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| A Whistle in the Dark |  The Glass Menagerie | La Bohème | Siegfried | The Abduction from the Seraglio | El Barberillo de Lavapiés | Half Life | Storm Warning | Blessings in Disguise | Fallen Angels |

Some Stage Door reviews of 2005

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

El Barberillo de Lavapiés

by Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
February 18-20, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door


"Olé! for ‘El Barberillo’"


With its production of Francisco Asenjo Barbieri’s zarzuela “El Barberillo de Lavapiés”, the Toronto Operetta Theatre has added another feather to its cap. The TOT has presented excerpts of zarzuelas or zarzuelas semi-staged with piano accompaniment, but this TOT production marks the first appearance in Canada of a fully-staged zarzuela with orchestra. The event is important enough as a milestone in Canadian music theater history, but the fact that the show proves to be highly enjoyable on its own is even more important. Toronto owes the TOT a debt of gratitude for opening a window onto what for many will be an unfamiliar musical genre.

Like the German “Singspiel” or French “opéra comique”, the Spanish zarzuela alternates song with spoken dialogue. Unlike its German and French counterparts, however, the zarzuela has a much longer history extending back to back to 1657 when a comedy by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, with music by Juan de Hidalgo was performed for Philip IV of Spain and his court. The new genre became known as La Zarzuela after one of the king's hunting lodges surrounded by “zarzas” or bramble bushes. Francisco Asenjo Barbieri (1823-94) began the revival of the zarzuela in the 19th century to counteract the influence Italian opera with a uniquely Spanish musical form.

“El Barberillo de Lavapiés” (1874) is considered Barbieri’s greatest comic zarzuela. Set in the low class Lavapiés district of Madrid in the time of Carlos III (1759-1788), the operetta tells two parallel love stories. On the one hand, Lamparilla, the “little barber” of the title, is in love with the seamstress La Paloma, whose devotion to the Virgin and her doves seems to preclude the idea of marriage. Meanwhile, Estrella, the Marchioness of Bierzo, lady-in-waiting to the Infanta and friend of La Paloma, is in love with Don Luis. The problem is that Estrella is part of a conspiracy plotting the downfall of Grimaldi, the repressive Chief Minister of Spain, and Don Luis is his nephew. The fact that Estrella can tell Don Luis so little of her doings only makes him increasingly jealous.

A serious political storyline is characteristic of zarzuela, but that doesn’t prevent the music from being joyous. One Spanish dance-inspired melody follows the next seeming to grow only more inventive and infectious as the operetta progresses. Baritone Alexander Dobson has always made a good impression in minor roles, but the role of Lamparilla really gives him a chance to shine. He is naturally at home on stage and his ebullient good humour enlivens every scene. Add to that the resonance and unerring precision and vigour of his singing and one could hardly imagine the role better played. If any one performance gives the work its zest it is his.

Mezzo Gisele Fredette as La Paloma was clearly under the weather and her voice grew hoarser and weaker throughout the show. But, trooper that she is, she projects much of La Paloma’s genial nature through the sheer force of her personality.

Last year soprano Meredith Hall and tenor Colin Ainsworth took a break from their usual realm of baroque opera to enliven the TOT production of Calixa Lavalée’s operetta “The Widow” with their highly cultured voices. This year they return to play Estrella and Don Luis to great effect. Hall displays her usual purity of tone and clarity of diction, but the stunner of the evening is her duet with Fredette “Aquí estoy ya vestida” in which La Paloma instructs the noblewoman how to act like a commoner. Here Hall unexpectedly deploys a lustrous lower register of surpassing beauty and allure. Her baroque repertoire so favours sparking heights, this is the first time we’ve had a chance to hear these enchanting depths. Ainsworth displays his usual crystalline tone and proves himself a fine actor. It’s too bad Barbieri didn’t think to give this ambiguous character a solo aria, but he did provide some compensation in the lovely duet for Estrella and Luis, “En una casa solariega”.

Sean Curran as Don Juan, a co-conspirator with Estrella, is much more effective as an actor than as a singer, while Arlene Alvarado and Tamara Rusque as two of La Paloma’s seamstresses lend their lovely voices to a seductive ode in praise of camisoles that opens Scene 2 of Act 2.

Multi-talented TOT Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin not only directed the show, but translated the dialogue and designed the set and the very effective lighting. The set, consisting of seven unframed doors, is one of the cleverest ever seen at the TOT. What one feature is most essential to a tale of spies and counterspies but doors to be searched or hidden behind? Silva-Marin uses them to great effect on the many occasions Grimaldi’s Walloon guards invade the district in search of conspirators. Conductor José Hernández led the 11-member band in his own special orchestration of the score bringing out all of its verve and rhythmic vivacity.

In the programme Silva-Marin lists at least ten more classic zarzuelas he is interested in. Let’s hope the success of “El Barberillo” encourages the TOT to explore more examples of the genre, an enterprise that would both educate and delight by providing the Toronto music scene with even greater variety.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Fallen Angels

by Noel Coward, directed Brian Bedford
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
June 2-October 29, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Heavenly Entertainment"

The combination of Brian Bedford and British comedy has come to guarantee a fun night out at Stratford. From his “Private Lives” in 2001 to “Present Laughter” in 2003 and “Noises Off” last year, Bedford as director has the knack for capturing the essence of every comedy he takes on and presenting it with stylish precision. His current production of Noel Coward’s “Fallen Angels” is no exception. While it is not perfect, Bedford has such a deft hand in this frothy delight it is sure to please.

“Fallen Angels”, written when Coward was only 22, was first produced in 1925. The plot is almost as rigidly symmetrical as Ionesco’s “The Bald Soprano” (1948). Two wealthy couples, Fred and Julia Sterroll and Willy and Jane Banbury, both live in flats in the same building in London. Julia and Jane are childhood friends who tell each other “everything” as are Fred and Willy. After ten years of marriage, both women miss the lack of passion in their otherwise happy marriages, while both men are pleased that the relationships with their wives have “reached a remarkable sublime plane of affection and good comradeship”. The men set out on a golfing trip to Chicester leaving the women to excite themselves to a frenzy over the immanent arrival in London of Maurice Duclos, a Frenchman with whom both Julia and Jane had had an affair 12 years ago in Italy, Julia in Pisa, Jane in Venice.

