the most of his big ballad “It Takes Two”.

It’s unfortunate in a show with the nominal theme of integration that we should know so much less about its black characters. Record store owner Motormouth Mabel and her daughter Little Inez should form a fourth mother-daughter pair, but they have little interaction to bring out this parallel. With a powerful voice and stage presence, Fran Jaye puts everything into her two big numbers “Big, Blond and Beautiful” and “I Know Where I’ve Been” and deservedly receives the biggest applause of the evening . Matthew Morgan as Mable’s son Seaweed has mastered an amazing double-jointed look in his dancing. Shennel Campbell is a charmer as Little Inez. Lisa Bell, Karen Burthwright and Starr Domingue as so good as the Supremes clones The Dynamites, one wishes they had another number besides “Welcome to the ‘60s”.

Director Jack O’Brien moves the action along at a brisk pace but even so he could make the shift from scene to scene snappier. He’s clearly learned a few tricks from Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia in how to poke fun at the clichés in a number while its being performed. David Rockwell’s forced perspective sets and use of parabolic shapes are key in locating the action in a fantasy version of the ‘60s. William Ivey Long seems to view the ‘60s as the epitome of bad taste. His truly outré costumes use such violently clashing hues and patterns that the stage may burst with bright colours but is often fairly painful to the eye. Kenneth Posner cleverly recreates a number TV studio lighting effects that immediately conjure up the period. Jerry Mitchell’s choreography revisits a wide range of ‘60s moves but seems to run out of invention in Act 2. The dance corps itself is enthusiastic but is not as precise as it should be.

As long as one doesn’t try to invest it with too much meaning, Hairspray is a highly entertaining diversion. It doesn’t have the same emotional build up of a show like Mamma Mia and is therefore ultimately not as engaging. As is usually true of satire, we tend to look at the characters from the outside rather than feeling directly involved with them. Yet, given the strength of its memorable music, Hairspray is more likely than most recent musicals to have a long life beyond its initial production.

©Christopher Hoile

 

Die Fledermaus

by Johann Strauss, Jr., directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
April 23-May 2, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Bat That Really Soars"

The Toronto Operetta Theatre capped an excellent season with a fine production of that pinnacle of Golden Age Viennese operetta, Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr. This revival of the TOT’s imaginative updating of the story to the 1960s was even more successful than when last mounted in 1999.

The 1960s is a good period for Die Fledermaus. The period suggests the ideas of glamour and strict social conventions and well as sexual freedoms roiling beneath the surface. With so many present-day CEOs going to prison for bilking investors, the plot concerning the well-to-do businessman Gabriel Eisenstein who has to spend his time in jail gains a relevance it usually lacks.

TOT Artistic Director and stage director of the piece, Guillermo Silva-Marin has assembled a very fine cast. Soprano Laura Whalen was superb as Rosalinda, unafraid to give her an air of hauteur that immediately made us sympathize with her put-upon maid Adele. She found comedy in the very brazenness of a woman who swears love to her husband while planning a week-long fling with the operatic tenor Alfred. Whalen combined her fine comic acting with a gorgeous voice that galvanized the audience. Her full, rounded tone never lost its beauty even in the highest notes. Her thrilling “Csardas” in the party scene of Act 2 was a show-stopper if there ever was one performed with dazzling panache.

As self-regarding Alfred, tenor Mark DuBois in fine voice made a welcome return to the TOT. The role allowed him to indulge in excerpts from the greatest hits of Italian opera, especially La Traviata, that particularly enflame Rosalinda’s passion. Tenor Ross Neill, playing Rosalinda’s husband, has a large, powerful voice that was not always sufficiently agile for the rapid musical interchanges. As Adele, soprano Elizabeth Beeler proved again what a natural comedienne she is. She gave a delightful performance of “Mein Herr Marquis” in Act 2 but seemed to have lost some of her ebullience by the time of her big audition scene in Act 3. Better than anyone she had the ability to make the score’s frequent musical ha-ha-has of laughter seem perfectly natural.

