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| Looking | Orpheus Descending | Cat on a Hot Tin Roof | Journey's End |
The Brothers KaramazovWhispering Lodge | The Dispute |
The Measure of Love / Ruth Draper on Tour

Some Stage Door reviews of 2005

Other reviews of 2005 here, and here.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Measure of Love

by Nicolas Billon, directed by Jean-Louis Roux;

Ruth Draper on Tour

written and directed by Raymond O’Neill

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
June 22-September 25, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Night of the Three Divas"

The Stratford Festival is presenting two world premieres on a double bill at its Studio Theatre. The first is “The Measure of Love” by Nicolas Billon. The second is “Ruth Draper on Tour” devised by company member Raymond O’Neill. While the two works are better linked than some of the double-bills seen here in the past, the 90-minute-long “Ruth Draper” would likely be better served if presented on its own.

Last year Stratford premiered Billon’s “The Elephant Song” at the Studio. That one-act play proved to be derivative and contrived. So is this. Sharon Pollock “Blood Relations” and Michel Marc Bouchard “Lilies” loom in the background. Still, it’s possible that Billon could salvage the core of the play to make a better work.

We meet the actress Mabel O’Neill, who has caught up with Joan Sinclair, a nun, once her best friend in convent school, whom she has not spoken to for 40 years. Mabel gives Joan a present, a play she has written recounting their girlhood friendship. It concludes with an occurrence during a performance of “Romeo and Juliet”, in which they played the leads, that lead to the break-up of their friendship. Mabel has done this both because she is losing her memory and because she wants to apologize to Joan for what happened. Mabel wants Joan to act the play with her, Joan script in hand, Mabel without, to re-enact those events.

If this were all to the play, it could be taken as a gentle study of two middle-aged women learning to be friends again, even though what happens during “Romeo and Juliet” seems hardly likely to have caused a rift between two girls who have sworn eternal friendship. What’s harder to swallow is that Billon wants us to believe that this reconciliation between Mabel and Joan is taking place in front of a live audience, i.e. us. Mabel tells us we are her “courage”, her “Greek chorus”. That last phrase reveals Billon’s pretension. We may be Mabel’s audience, but since when does a Greek chorus sit in darkness and silence? Much humour is derived from Joan’s embarrassment at finding herself in front of an audience and having to act for them, but for anyone as shy as Joan, to be surprised and embarrassed in such a way would likely lead to flight and only widen the rift between the friends, not heal it. Billon’s desire to give the play a trendy metatheatrical framework has overridden any sense of human nature.

Setting aside these flaws, Diana Leblanc as Mabel and Fiona Reid as Joan give wonderfully warm performances. There’s much pleasure in seeing the two contrast their present middle-aged selves with themselves as teenagers. Leblanc balances Mabel’s present anxiety against her past confidence. It’s too bad Billon forgets to follow up in any meaningful way Mabel’s fear of memory loss. Reid, a master in playing embarrassment, wrings all the humour from Joan’s strange situation. Ultimately, Leblanc and Reid under the direction of famed Quebec actor and director Jean-Louis Roux do far more to make their characters’ relationship seem real than Billon does.

“Ruth Draper on Tour” does everyone a service by bringing to our attention one of the great women of 20th-century theatre as well as providing a tour de force role for Lally Cadeau. Ruth Draper (1884-1956), born to an upper class family in New York City, had a knack for imitation and developed monologues she would perform at private parties. These were not comic monologues as we now know them but one-sided conversations Draper’s character would hold with one or more invisible characters. Renowned pianist Ignacy Paderewski encouraged her to take her gift beyond the parlour to the stage. After private performances for Queen Mary, Draper made her professional debut in London in 1920. From that point on she toured the world without pause winning acclaim wherever she went. Interest in Draper has revived recently with the discovery of sound recordings she had made in the 1950s that now have been re-issued on CD.

Raymond O’Neill has fashioned his play from six of Draper’s 60 or so monologues interspersed with diary entries and extracts from her letters to her friend Harriet beginning just after her London debut. The play’s primary flaw is that these extracts fail to establish Draper’s métier or character sufficiently--rather important since few if any in the audience will know anything about Draper. O’Neill has Draper briefly refer to her “monos” as if we knew she meant “monologues” instead of “recordings”, “diseases” or “monochromes”. These extracts do little more than tell us in what major city we are and which famous people Draper has met or have seen her show.

All O’Neill need do is improve these transitions because Lally Cadeau’s handling of the monologues themselves is marvelous. The first two sketches “At an English House Party” and “The Actress” make a good contrast and reveal Draper’s technique. In the first as an upper-crust matron paints portraits for her unseen interlocutor of various people she’s invited to her house party, it becomes clear she doesn’t much care about any of them. Then Draper enters as four of the women described, showing us characters widely divergent in accent, style and personality, who comically happen to act exactly as the matron said they would. In “The Actress”, Draper uses the opposite technique. We see an egocentric French actress in her apartment speak in entirely different ways to her different people according to what she wants from them. She barks at the servants, acts helpless with the American backer, flirts with the poet to get him to enlarge her scene, rails at her agent in a hilarious, fictitious Slavic language, butters up her co-star whom she’s just savaged to the poet and summons up phony graciousness when a party of people arrive whom she’s forgotten she’d invited.

“A Debutante at a Dance” with its empty-headed speaker is straightforwardly comic, while “On the Embankment” about a poor woman who finds an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve is sentimental and “The Charwoman” is understatedly tragic. The final monologue “Showing the Garden” is the funniest. As the imperious gardener/hostess shows her guests the garden, rattling off made-up names of each species, it gradually becomes clear that everything she is showing has either died, finished blooming, not bloomed yet or has been torn out.