The centrepiece of the short three-act play is its second act when Jane and Julia, convinced that Maurice will arrive at any moment that evening, have dinner in Julia’s flat. During the interminable wait, the two best friends become progressively drunk and have a massive falling out.

“Fallen Angels” may be one of Coward’s slighter works, but it has been frequently revived primarily as a showcase of the comedic talents of two “grandes dames” of the theatre of equal power. The most recent revival in London in the 2000-2001 season, one I was lucky enough to see, featured Felicity Kendal as Julia and Frances de la Tour as Jane.

The key to the play is that Jane and Julia should be evenly matched. They were with hilarious results in London. In Stratford they are not. Seana McKenna inhabits the role Julia, with her dry humour and quick tongue, quite naturally. She is a master of subtly getting a laugh with a just change of tone, a pause or a raised eyebrow. In contrast, Lucy Peacock as Jane expends far too much energy in trying to be funny and as a result gives a wholly artificial performance.

Over the years Peacock has developed a series of all-purpose mannerisms--a tottering walk, a wobbly head, over-emphatic delivery and bug-eyes and sudden jaw-dropping--for any comic role she plays. She uses the same combination of mannerisms this season for Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” To enter with the tottering walk and wobbly head is especially unhelpful in a play where she will have to show her character’s increasing inebriation. In Act 2, McKenna and Peacock don’t match each other at all. While McKenna deliciously details Julia’s descent stage by stage into a stupor, Peacock’s Jane immediately gets dead drunk and then unaccountably sobers up off and on, thus compromising the careful parallelism Coward has set up that is the basis for the play’s humour.

In contrast to the women, Keith Dinicol as Fred and David Kirby as Willy are excellent at playing the two nearly interchangeable husbands. Fred may be more pompous and Willy may be more smug, but the way Dinicol and Kirby play out the husbands’ nearly identical reactions to events bring out both Coward’s satire on conformism among British men and his pre-absurdist view of human reactions as mechanical reflexes.

As Maurice Duclos, Nigel Hamer cuts the appropriately dashing figure but his “French” accent wanders all over Europe without settling anywhere. The most thoroughly delightful performance of the evening comes from veteran actor Joyce Campion as the Sterroll’s new maid, Saunders. Here Campion and Bedford as director greatly improve on the recent London production. Saunders’ periodic revelation of one incredible accomplishment after another are made hysterically funny by Campion’s totally natural, matter-of-fact delivery. The scenes of the diminutive Camion as the enraptured Saunders singing a French song as she elaborately accompanies herself on the piano will forever be etched in my mind as one of the most blissfully funny scenes I’ve witnessed on stage. It’s little wonder Campion received greatest round of applause of anyone in the cast.

The scene is set in the Sterroll’s flat and designer Susan Benson has created a beautiful room of pastels, so lovely you wish you could move in. The walls are decorated with panels of stags facing each other. Are these “harts” making a visual pun on the word or are they references to virgin goddess Diana’s favourite animal, thus wittily commenting on the distinctly non-virginal Jane and Julia? Benson’s costuming is also witty, deliberately dressing Jane and Julia way over the top for what is supposed to be a simple home dinner where they hope Maurice will discover them. The plus-fours she gives Fred and Willy as golfing outfits makes them seem like two characters straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. Michael J. Whitfield’s lighting enhances every aspect of the design. He seems to make the light grow gradually harsher during Act 2, thus cleverly mimicking the two women’s perception as they grow drunker and their eyes more light-sensitive. Don Horsburgh has composed a humorous ditty to accompany the curtain’s rise that helps transport us back to the 1920s.

Despite the uneven pairing of Peacock and McKenna, Bedford’s attention to detail shines through in every aspect of the production. His keen eye and perfect pacing and Joyce Campion’s unforgettable performance make “Fallen Angels” one of the most recommendable shows playing in Stratford this year.

 

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome


A Whistle in the Dark

by Tom Murphy, directed by Jason Byrne
Company Theatre, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Toronto
January 15-February 6, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

A Thrilling Debut

Few regular theatre-goers in Canada will have heard of Irish playwright Tom Murphy or his 1961 play “A Whistle in the Dark”. A new theatre company in Toronto called the Company Theatre is about to change that. It has chosen Murphy’s play as its inaugural production. It reveals the work as a powerful, painfully relevant tragedy. Under Irishman Jason Bynre’s meticulous direction the eight-member ensemble give truly outstanding performances making this the most exciting debut of a new theatre company in Toronto since Soulpepper.

When the 24-year-old Murphy submitted his play to the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, the theatre rejected it. So it had its premiere in England, though the Abbey has subsequently presented it. There’s no surprise why it was initially rejected. The play is one of the most unforgiving dissections of the Irish character that exists, untempered by sentimentality and divorced from the mythical contexts where Murphy’s contemporary Brian Friel often locates his Irish portraits.

The action is set in the living-room of Michael Carney in Coventry, England. Michael, the best-educated of his family, has emigrated to England in search of better work and has married an English wife, Betty. Unfortunately, three of Michael’s brothers--Harry, Iggy and Hugo--have followed him to Coventry, invading Michael’s home and setting up the same illegal businesses they plied back in County Mayo. Now the family patriarch DaDa is about to arrive with Des, the youngest of the five Carney sons, in tow. Betty’s life, already made miserable by the violence and disdain of the Carney brothers, is about to become intolerable. As for Michael, he is now surrounded by the whole system of familial hierarchy and petty-mindedness he sought to escape. Worse than this, what the three Carney brothers look forward to most in a bloody confrontation with another set of Irish immigrant brothers, the Mulryans. The pacifist Michael wants to save Des from involvement with his brothers’ pointless vendetta. At the same time Betty wants Michael to fight his brothers to clear them out of their house.