Alexander Dobson as Dr. Falke, the Bat of the title, is a fine actor and has a full, rich baritone shown to great advantage in “Brüderlein und Schwesterlein” in Act 2, a rare reflective moment that gave the manic actions of the party a sense of depth. Keith Savage, rigid and staring, was a comically affected Prince Orlovsky that obliterated the odd tradition of casting this role for a woman. As Frosch the jailer, Silva-Marin, almost unrecognizable as white-socked, square-glassed nerd, was truly hilarious.

Silva-Marin directed with great attention to detail throughout, but his conception of Act 3 really made this production stand out. Usually, the first part of the jail scene is set aside for a non-singing comedian doing a comic routine about the tedium of his chores. Such a long spoken section that brings the music to a dead stop has always made this act my least favourite part of the operetta. Silva-Marin, however, has had the brilliant idea of making Frosch a would-be singer who fawningly admires the tenor Alfred (mistakenly imprisoned as Eisenstein). This idea keeps the music going as Alfred teaches the geeky Frosch how to sing culminating in a priceless impersonation of what might be called “The Two Tenors” complete with handkerchiefs.

Silva-Marin has also eliminated the intermission between Act 2 and 3 and used the entr’acte supplemented by a lively playing of Strauss’s “Tritsch-Tratsch” polka for the chorus to change the set under Falke’s supervision. Since Falke is the primum mobile of the action, this scene change subtly reinforced the metatheatrical nature of the whole work.

Conductor Derek Bate led the 15-member orchestra in a lively account of this score of wall-to-wall hits. They played like a first-rate salon orchestra with a mastery of speed changes that gives Viennese music its swing. Though Die Fledermaus is one of the pillars of the operetta repertoire, this joyous production made is shine like new.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Pélagie

by Allen Cole and Vincent de Tourdonnet, directed by Michael Shamata
CanStage, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto
April 8-May 1, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Worthy But Dull"

It’s so seldom one encounters a new, large-scale Canadian musical, one has to applaud the effort of CanStage and the National Arts Centre in bringing Pélagie to the stage. It’s a project that has worthiness and good intentions written all over it. More’s the pity, then, that the show, though nice to look at and easy on the ear, is so unengaging.

At some point during its six years in development someone should have questioned whether Acadian writer Antonine Maillet’s 1979 novel Pélagie-la-Charette actually was a good subject for a musical. Certainly the historical facts behind it should be more widely known. Founded in 1604 Acadia became a haven for francophone Catholic colonists. After many reversals the colony passed from French to English hands. By 1775 the Acadians neutrality during the American War for Independence and their refusal to swear allegiance to the British monarch, led to the order for their mass deportation from Acadia to other British colonies. Finally, in 1763 the Treaty of Paris allowed the Acadians to return what had been Acadia, though all the Acadians’ towns had been demolished and their lands turned over to British settlers.

The musical begins with the deportation of the widow Pélagie Leblanc and her children and neighbours from Grand Pré, Nova Scotia. After 18 years in Georgia, Pélagie earns enough money to buy a cart and fulfill her vow as a kind of female Moses to return “her people” to Acadia. The majority of the two-and-a-hours is taken up with Pélagie’s overland journey from Georgia to Grand Pré. And this is the problem.

Pélagie presents us with an episodic story not a plot based on conflict between characters. Any conflict that does arise, like the decision of Pélagie’s son to become American or her daughter to marry, are soon resolved that the trek goes on. Certainly the characters are faced with trials--deaths, food shortages, the temptation to go to join the Acadians in Louisiana--but none of these events lead to changes in character. Pélagie and her band of followers start out as idealized types and remain so until the end. Lyricist Vincent de Tourdonnet and composer Allen Cole allow Pélagie to question a journey that forces her to forsake the love of the dashing Acadian Captain Beausoleil, but the simple mantra of “vow”, “home” and “Acadia” soon brings her back on track.

Without conflict more than two hours of unalloyed goodness and earnestness among seemingly unflawed characters is ultimately rather dull. De Tourdonnet and Cole want to win us over to Pélagie’s cause which itself seems increasingly pointless. How, after, 22 years away can she and her people expect Grand Pré to be the same as when they left it? Pélagie sublimates her disappointment with “Where you are is Acadie”, that the people not a place is Acadia. But this final “revelation”, of course, is a just familiar cliché.