Though it deals with an Irish family in England, Murphy’s play has only gained in relevance over time. It anatomizes not just the Irish mentality but the tribal mentality in general. Michael seeks to be part of the new country he lives in. His English wife is testimony to that. Michael’s brothers, however, refer to Betty as a “stranger” even in her own house. Though facing prejudice from the Englishmen of the Coventry, the Carneys focus their anger on another Irish family. When Michael’s DaDa arrives Michael’s house and his brothers come under DaDa’s authority, not Michael’s, in effect establishing a miniature Ireland in exile. Not as individuals but only as a group can this self-conscious minority “whistle in the dark”, that is, attempt to keep up their courage.

One central irony is that while the Carney brothers have no status in the outside world, in Michael’s house they are all to quick to take offense at the slightest inflection or word choice that they think impugns their manliness or courage. The other irony is that DaDa’s lessons to his sons to heed his patriarchal authority but to disregard all other authority, carries the seeds of its own destruction. Why pay heed to any authority, especially when DaDa is gradually sliding into dementia?

The multiple lines of tension between characters that Byrne and the cast conjure up is agonizingly palpable. John Thompson’s set may be very plain, but the cast fill it with a volatile energy ready to explode at any moment. Byrne achieves this through minutely detailed direction that gives this tinderbox of a household its own fearful reality just inches away from the audience.

The cast give naturalistic performances of the very highest order. Jonathan Goad, who has given many fine performances at Stratford, outdoes all of them in creating Michael’s impotent despair. A sense of hopeless undermines almost every action he takes no matter how well-meaning. His ideal of pacifism is noble but how can it survive in a midst of a pack of wolves? As Betty, Sarah Dodd powerfully portrays, even in silence, a woman bursting with rage and humiliation. The calmness of her speech only communicates more strongly the intensity of her emotions.

The most frightening of the Carney brothers is Harry, played by Company Theatre co-Artistic Director Allan Hawco. Hawco, who has so often played romantic leads, clearly relishes the chance to play this dangerous sociopath. As Harry, Hawco positively glows with menace, always ready to dominate others, always ready to take offense when a threat of violence will benefit him. The other Carney brothers seems like mere ruffians compared to this character so imbued with malice.

Philip Riccio, the other Company Theatre co-Artistic Director, plays Des. Within the two and a half hours of the play we see him decline from a quiet innocent, torn between the claims of Michael and Harry, to boastful fool drunk first on his family’s power and then on his own. Oliver Becker as Iggy and Aaron Poole as Hugo have smaller roles, serving primarily as foils for both Harry and Michael. David Jansen gives a remarkable performance as Harry’s Irish friend Mush, who hangs around with the Carneys without realizing they think him a fool. In many ways he is a symbol of the allure of tribe and gangs. On his own he is a cipher. With the Carneys he feels he is someone.

Without upsetting the balance of the ensemble, Joseph Ziegler’s performance as DaDa is extraordinary, one of the finest performances in his long career. This DaDa is a kind of domestic King Lear. Through his present decay we can perceive the ruthlessness with which this petty tyrant must have run his family. When we hear stories of how he used to command brother to fight brother we can believe it. Yet, for all the bravado he encourages in his sons, he himself is coward. Much of the play’s comedy that thankfully leavens the tension at key moments comes from our awareness, and indeed the growing awareness of the brothers, that this man to whom they must pay deference is in reality a buffoon lost in the sentimental past, hardly able to make sense anymore when he speaks.

One effect of seeing nearly two hundred productions a year as I do is that truly inspired productions leap out from all the rest. This is one of them. A great play, incisive direction, a flawless, impassioned cast with many giving their best-ever performances--this is the kind of thrill theatre-lovers live for. Don’t miss it.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Chris Abraham
CanStage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
January 13-February 26, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

A Menagerie to Forget

I have always thought CanStage should add a classic play to its annual mix. The revival of Tennessee William’s “The Glass Menagerie” for its 60th anniversary would seem to be a good idea, especially with a fine cast led by an innovative director like Chris Abraham. Sadly, Abraham has outsmarted himself here and turned a play that is simple and affecting to one that is overly complex and affected. The production originated at the Saidye Bronfman Centre in

Montreal in 2002. Who knows what possessed the people at CanStage to bring so misguided a projection to Toronto.

One main problem is evident when you walk into the auditorium of the downstairs Berkeley Street Theatre. All “The Glass Menagerie” needs for a set is a single room that doubles as a parlour and dining-room and the landing of a outdoor stairway. Instead of this, set designers Guido Tondino and Victoria Zimski have used every inch of the long Berkeley Street Theatre stage. We see not only the Wingfield’s parlour, but a separate dining-room with sideboard behind it, Amanda’s bedroom upstage right with a worktable downstage right, a kitchen upstage left with the landing downstage left, a large table covered with shoes (representing, I suppose Tom’s place of work), and the metal stairs (part of the building itself) where Jim, the Gentleman Caller sits throughout the first act.

Thus, we have an atmosphere of spaciousness not claustrophobia. The Wingfield residence is so big that the physical and psychological need to escape whether to the movies as Tom does or into a private world as Laura does is undermined. Rather than concentrating the action and its impact, the set dissipates it. Abraham has obviously attempted to institute some of Brecht’s alienation techniques by taking the set all the way to the actual brick back and side and side walls of the building, but in so doing he has not reckoned with the acoustics of the hall. Without the walls of a set to reflect the sound at Berkeley Street

, it floats straight upward. In particular, virtually none of the scenes played near the upstage back wall, like Amanda’s attempts to sell subscriptions or the various dining scenes, can be understood due to interfering echo patterns. When Amanda and Tom have their major dust-up in Act 1, all we can tell is that they’re angry--we can’t actually hear the words they are saying. Add to this the fact that the volume level of the recordings played on the gramophone are too high and that Abraham has violinist Rick Hyslop play during numerous speeches and much of the text goes missing.

This would be bad enough, but Abraham has also misdirected the central characters. “The play is memory”, says Tom Wingfield, who narrates and acts as a character in the play. Well, not here. Abrahams has directed Damien Atkins as Tom to be not someone who is a neutral stage manager and set dresser, which he does all too slowly, but as someone destroyed by the memory of what he has done to his family. This makes sense given the play’s ending, but it does not make sense that Tom should remain in the same soul-destroyed mood in the scenes of the past he is recalling. Abraham has Atkins play Tom’s present self all throughout the play. Not only does this eliminate the contrast between Tom our narrator and Tom as he was before, but it flattens the tone of the whole work, destroying the comedy that should exist in the early scenes by infusing them with Tom’s later dread and anxiety. Atkins does maintain Tom’s overwrought state, though not his Southern accent, for the length of the play, but I’m sure he would appreciate the chance to display more variety. He is very good at suggesting that Tom’s frequent “movie-going” hides much more that he could ever admit in the 1930s.

By suppressing the warmth and love that should be present in the Wingfield home, Abraham makes it hard to understand why Tom so regrets leaving it behind. Since Abraham, contrary to the text, is presenting Tom’s memories suffused with sentiment, he shows us Tom’s mother and sister in a critical rather than a sympathetic light. Rosemary Dunsmore, who would otherwise make an wonderful Amanda, is here very much like the screeching witch Tom calls her in anger. None of the tragicomedy comes out of a Southern belle trying to act according to an antique code of behaviour that her present world cares about.

Laura, Tom’s sister, fares even worse. She is crippled and pathologically shy, but to that Abraham adds another impediment. He has Michelle Monteith speak all her lines in a grating monotonous if Laura also has a mental deficit that affects her speech. This does make Laura an even more pathetic creature than usual, but it also makes Amanda’s hopes for her and, worse, Jim’s speeches to her about self-confidence, seem deluded. It naturally also prevent Monteith from giving any nuance to her character. Only Seann Gallagher as Jim escapes Abraham’s revisionism and gives a fine, compassionate, multilayered performance.

Barbara Rowe’s costumes capture the period flavour of the piece and her Southern gown for Amanda clearly shows a woman at least a generation behind the times. Abraham demands both naturalistic and non-naturalist lighting, at both of which Luc Prairie is adept, often separating characters in squares of bright white light. Rick Hyslop’s mournful live music is pleasant enough, but is largely unnecessary, especially when it overlaps the recorded music.

It’s sad to see talented actors trapped in so ill-conceived a production and playing in a venue where half their words go unheard. Where is the quality control at CanStage? Why did no one step in and at least solve the sound problems before the show opened? “The Glass Menagerie” is a much-loved memory play, but this is a unlovable production most people will want to forget.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Canadian Opera Company production of

La Bohème

by Giacomo Puccini;
Directed by Robert McQueen; conducted by David T. Heusel
Stage Door Guest Review by James Wegg

BALANCE CAN ONLY IMPROVE

If any doubt remains about the need for a venue worthy of the artistic vision and desire for excellence of the Canadian Opera Company’s brain trust, then the current production of, arguably, the most perfectly structured opera ever written, offers compelling evidence that the move to the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts can’t come soon enough. 

From the opening measures of life in a garret (brilliantly rendered by Set Designer Wolfram Skalicki, with only a drop of oil on the window hatch needed for a smoother effect) to Rodolfo’s last cry of pain, the strong cast didn’t stand a chance of competing with the acoustic prominence of their instrumental colleagues in the pit.  Time and again vocal lines, much less their subtle delivery, were swamped by the enthusiastic band; ensemble problems between the stage and the orchestra were uncomfortably common and, adding insult to injury, when the players of the Act II Stage Band ventured out of the wings to parade across the lip, they personified “marching to the beat of a different drummer.” 

Some of these problems must find their way onto the score sheet of COC-newcomer David T. Heusel.  Heusel’s stick hand is clear and steady, but his left seemed content to mirror its counterpart rather than shape a phrase or reinforce the thousands of dynamic nuances that Puccini went to such great pains to provide.   Oh for a true pianissimo or harmonic “hesitato” to lift the proceedings from merely good to exceptional.

Also making their débuts were the doomed lovers.  Bülent Bezdüz improved with each Act, overcoming a tentative start and pitch vagaries that left his famous “Che gelida manina” as merely adequate rather than memorable.  Soprano Elena Kelessidi’s Mimi was far more flexible, marred only by a tendency to push rather than soar to the upper reaches.  As a pair they failed to find the elusive physical and emotional chemistry that is required to fully comprehend their need to drive each other away in order to confirm their passion. 

It fell to Krisztina Szabó as the charmingly manipulative Musetta and Gabriele Vivani’s hopelessly smitten Marcello to provide some of the finest dramatic (her deeper than expected level of humanity; his interaction with Mimi) and musical moments (her famous waltz teemed with panache; his rich legato a constant pleasure) of the production. 

Special mention must also go to Robert Gleadow who as philosopher/bass presented Colline’s “Coat” aria with near-perfect vocalism and marvellously understated subtext.  Victor Micallef’s Parpignol was delightful and Cornelis Opthof’s double duty as the wimpy landlord Benoît and more-money-than-brains Alcindoro were the perfect foils to the looming tragedy. 

This La Bohème also marked Director Robert McQueen’s first COC mainstage assignment.  In general, he managed a well-paced and logical production of the perennial favourite, using the cavernous space to advantage and moving his charges about with forethought – even employing their services as grips (bringing down the bed in Act IV went off without a hitch) as required.  Yet there was an inordinate amount of stand-and-deliver (staring out into space; oblivious to the scene) and back-to-the-audience blocking (notably the end of Act III) that served more to disconnect than draw the listeners into the work. 