De Tourdonnet’s lyrics seem deliberately to eschew all cleverness. Cole’s music frequently soars usually in the familiar heroic patterns of Les Misérables with Jesus Christ Superstar and Fiddler in the Roof thrown in for variety. The creators’ book so often requires the travelling Acadians to take a noble stance that it becomes difficult to tell the songs apart. In a touch of magic realism, the creators picture the figure of Death, introduced by a fairly dreadful song, as a female courtier dressed in an red 18th-century gown pulling her own wagon decorated with Watteauesque paintings. One would think someone would say something about the ironic parallel between Pélagie’s cart and Death’s wagon, but no one ever does even when both are simultaneously on stage.

The 16-member company is well cast and gives committed performances. Susan Gilmour rises to the challenge of the indomitable Pélagie and through gesture and expression makes her a richer character than the book or lyrics would suggest by discovering weakness beneath the show of strength. Réjean J. Cournoyer as her rather improbable love interest Captain Beausoleil has a heroic voice and magnetic presence. Mike Nadajewski sings well as Pélagie’s son Jean, though one wishes the creators had given him more than one character trait. Amy Walsh is excellent at depicting the ageing of Pélagie’s daughter Madeleine from child to woman. Shaun Amyot is thoroughly likeable as her boyfriend Charles-Auguste. Jayne Lewis is suitably enigmatic as the rouged, ever-smiling Death. On the other hand, Mary Ellen Mahoney’s abundant talent is wasted as the comic “wise woman” Célina, who is never given a decent wisecrack. Cliff Le Jeune tries much too hard to make the 90-year-old Bélonie a lovable character.

Director Michael Shamata shows his ingenuity in making the cast’s innumerable circuits of the stage as they “travel” seem as different as possible, but ultimately it’s the same pattern repeated again and again. Tracey Flye’s choreography is so welcome a change in the wedding scene it’s too bad there not more of it. Costume designer Charlotte Dean, set designer John Ferguson and lighting designer John Munro give the work a warm, earthy glow. Munro’s silhouetting of the travelling troop is especially effective. The six-member band conducted by Jeffrey Huard includes three keyboards which make it sound like a much larger group.

At the curtain call once the inevitable Acadian flag has been unfurled, one can hardly survey the large cast without being impressed by the talent to perform musical theatre that Canada has to offer. As with recent Canadian operas like John Beckwith’s Taptoo! (1995) and D.D. Jackson’s Québécité (2003), the desire to create an uplifting Canadian work has stifled the ability to create exciting musical theatre. Unless Canadian composers and librettists are willing to portray Canadians as flawed, complex people, we will indeed live up to the world’s view of us as dull.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Chocolate Soldier

by Oscar Straus, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
December 26, 2003-January 3, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

A Delicious Confection

What a delicious confection “The Chocolate Soldier” is! Though not as well known as Franz Lehár or Emmerich Kálmán, Oscar Straus (1870-1954) created one of the finest Silver Age Viennese operettas by looking for inspiration to, of all people, George Bernard Shaw. “The Chocolate Soldier” (“Der tapfere Soldat”, literally “The Brave Soldier”) is based on Shaw’s 1894 comedy “Arms and the Man”. Shaw’s stipulated that none of his dialogue be used and, foolishly, asked for none of the royalties from what was to become a major hit. The work was last seen in Ontario at the Shaw Festival in 1997. Toronto Operetta Theatre production, the work’s first professional production in Toronto, is superior in every way.

Young Bulgarian Nadina idolizes her hero and fiancé Alexius, who was once betrothed to her cousin Mascha, more from her innately romantic nature than from any insight into his character. This all changes when a handsome Swiss soldier named Bummerli, fighting on the side of the enemy Serbians, seeks shelter in Nadina’s house from Bulgarian pursuers. Such is his charm that Nadina, Mascha and Nadina’s mother all fall for him and, overcoming their patriotism, help hide and protect him.

By using Shaw’s play as the basis for his plot, Straus was able to create an operetta that avoids the devices of disguise, mistaken identity and unequal birth that would later become clichés of the genre. Instead the operetta is satire of machismo and the idealization of war as well as a clever comedy of character. This is even more evident in Agnes Burnelle’s new English book and Adam Carstairs’ witty lyrics. The show’s biggest hit is “My Hero”, but the work is not so much a series of show-stopping arias as a delightful concatenation of ensemble pieces from trios like the lovely “Three Ladies Sat” that closes Act 1 to quartets and sextets. The Jane Mallett Theatre is the perfect venue for such an intimate work.

The show is anchored by four performers—Elizabeth Beeler, Robert Longo, Shannon Mercer and Curtis Sullivan—who are not only excellent singers but also fine comic actors thoroughly at home on stage. Longo, with a naturalness and wry humour perfect for the title character, sings a rich baritone that is also bright and agile. He brings out such beauty in Bummerli’s Act 2 song “If We Could Do What We’ve a Mind To” one wonders why it is not excerpted more often. It would be hard to imagine a more ideal Nadina than Shannon Mercer. With her pure, shining soprano she sings “My Hero” with just the right combination of fervor and innocence, and expertly details Nadina’s inner conflict between unfounded adoration for her idol Alexius and her growing attraction for the down to earth Bummerli.

Beeler is a pleasure throughout as Nadina’s cousin Mascha, precisely capturing the comedy of a woman desperate for a boyfriend but who also seeks to maintain some sense of dignity. Sullivan is a bit young for Nadina’s father Colonel Popoff but catches his satirical nature so well his every comic remark hits home. As Alexius, Keith Klassen is fairly stiff, which suits the character, but he could have played up this popinjay’s pomposity even more. Margaret Maye as Aurelia and Giles Tomkins as Massakroff are both effective.

Conductor Wayne Strongman, best known for his work in contemporary opera with Tapestry New Opera Works, shows a real flair for the Viennese repertoire. Leading the 15-member orchestra he consistently relates the songs back to their dance origins, proving himself a master of the rubato that gives operetta its lilt and lightness. As chorus master he draws a beautifully blended sound from the chorus, particularly in the reprise of “My Hero” in Act 2.

With his set design of large, hinged panels, scenic artist David Rayfield has found an elegant solution for presenting the work’s two contrasting settings. Stage director Guillermo Silva-Marin has focussed closely on the work as a comedy of character and as a result has led the TOT to a new level of subtlety in performance. This “Chocolate Soldier” is an ideal treat for the holidays, a warm, delectable entertainment you will savour long after the final chords have sounded.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

One Good Marriage

by Sean Reycraft, directed by Shari Hollett
Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto
Jan 23-Feb 15, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"One Exciting Play"

Sean Reycraft’s “One Good Marriage” was a hit at the 2002 SummerWorks Festival and now receives a well-deserved remount at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. The show’s 65 minutes are more thought-provoking and deliver more punch than many recent Canadian plays twice its length.

The action takes place on a completely bare stage except for two chairs. A handmade sign reading “Happy Anniversary” has either started to fall down or has not been completely put up. Actors Jeff Miller and Mary Francis Moore come out of the wings to speak to us as the characters Stewart and Steph. Why they are speaking to us and who we, the audience, are supposed to represent are just two of many mysteries that are not resolved until the play’s final minutes.

As we learn, Steph and Stewart both worked at the Glencoe Senior High School--she as a teacher, he as a librarian. They are two totally ordinary people who met, dated, fell in love and got married. For their honeymoon they chose to go somewhere to be completely incommunicado for two weeks. On their return they discovered that a major catastrophe has occurred killing the more than 80 people at their wedding reception. It would spoil some of the tension to reveal what happened, even though that is not the play’s main point. The play is a mystery but not the kind than can be solved by revealing a simple cause of death.

In a typical wedding a community gathers to witness the binding of two people by love and law insuring continuance of that community. What Reycraft asks is what happens when the wedded couple loses that entire community and are bound instead by death and loss.

Reycraft’s brilliant script balances on a knife edge between horror and comedy as Steph and Stewart constantly evade the very issue that they are trying to confront. Director Shari Hollett carefully maintains that balance and similarly draws crisp but deeply felt performances from the cast. Miller is excellent as on ordinary, outgoing guy forced by bizarre circumstances into the uncomfortable state of constant introspection. Moore’s character is already more withdrawn than Miller’s. Moore well conveys the barely controlled anxiety that lies just below the surface of Steph’s speech. Moore’s tendency to swallow final words unfortunately makes what she says not quite as clear as Miller. Both hand off the story to each other simply as two people telling a story familiar to them both but also subtly evoking the manner of a Greek chorus.