Attempts were made to tie movement to the music (tearing up Rodolfo’s play in Act I missed the pulse; the final act’s comic relief of les artistes camping it up was effective), but now McQueen should dig deeper into the ebb and flow of the score and find a way to marry his overall conception with the rhythm and colour of the music.  Then, whether bedevilled by the realities of physical plant or in the finest hall in the world, a powerful unity will transcend any blemish and lift the opera and its patrons to the next plane of experience.

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Half Life

written by John Mighton, directed by Daniel Brooks
Necessary Angel and Tarragon Theatre, Tarragon Theatre, Toronto
March 1-April 3, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door


"Full of Life, Full of Thought"


John Mighton’s new play “Half Life” has the aura of a classic. His assured but elliptical style is perfectly matched by Daniel Brooks stylish but minimalist direction and the detailed, precise performances of the entire cast. Little of consequence seems to happen during the many short, humorous scenes that make up its 90 minutes, but by the end you’ll feel as if what has happened comes very close to tragedy.

The story parallels the relationships of two couples. Donald and Anna, two middle-aged divorced singles, meet in the lobby of an nursing home. Donald is waiting to visit his mother, Clara, as is his daily habit. Anna is there to admit her father, Patrick, who has become increasingly depressed and dangerous. Anna seems open to another relationship, but Donald, whose father has died recently, seems to want no further changes in his life.

Clara seems to enjoy being in the home and revels in the ever clearer memories of her happy past. Patrick, who played an important but mysterious role in World War II, resents his new situation. Yet, when Patrick and Clara meet each other, they are sure they have known each other before and begin to rekindle the romance they are convinced they once had. Was this romance real? Is it just a folie à deux of two people with failing minds? And how important is it to know which is the case if the effect is so strong?

These are the initial questions the play asks. But to consider them fully, Mighton brings up larger issues of remembrance and forgetting, time and change and how all play a role in defining identity and in determining knowledge. Donald claims that forgetting is as important as remembering and is what makes us human, even if he doesn’t follow his own advice.

The play is structured as a series of short, discreet scenes. In a play about memory lapses, Mighton forces us to determine for ourselves how much time has passed between scenes and what may have occurred. We are given brief, usually very funny glimpses of the surface of the action but have to work at constructing the deeper story that holds these glimpses together. It’s an ingenious but simple strategy that a play about memory also forces us to exercise it to understand the play.

Daniel Brooks’ brilliant production and Dany Lyne’s simple design reinforce the structure of the play. The stage is painted completely black. It is a kind of nowhere that become “somewhere” only when a few tables and chairs are placed in a certain way and when the characters begin to speak. To heighten the sense of isolation, Andrea Lundy lights each scene with discreet, hard-edged squares of light. Richard Feren creates a soundscape that only tangentially makes reference to the setting or subjects discussed, a spacey ebb and flow of sound whose sci-fi connotations ask us to look for what larger events are going on beyond the banalities of the on-stage conversations.

Daniel Brooks has drawn performances from the cast perfectly in tune with the issues of the play and its physical presentation. Each actor is able to suggest that beneath their restrained words of conversation and formulaic expressions lie realms of emotion and thought that they cannot or intentionally will not bring to the surface. As in the best minimalist theatre, these realms of the unsaid invest every small word or gesture with greater allusive power.

The cast is superb. Diego Matamoros’ performance as Donald is so subtle you likely won’t realize the coup he has engineered until the very end. His ruffled, self-deprecating, professorial persona leads us to take him as the moral centre of the play. Yet, this apparently easy-going nature hides a less-than-positive personal rigidity that becomes more clearly manifest throughout the play. Laura de Carteret gives Anna the sense of someone who gives the appearance of coping with life, belied however by her interest in Donald that shifts from attraction finally to frustration and rage.

Carolyn Hetherington gives a luminous performance as Clara. She fills her character with benevolence and life and seems to glow when Clara reminisces about the happiness of the past. Eric Peterson convincingly brings about the gradual change in Patrick from cynic to romantic as his character becomes convinced he has found again after so many years the love of his life. One of Barbara Gordon’s roles is nursing home resident Agnes, the humorous, crotchety foil to the blooming lives of Clara and Patrick. In a complete change, Gordon also plays a younger no-nonsense worker in the home.

Maggie Huculak plays Tammy, a nurse in the home, whose sing-song voice of cajolement with her elderly patients barely conceals her frustration with them. At the same time she shows that Tammy has developed a special relationship with Clara that may have more to do with Tammy’s needs than Clara’s. Randy Hughson is a treat as Reverend Hill, a minister clearly not cut out for the job, who can never speak pleasantries without given them unwanted connotations.

“Half Life” is a wonder of a play that explores the enigmas of memory, identity and life. It grows rich with questions and possible answers that will make it stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

 Canadian Opera Company production of    

Siegfried

by Richard Wagner
Directed by François Girard; Conductor Richard Bradshaw
Stage Door Guest Review by James Wegg

Handmade Siegfried Magnificent in its understatement
 

François Girard’s decision to remove the visual colour from the most taxing opera of The Ring is a courageous artistic risk, leaving the music to pick up the brush and find its way differently into the imagination, understanding and marvel of the audience. 

The intriguing concept had the inestimable assistance of Michael Levine’s production design (complemented brilliantly by David Finn’s lighting plot), particularly in Act I’s tree-of-life set where a gnarly stump served as Siegfried’s sound post and blosoomed spectacularly to the fly tower, chock-a-block full of bodies, branches and demolished government edifices:  objects that in various combinations induce fear and darkness in the general populous but not Wagner’s most famous son. 