So many modern plays present characters as if they live in isolation that it is refreshing to see a play about the need for community. Steph and Stewart reach out for it through a story whose underlying horror may ultimately deny them precisely what they seek. Reycraft has masterfully captured their nightmarish situation in a play that is sure to have a long life beyond this production.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

A Phoenix Too Frequent

by Christopher Fry, directed by Douglas Beattie
Touchmark Theatre, River Run Centre, Guelph
Feb 14-21, 2004
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Phoenix in Flight"

Touchmark Theatre has brought Guelph both well-known classics like “The Glass Menagerie” (in 2003) and “The Playboy of the Western World” (in 2001) but also lesser-known works like “Kingdom of Heaven” (in 1999) that do not deserve to be forgotten. Such is the case with its current production of Christopher Fry’s verse play “A Phoenix Too Frequent” that reveals the work as a witty, vibrant comedy about human foibles sure to raise anyone’s spirits.

British playwright Christopher Fry (born in 1907 and still with us) is best known for his play “The Lady’s Not for Burning” (1948) last seen in Ontario at the Shaw Festival in 1998. He was one of a number of postwar playwrights like T. S. Eliot and Archibald MacLeish, who championed the cause of drama in verse. The kitchen-sink realism of plays in the 1950s and the existential minimalism of Beckett and Pinter made the idea of a rich poetic language in the modern theatre seem hopelessly old-fashioned. However, enough time has passed by now that we should be able to appreciate his plays for their inherent worth rather than their adherence to a particular trend. Indeed, after the deliberately flat language of so much modern drama, the exuberance of Fry’s language in “Phoenix” feels like a breath of fresh air.

Fry’s 90-minute play is a comic version of the once well-known tale of the “Widow of Ephesus” told in Petronius’ “Satyricon”. The Widow, here named Dynamene, has vowed to starve herself to death in the tomb of her husband Virilius. Her faithful servant Doto, with seemingly nothing else to do, has decided to follow her mistress into death. The situation becomes complicated when a Roman soldier, Tegeus, guarding six recently hanged prisoners, follows the light into the tomb and finds the women. His admiration for Dynamene’s faithfulness soon turns to love while Dynamene is torn between her vow and the possibility of new life.

For this production director and designer Douglas Beattie has configured the seating in Co-operator’s Hall at the River Run Centre into two banks on either side of a runway stage. This brings the audience much closer to the stage and reinforces the intimacy of the play’s setting. His design itself is handsome and well-proportioned with the columned tomb entrance upstage and the large altar-like sepulcher at the very end of the runway. Since the three characters share bread and wine with the pretense of honouring Virilius the shape Beattie gives the sepulchre enhances the parody of communion Fry has built into the action. Lighting designer Renée Brode‘s beautifully mottled lighting accomplishes the difficult task of suggesting murk while still allowing us to see clearly.

All three actors make Fry’s verse sound both natural and clear, though it is Michael Spencer-Davis as Tegeus who best brings out its sensuous beauty. His performance is also the most nuanced in portraying a man whose love of Dynamene’s virtue imperceptibly turns to love. Liza Balkan is hilarious as Doto particularly in her detailing of the servant’s increasing level of drunkenness on Tegeus’s wine and the corresponding level of randiness it provokes. Shauna Black well portrays a young wife whose vow to her accountant-like husband may have been more one of duty than love, but ideally her tone should be more varied and one would have liked to see more of an internal struggle between what Dynamene thinks she ought to do and the stirrings of love she starts to feel for Tegeus.

All in all it is a delightful evening that tickles the ears and the mind with Fry's scintillating language and insight into human naute. It demonstrates that Fry in the right hands can be as vital as any other great 20th-century playwright. Beattie has such a natural way with this playwright, we hope Touchmark will explore him further.
©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Norm Foster's

Outlaw

Playing in Port Dalhousie (Wednesday - Sunday) until June 13, 2004
A review by James Wegg

"ROMANCE, RELIGION AND PUKE" - The American Old West Canuck-Style

In Outlaw, Canada’s most prolific and entertaining playwright has selected 1871 Kansas as the backdrop for this lively dissertation on the Canadian psyche. The result, playing in a variety of venues in Southwestern Ontario for the foreseeable future, is an intriguing mix of artistic savvy and workshop-ready scenes that should soon coalesce into a solid addition to the repertoire.

Self-described as “part comedy, part drama,” it’s the failure to be predominantly one or the other that prevents the current version from capturing and holding the audience between the bookend mini-soliloquies that frame the two acts.

Manitoban homesteader Bob Hicks (convincingly played by Darren Keay), following a three-day bender to celebrate the conclusion of a cattle drive, finds himself in the wrong stable at the wrong time and is accused of shooting dead the wayward brother of Roland Keets (Peter Evans looking the role to a tee, but occasionally slipping off the script’s trail). Hicks is easily tracked down at his campfire by Keets’ right-hand hand Will Vanhorne (Canadian newcomer Paul Wilson, whose southern drawl and quiet understatement are a most welcome addition) and is prepared to swing – no evidence required – on “Hangin’ Rock” because “justice don’t care where it gets done.”

Enter the lecherous, easily-bribed Sheriff Dupuis Tarwater (unevenly portrayed by Jeff Culbert). His character, ranging from sponsorship-scandal worthy slime to an under-developed dependency on his offstage mother, is the butt of the inevitable size jokes (“small offering”), but falls just short of being a credible villain.

Veteran Director Christopher McHarge has infused his obvious love of the west throughout the proceedings. His vision was ably assisted by Stewart Simpson’s spot-on set design, which only lacked the smell of the nearby horses and jingle of the surprisingly absent spurs to add extra verisimilitude. Douglas Ledingham’s lighting plan was a model of unobtrusive support. Unfortunately, the scenes too-often reflected the stasis of their surroundings and remained largely stagnant, favouring stand-and-deliver over action.

The script might benefit from a few alterations. Its inciting incident (the murder has to be reported) is told rather than shown; likewise, all of the relationships of the four men to their significant others are heard but never seen: Hicks’ devotion to his wife and six-year-old daughter (no letter close to his heart?); the randy Peace Keeper’s global appetite for anything that moves in the local whore house (just what does he carry in his saddle bags?); Keets’ use of fine literature for mistress bait; the loner Vanhorne (hilariously ending up as an Ambassador to Canada) attraction to his, er, mare?

Still, the notions of gun control, slavery/immigration, corruption and lies make so much of this piece resonate with our society today, that this show is highly recommended to anyone who revels in the interconnection of the Great White North and its shoot-first-ask-questions-later neighbour (think Waiting for Columbine with chaps). With a few refinements “Outlaw” could well become the definitive representation of what we love most about being Canadian. Perhaps, too, Hicks’ uncooperative match might finally burst into flame, giving further illumination rather than unintended metaphor to the challenges of life.

Originally published at http://www.jamesweggreview.org/
Reprinted here with permission of the author, James Wegg.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Power of the Dog

Written by Howard Barker
Equity Showcase Theatre, until June 4, 2004
651 Dufferin Street (at Dundas), Toronto
Box Office: 416-533-6100 ext. *52

Review by James Wegg

STIFLING PRODUCTION HAS MORE BARK THAN BITE

British bad-boy playwright Howard Barker’s 1984 shocker set in Russia as WW II drew to a close was given its Canadian première at Equity Showcase Theatre but the production suffered as much from the stifling heat as the repressive policies and vainglorious personalities wrecked havoc with the innocent millions on both sides of the conflict.

The sauna-like atmosphere, partially self-inflicted by Set Designer Marian Wihak’s plastic, translucent shower-curtain strips that encircled the extended performance space, made total concentration on the thirteen-member ensemble more of a challenge than a pleasure while observing their considerable skills. And if the audience was drenched in their own juices as Churchill (Katherine East very plausibly in touch with Britain’s storied leader’s feminine side) and Stalin (Trevor Martin coming across more as a cruise ship captain than the nefarious dictator) bargained through editorializing interpreters, the performers must have been near unsafe dehydration before the first chicken joke (delivered ably if a tad too frantically by Gregory Thomas as the stand-up Scotsman, McGroot).