What little colour that finds its way onto the stage comes from the reflection of the side lights on human canvas that adds much to the personal aura even as it must have left those searching for spectacle disappointed.  Nothung, the magical sword is re-forged by hand – ten pair in fact, writhing out of the earth to their master’s direction; the shape-shifting Fafner (effectively sung by Phillip Ens) as dragon is rendered by six men linked together by wire and pulleys before collapsing in a dead-white heap; Brünnhilde’s mountain is a living body of flesh whose two-dozen components roll over and rise, arms stretched to the gods – collectively personifying the Ring of Fire (easily traversed by the one who’s ring burns brighter). 

Each successive act, visually, like Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, strips away the coverings until only the two lovers (and, tellingly, the kiss-awakened warrior the sole character in black) share each other’s love but knowing their final battle must follow another day.

Girard’s other risk is to be a singers’ director and, generally, let his talented cast dig into the opera’s ferocious challenges with a minimum of movement to hinder their task or distract the admiring throng from the high art before them. 

And there is much to admire.  Christian Franz’s Siegfried – particularly in Act I – was a revelation of control, timbre and subtle shading that will serve as a benchmark for others aspiring to this level of artistry.  His occasional (if not inevitable given the stage time required) let downs were erased from the ledger as fast as the next soaring line or introspective gesture occurred. 

Despite looking too young and merely having a bad hair day rather than being truly repulsive, Robert Künzli served up a Mime that was a vocal gem and a dramatic victory.  His cave-guarding brother Alberich also has a musically adept proponent in Pavlo Hunka. 

Bass-baritone Peteris Eglitis projects the music and character of The Wanderer with skill and conviction, but a slightly wavering vibrato keeps this performance just short of excellent rather than merely great.  And, somehow, the magicians in the props department need to come up with a spear that looks sturdier than a chubby twig so that Siegfried’s destruction of it rings true. 

Laura Whalen’s Forest Bird is secure, but comes across as one dimensional – her flitting about from side to side above the fray works well, but is surprisingly grounded in Act II. 

Several times Girard leaves it to the audience to costume the cast, eschewing the Wanderer’s hat and Brünnhilde’s breastplate, but once awakened by her lover-to-be’s tentative peck, Frances Ginzer’s beautifully rounded soprano floods the hall with more set dressing than can be found in the Hummingbird's storage bins.  Then, as the opera closes in to its heady conclusion, the pair approach each other awkwardly on their knees before sinking back in repose and – finally – a real kiss. 

Throughout it’s nearly five hour run-time, conductor Richard Bradshaw paced the rich score carefully, instantly aware of any slight ensemble defections and righting them in a flash.  As performances continue, the music, no doubt, will be allowed to relax and find its way beyond the barlines and truly into the realm of the gods.  Every player has a plate full of notes, but special mention must be made of Bass Clarinet Colleen Cook, whose sensitive phrasing and dark-velvet tone were a constant pleasure, as was Joan Watson’s offstage horn calls.  However, perhaps the “reed” scene might be re-thought; the English horn depiction of Siegfried’s faltering attempts was merely a bit off rather than hilariously inept.  A laugh is desperately needed by this time, so as to better set up Mime’s unintentional revelations.  

Looking back, the all-white uniforms be they PJ’s, convict gear or socialist garb set this production far apart from the more common visual realization’s of the third tome of The Ring.  Girard and the entire production staff must be commended for daring to assert that less is more.  As the performances mature, the possibility for a superb result, one that will have even the traditionalists cheering on their feet, lurks bewitchingly in the muse’s lair.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Abduction from the Seraglio

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, directed by Michael Patrick Albano
Opera Ontario, Centre in the Square, Kitchener
February 5
Hamilton Place, Hamilton
February 12, 17 & 19
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Mixed Turkish Delight"

On February 5, Opera Ontario presented its first ever production of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (“Die Entführung aus dem Serail”) and the first performance of the work in Ontario in ten years. The production was a mixture of plusses and minuses. In general the plusses dominated but with a few strategic alterations in the cast and direction the production could have been an unalloyed delight.

The 1782 Singspiel, Mozart’s first major operatic success, is primarily a showcase for virtuoso singing. Its plot is simple and its characters have none of the complexity of those in Mozart’s later works. Yet, the score has the genial musical invention of Mozart’s greatest works, with many foretastes of “The Magic Flute”, and includes some of the most demanding arias he ever wrote.

The plot set in Turkey in the mid-sixteenth century finds the Spanish nobleman Belmonte trying to free his beloved Konstanze from the household of the Pasha Selim. Konstanze, her maid Blonde and Blonde’s beloved Pedrillo had been shipwrecked and sold as slaves to the Pasha, who had instantly fallen in love with Konstanze. Osmin, the Pasha’s overseer and his comic counterpart, has also fallen in love with Blonde, much to Pedrillo’s dismay. Belmonte manages to have Pedrillo introduce him to the Pasha as an architect and so gains entrance to the household where he plans how to abduct Konstanze.

Opera Ontario presents the opera with spoken English dialogue and the arias sung in the original German. Director Michael Patrick Albano makes the right decision with the Singspiel by cutting the spoken dialogue down to its bare essentials, a process that also helps minimize some of the anti-Islamic sentiment found in the opera. Albano, however, also makes the rather daring move of altering the ending. In the libretto by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger, Osmin and Pasha Selim discover the four Spaniards as they are just about to escape. Selim discovers that Belmonte is the son of his old enemy, but rather than punishing Belmonte, he rejects revenge and decides to return good for bad: “ Es wäre ein weit grösser Vergnügen eine erlittene Ungerechtigkeit durch Wohlthaten zu vergelten, als Laster mit Lastern tilgen.” (“It would be a far greater pleasure to repay a suffered injustice with good deeds than to erase vice with vice.”) Albano finds this give Selim insufficient motivation, so he goes back to the play by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner that was Stephanie’s source. There Selim discovers that Belmonte is his long-lost son and so abjures his claim on Konstanze and lets the four go free.