Director Christopher Brauer has done a commendable job of using the space to good advantage and, except for a far too heavy dose of Prokofiev as the prelude to Act II, kept the visual pace moving well, admirably assisted by Heidi Strauss’ choreography—notably the marching bits. (Ironically, the oft-censured—too much “formalism”—composer’s Seventh Symphony received “The Stalin Prize” just months before they died within three hours of each other on March 5, 1953—robbing both of the last word in the battle for creative freedom in an era where condemnation of art and shallow, favour-winning dedications were as cynical as the Five Year Plans were successful.) Unfortunately, Brauer settled for a far too narrow dynamic range, letting Barker’s snappy dialogue come blaring out of his characters with as much unrelenting force as the atrocities being railed about. Generous sprinklings of Pianissimo, or sotto voce, would dramatically expand the tonal spectrum and bring sonic relief to the predominant monochrome of relentless declamation.

The script is so rich with its own colour and imagery (“Luck is what hope shits in a panic;” “A letter has authority, the poem, not at all.”) that, like a good jazz-band rhythm section, the driving forces should be felt but not heard, allowing the leads to slip in and around the themes with ease and—seemingly—effortless finesse.

In many ways it fell to Danielle Wilson as Ilona and Thomas (in his other role as photography assistant) to glue the action together as they travel the war zone, capturing the horrific stills of devastation, doom and death. Victor’s admission that “he’s never looked into anyone’s eyes,” is a memorable moment, as was Richard Harte’s (playing Poscrebyshev – Stalin’s private secretary), reaction where his face is a masterpiece of rejection and angst as the Russian leader succumbs to Ilona’s charms and later further humiliated by his “Daddy’s” chiding putdown: “You rub yourself.”

Throughout it all, “The Girl” (Elke Schroeder) peddles, cowers and poses as the conscience of the victims, given just a brief line that magnificently brings Barker’s point home as much as her unspoken presence did up to then. Power, indeed.

Paul Major’s lighting design added texture and depth to the mood, but, surprisingly, never provided a flash for the hard-working photographers as they recorded eerie landscapes and self-centred portraits.

Work such as this demands steady champions and a committed crew on both sides of the stage. This Equity Showcase production, uneven as some of it is, should, nonetheless, be lauded for the courage of all concerned to bring it to life now, even as the horrors and evil it illuminates continue unabated in too many parts of our global village.

Originally published at http://www.jamesweggreview.org/
Reprinted here with permission of the author, James Wegg.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

 

Urinetown

Music and Lyrics by MARK HOLLMANN;
Book and Lyrics by GREG KOTIS; Musical Staging by JOHN CARRAFA
Directed by JOHN RANDO
MAY 19 – JUL 11 / 2004
CanStage BLUMA
A review by Jim Lingerfelt and Roger Kershaw

A very short review of a very good show:

Go.

Don’t let the title put you off. It, like everything else in this creative piece, is a put-on. It’s Annie, Oklahoma!, Oliver!, Les Miserables, West Side Story, Starlight Express, Joseph & the Etc., Fiddler on the Roof and more, all in one piece of parody. And I'll resist all temptation to set this review off with a witty title, like "Flush with talent" or "Sit down or stand up, but go!" (But I will confess that the intermission lines at the washrooms were the longest I've ever seen at the Bluma Apel Theatre!)

Urinetown set in a “Gotham-like city” in the future, or is it in the 1930s?, when water is scarcer than gold, and the right to pee has become regulated by the corporate conglomerate, Urine Good Company (UGC). A collector at one of UGC’s public amenities (toilets) rebels and the revolution is born. Of course, he falls in love with the daughter of the CEO of UGC and … well, the plot is, of course, pretty predictable, or it wouldn’t be a parody, now, would it!

The music is strong, catchy, cleverly humorous and … (now here’s a surprise) … good! The acting is flawless and the choreography is, in its shamelessly exaggerated performance, energetic and hilarious.

We don't get to enjoy theatre as much as we used to - the Bed and Breakfast has it's demands on our time - but I'm sure glad we left our guests to fend for themselves last night, and shared one of the most enjoyable evenings of theatre in a long time. Sure glad you were there, too. If you weren't - you have till July 11!

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

 

 

SLEUTH

Written by Anthony Shaffer
Gypsy Theatre, playing till June 19, 2004
465 Central Avenue, Fort Erie
Review by James Wegg

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

THEY BOTH GOT GAME

The detective novel is the art-for-art’s sake of our yawning Philistinism, the classic example of a specialized form of art removed from contact with the life it pretends to build on. - V.S. Pritchett, English writer and critic (1900-1997)

The detective story is the normal recreation of noble minds.- Attributed to Philip Guedalla, British historian and biographer (1889-1944), via Andrew Wyke’s (Graham Roebuck) mouth and Anthony Shaffer’s script

Gypsy Theatre’s opening production of its 15th Season bodes well for the ambitious and varied menu to come, and like the “Evening of Magic” that brings the curtain down in the fall, is filled with a heady array of illusions, deception and mystery. And, with excellent sightlines, reasonable cost and beverage-at-your-seat convenience, the novice or veteran theatre-goer is assured of a pleasing experience.

This production might well be subtitled “An Evening with, John Dalingwater,” as he designs, directs, and stars as Milo Tindle in Shaffer’s thirty-four-year-old gem.

The set is magnificent, realistically capturing the tone and detail of a well-to-do mystery writer’s country estate. The self-centred creator of detective John Lord Merridew’s digs are filled with real games, puzzles and even dice-supported end-tables that silently bring home the author’s obsession. The stairway to the upper gallery and rear-lit windows serve the break-and-enter sequence admirably, with only two fall-downs too many by the hapless burglar-in-clown’s costume pushing the comedy a bit too close to farce.

The effect of the slapstick might have been balanced by having Wyke conduct the gramophone, as indicated in one version, to Beethoven’s Allegretto from the 7th Symphony (tellingly a “Theme and Variations”), but we had to settle for a snippet from the Scherzo as we found our way home.

Wearing his director’s hat, Dalingwater has done an admirable job of keeping the small cast moving well and using the full set to advantage (although, given the prominent role that serving drinks takes in nearly every scene and Wyke’s financial standing, it seems odd that a portable bar would be used to quench the non-stop thirst).

Tinkering with the script is another matter. Given the play’s many comments about British gentry, their snobbishness and the notion that only “noble” minds can create or unravel “intellectual” puzzles, the attempts to modernize some of the lines only weakens the satire. Inserted phrases like “sheep rapist, over-sexed boy scout,” or “penis envy” got a snicker or chuckle but more from recognition of the contemporary, resulting in characterization confusion.

With so many issues from racism to homosexuality (just why was the self-proclaimed sexual Olympian discovered to be impotent with his mistress?) lurking in Shaffer’s rich subtext, it would have been better to drill down into the material as it is than “modernize” its carefully constructed meaning.

As actor, Dalingwater brought believability to the role of Tindle, particularly in Act II when his rage, desire and need for revenge at any cost was compelling. His counterpart, Andrew J. Gonliath, brought a great sense of Columbo-like perseverance and admirable tribute to Michael Caine’s dialects in his portrayl of Inspector Doppler whose shameless duplicity was expertly revealed.

As the constantly plotting, man-about-murder, Wyke, Roebuck had the formidable task of being continuously on stage and gluing the piece together. A slightly uneven delivery kept some of the scenes from crackling with repartee and the inner loneliness that all writers experience—except through their creations—simmered rather than soared. But in the moments of greatest power (especially the turning of the tables in the second act) Wyke showed great depth and style that carried the moment.

But no matter whose domain the detective story belongs, the classics, well told, must solve more than the crime.

(c) 2004 James Wegg

 


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Disclaimer: Nothing here is "official." Everything is a composite of media releases, information supplied by or procured from the theatres, and personal opinion. Stage Door assumes no responsibility for the accuracy of this information, or for subsequent use or inconvenience experienced as a consequence of this information. Use of this Website constitutes your understanding of this Disclaimer.

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