If Albano wants to rid the work of its anti-Islamic sentiment as he claims in his director’s note, the first ending is preferable. It shows Selim as an enlightened ruler (not unlike Saladin in Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise” of 1779) and demonstrates that not all Muslims are as bloodthirsty as Osmin. Albano’s new ending, besides the cliché of the long-lost son, now gives Belmonte no reason to sail off at the end. Why should he when he’s just been reunited with his father? Thus, in trying to provide stronger motivation for Selim, Albano provides less for Belmonte and weakens the Enlightenment moral of Stephanie’s ending.

The evening belonged to Benjamin Butterfield as Belmonte and Cheryl Evans as Konstanze. Butterfield’s tenor is perfectly suited to Mozart. His cultivated tone, sense of line and crystal clear diction made each of his arias a pleasure beginning with “Hier soll ich dich dann sehen” that opens the opera. American soprano Cheryl Evans, a last-minute replacement for Madeline Bender, was an exciting discovery. Her voice has an intriguingly dark timbre beneath its brightness. She does not always leap into Konstanze’s frequent and difficult flights of coloratura without also increasing her volume, but her enormous range and the sense that she has the reserves to soar even higher than Mozart demands make her a singer to watch. She tossed off Mozart’s back-to-back showpieces of “Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose” and “Martern aller Arten” with aplomb.

Korean soprano Sookhyung Park made a delightful Blonde. It was clear that English is not her native language but her plucky acting and naturalness on stage carried her through the dialogue. She sang with refinement and poise. Canadian tenor Pascal Charbonneau presented a paradox as Pedrillo. His acting and diction in the spoken dialogue was excellent but strangely enough, he could not project as well when singing. His greatest success was Pedrillo’s Act 3 serenade “In Mohrenland gefangen war”. The major flaw in the casting that threatened to undermine the whole evening was Canadian bass Alexander Savtchenko as Osmin. Osmin is the primary source of comedy in the piece. Savtchenko is also a non-native English speaker, but unlike Ms. Park his acting ability is rudimentary, he lacks comic timing and he frequently pauses in the middle of sentences making nonsense of his lines. As a singer his woolly bass and poor diction made his contributions less than satisfactory.

Usually with this opera the main difficulty lies with the role of Pasha Selim, since it is difficult to find someone for the speaking-only role who can hold his weight against the five singers. Luckily, Opera Ontario had an excellent Selim in Sandy Winsby. He had the stage presence necessary to command respect and spoke with admirable resonance and gravitas. He made Albano’s new ending sound invitingly mysterious.

The set and costumes, originally designed by Claude Girard for L’Opéra de Montréal, gave an appropriate fairy-tale quality to opera as if to suggest the work should be taken more as a fable than a critique of Christian or Islamic mores. Heightening the effect, lighting designer bathed the scene in a marvelous pastel glow and in Act 3 created a wonderful passage from midnight to dawn that paralleled the move toward enlightenment in the story.

No one could accuse the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony of sounding like a band of authentic instruments. Their overall sound was too heavy and their climaxes too much in the romantic style. Yet, conductor Daniel Lipton attempted to lighten the playing by setting relatively brisk tempi. Albano matched these in his direction of the dialogue, making the transitions from song to spoken word and back admirably smooth. Whatever criticisms there may be, it was pleasure to hear such a delightful work after so long an absence. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait so long again.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Storm Warning

by Norm Foster
Theatre in Port, St Catharines ON, till June 5
Review by S James Wegg
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Cabin fever weathers the elements

by S. James Wegg
(04/09/05)

All those who have ever been unceremoniously dumped by a partner for situations “beyond our control” should find their way to the Port Mansion Theatre to take solace and hope that isolation and despair – no matter how overwhelming – can be overcome.  Norm Foster’s Storm Warning, although uneven in spots, is a thoughtful look into our collective need to be loved by another.  Its seen through the eyes of a shell-shocked survivor and a drug-dependent big-band arranger who are flung together in the “middle of nowhere” and end up finding themselves. 

As Jack Forrester, Phi Bulani combines feigned naiveté and quiet desperation in a manner that draws the audience closer into his plight with every scene.  Foster’s gift of chuckling his way into stark reality is at its most effective during Jack’s telling revelation that “war brings out emotions normally kept under wraps.”  Bulani’s tone is spot-on and his minimalist gestures effectively mirror the scars of horror forever etched on his soul, but the moment falls just short of truly stunning, perhaps awaiting a facial reinforcement to take his inner storm to its epicenter. 

The perfect foil to the man who views the unattainable object of his affections through binoculars is the loud and brassy Emma Currie (Debra Hale, who sails through the role with such energy and verve that some of the punch lines don’t have time to sink in before the next set-up begins).  Admonished by her mother to “wait for the man who made the earth move,” the reefer-loving orchestrator (but in 1953 would her dance-band arrangements really be in demand?) eagerly shares her personal losses as both a means of drawing out her cabin-keeper’s secrets and trying to steal back her amphetamines so that her professional life can continue.

Director Chris McHarge has let his talented charges bring their previous experience and understanding of the roles to this production and they have rewarded his confidence with engaging interaction throughout. 

All of the action takes place either in front of (Act I) or inside (Act II) a pair of aging lakeside cabins whose “colleagues” have had a penchant for slipping out of sight.  Stewart Simpson’s period set is a marvel of detail, right down to the coffee pot that would most certainly have sat on my father’s stove, yet Jack can’t seem to remember whether his caffeine addiction comes with cream or not.  Barb Barber’s costumes, including a faded Hudson’s Bay Company blanket, reflect the characters beautifully.  Everything is purposely illuminated by Jeff Johnston-Collins’ effective lighting design. 

Unfortunately, the soundscape doesn’t fare as well.  The first act’s chirping birds, lapping waves and Canada geese calls soon become tiresome:  hunting season couldn’t open soon enough.  Similarly, with the exception of the second act accommodation collapse into the watery abyss, the reinforcement of nature’s fury needs better speakers and balance to convince. 

Not long after, Foster had the chance to close off the script with Emma’s savvy line about bottom-shelf beer.  But he had more work left to do in the possibilities-for-their-future-relationship department.  And so a “coda” unfolded to tie up the loose bits and “give you a chance to hate me,” only to have the unlikely lovers shut down the proceedings with cliché rather than revelation. 

With a slight reworking of the last dozen minutes, Storm Warning has the potential of moving up a rung from competently good to extraordinarily great. 

Copyright (c) 2005 S. James Wegg

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Blessings in Disguise

written and directed by Douglas Beattie
Touchmark Theatre, River Run Centre, Guelph
February 12-19, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Undisguised Delight"


In past seasons Touchmark Theatre has brought Guelph both rarities like Christopher Fry’s “A Phoenix Too Frequent” and classics like “The Glass Menagerie”. This year it presents its newest play so far, “Blessings in Disguise” by Touchmark’s own Artistic Director, Douglas Beattie. The play had its world premiere at the Manitoba Theatre Centre in 1999 and saw a second production at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in 2003. The Touchmark production is the first time the author himself will direct his own play. The work itself is a remarkable comedy filled with both laughter and ideas. It’s Guelph’s good fortune to see the author’s view of his work in a first-rate production enacted by a flawless cast.

Subtitled “a new, old world-style comedy”, “Blessings in Disguise” is set in 1858 in the fictional Pyrenean town of Bouillon somewhere near Lourdes. Those who know their history--or at least the 1943 film “The Song of Bernadette” or the Franz Werfel novel it’s based on--will recall that in 1858 is a poor, 14-year-old girl in Lourdes, Bernadette Soubiroux, began having a series of eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary, during which the Virgin caused a fountain of healing water to appear and asked that Bernadette have the local priests build a chapel around the spot. Lourdes as since become the prime pilgrimage destination in Catholicism now drawing about five million visitors per year and recording thousands of miraculous healings.

Beattie’s Bouillon, however, is in the doldrums. While there is news every day of the miracles in Lourdes, Bouillon seems particularly devoid of luck, much less of miracles. The play begins with a thunderstorm that severely damages Father Gustave’s church. Madame Vermillion, a wealthy patron, grandee of the town and devotée of Lourdes, gives Gustave a large sum of money to have a famed Parisian artist paint a fresco of the Virgin inside the church, but when Gustave entrusts the money to a visiting nun, the nun promptly absconds with the funds.

The complex solution involves Sister Marie, the mysterious nun, who visits Gregoire, Bouillon’s resident artist, now become an embittered café-owner, a man hounded out of the church for profligacy, who has given up art for the solace of drink. Much to his abundant skepticism, Sister Marie claims, in fact, to be the Virgin Mary. She cures Gustave of his ailments with the proviso that he paint her portrait in the church. The task of convincing Father Gustave that this is a good idea while convincing Madame Vermillion that he is following the Parisian painter’s instructions provides the main comic tension in the play.

The setting, the doubt-filled priest, the washed-up artist, the nun who claims to be Mary, all these contribute to Beattie’s exploration of questions of inspiration, divine or artistic, and of belief in religion, in miracles or in oneself. Does belief come from within or without? And isn’t art itself a kind of miracle requiring, as Coleridge said, a “willing suspension of disbelief”? During the play we are pre-occupied with Beattie’s deftly managed comedy of character and situation. The themes and their interconnections, however, resonate long afterwards.

Beattie has chosen an excellent cast. It is wonderful to see Stratford stalwarts Brian Tree and Stephen Russell, too often consigned to secondary parts at that festival, shine in complex major roles. Tree, makes full use of his witheringly dry delivery to wring full humour from Father Gustave’s every line. He creates a portrait of a priest whose religious life has long since become more a series of annoying duties than one of joy or inspiration. Russell gives us the fascinating parallel portrait of the outcast artist Gregoire, who has lost both inspiration for art and faith in himself. He carefully delineates the change in Gregoire from drunken despair and disbelief at the seemingly loony Sister Marie to the gradual recovery of a sense of worth.

Liza Balkan, who was such a treat as Doto in “A Phoenix Too Frequent”, is truly hilarious as Sister Marie. The relentless positivism she displaying in face of the never fully effaced negativism of Gustave and Gregoire is always humorous with the joke the disbelievers. The way she speaks of heavenly matters in the most down-to-earth tones is priceless. Is this really the Virgin Mary, on vacation from Heaven, popping over from Lourdes between appearances to Bernadette, or is this just a very persuasive, no-nonsense nutcase whose Mary-complex has become second nature? Beattie and Balkan leave this point deliciously ambiguous.

Patricia Yeatman, last seen with Touchmark as Amanda in “The Glass Menagerie”, returns to play the haughty Madame Vermillion, faddish both in religion and in art. Yeatman plays her as more than a caricature of the village tyrant and shows in the Madame’s reflection on her age that a sense of her mortality may be driving her obsessiveness. Parallel to Madame Vermillion is Gregoire’s former lover and model, the prostitute Sophie, who unlike the Madame cares nothing for outward shows of morality. Like Sister Marie, she still believes in the good in Gregoire, even he no longer does. Krista Jackson plays her with admirable simplicity.

Beattie has staged the play in runway format with the audience on either side of the playing area. The set representing the church, Beattie’s own clever design, is at one end while an open area representing everywhere else is at the other. The frequent scene changes are so well choreographed, they are pleasures in themselves. Sarah Plater’s fine period costumes establish distinctions between rich and poor, while Renée Brode’s lighting is crucial in establishing location and mood from the sickly light of the drunken Gregoire’s café to the radiance surrounding the play’s final revelation.

“Blessings in Disguise” is a thoughtful, warm, humane comedy. The issues of faith, belief and art found here seem even more vitally relevant in 2005 than they were perhaps when the play was first performed. It’s a rare delight that brings forth laughter as it tickles the brain.


©Christopher Hoile

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