Lally Cadeau distinguishes the ten different characters in the play perfectly showing that she is as much a master of accents and character as Draper is said to have been. After her dazzling performance you can only wonder why the Festival has not featured her talents more prominently in its mainstage shows.

Designer Douglas Paraschuk has created a clever set that highlights the elements of theatre and writing so prominent in both plays. His costumes for Cadeau allow her to make quick changes from character to character by simple changes of accessories. Louise Guinand’s lighting lends both plays an appropriate nostalgic glow.

Though the authors of both plays need to revise their work, the problems in “Ruth Draper” are more easily soluble and, when resolved, that play is more likely to go on to further success since it provides such a plum role for an experienced actress. Nevertheless, the current double-bill even as it is can be enjoyed a kind of “Night of the Three Divas”, an intimate showcase for the mighty talents of three Canada’s finest actresses.

©Christopher Hoile


Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Dispute

by Pierre Carlet de Marivaux, directed by Kate Lynch
Toronto Fringe Festival, Robert Gill Theatre, Toronto
July 6-17, 2005

by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“An Experiment Pays Off”


While the Toronto Fringe Festival usually features brand new work, often there is at least one revival of a seldom-seen classic among its more than 100 offerings. This year it’s “The Dispute” by Pierre Carlet de Chamblain de Marivaux (1688-1763), the foremost French playwright of the 18th century. “The Dispute” (“La Dispute”) is one of his more experimental works, so experimental, in fact, that the audience of Marivaux’s day didn’t understand it and it closed after only one performance in 1744. It wasn’t performed again until 1938.

Under director Kate Lynch, the Sweat Company gives this thought-provoking comedy a highly entertaining production. The action itself concerns an unusual experiment in human behaviour. Hermiane and the Prince of an unknown country argue about whether man or woman was the first to be unfaithful. It just so happens that the Prince’s father was intrigued with that very question and has had four children, two men and two women, raised in isolation from each other and world save for contact with their two black keepers. Now that the children are old enough, the Prince decrees they shall be freed on the grounds and observed in order to settle the dispute.

Marivaux derives much humour from depicting the four teenagers’ first encounters with freedom and with both sexes. The men and women try to analyze why they have a strange attraction to each other. The two women instantly hate each other while the two men become best buddies in literally a rough and tumble way. It’s unfortunate that Marivaux includes so many speeches equating whiteness with beauty and blackness with ugliness. Yet, two factors mitigate what seems a racist point of view. First, all those who make this equation, i.e. the Prince and the four teenagers, are revealed as less than ideal human beings. Second, Marivaux makes the two black keepers the “raisonneur” figures, the most rational characters in the play, something highly unusual at a time when non-white characters on stage, as in Voltaire’s “Zaïre” (1732) or “Mahomet” (1741), were depicted as prey to uncontrollable passion.

The star of the show is Carly Street as Eglé. She is the first of isolated children we meet. We see through her the first reaction to a reflection and to members of both sexes. Street is a quirky, very physical performer, a great mimic with a habit writhing on the floor as if trying out various yoga positions. In any other Marivaux play this might be too much, but here it seems fitting for someone who has been released from confinement for the first time. Her comic timing is impeccable.

Geoffrey Pounsett plays Azor the first man she sees and the first she falls in love with. He is excellent at portraying the awkwardness of experiencing the strange sensations of love, friendship and jealousy for the first time. Robin Schisler is Adine, the other female, and Brendan Murray is Mesrin, the other male. The performances of both are more toned down than Street’s and Pounsett’s. Schisler finds comedy in Adine’s unfounded but unshakeable belief that she is more desirable than Eglé, and Murray makes a pleasantly dopey Mesrin. The scene when Azor and Mesrin first meet is especially funny. Lynch has the two play and wrestle like young cubs as they try to sort out exactly what kind of love they feel for each other. It’s hilarious now but its implications must have been rather disturbing for Marivaux’s time.

As Hermiane, Jayne Lewis is more successful at conveying regal hauteur than is Tim Campbell as the Prince. Camille James as Carise and Jeremiah Sparks as Mesrou, the two keepers, maintain a dignity and calm that distinguishes them from both the court and the teenagers. Designer James Cameron has clothed the court in modern evening wear, the keepers in African-themed clothing and the four teenagers in light green pants and tops like hospital outfits that remind us the four were kept prisoners and that the Prince’s experiment is ultimately a cruel one.

The audiences of Marivaux’s own time must have had difficulties with a play in which none of the main characters are admirable and which concludes with surprising brutality. This is thought-provoking rarity staged with panache. No lover of classic drama should miss it.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Whispering Lodge

By Sabrina Noble, directed by Elise Newman
Toronto Fringe Fesitval, Tarragon Theatre, till July 15, 2005

Review by Jim Lingerfelt and Keith Kershaw

“It is no difficult task to run a small B&B. Sometimes you will have a guest to serve. Sometimes you will sell a souvenir or two. But never will a stranger appear out of nowhere and offer you money to take the wreck off your hands.

"Unless you work at Whispering Lodge.

"This is exactly what happens to Maybel Winters, who has fantasized about selling the lodge for years. But when a fast-talking businessman offers her the chance of a lifetime, something holds her back. Is it fear? Is it suspicion? Or is it the dead Native that won't leave her alone?

"Check in to Whispering Lodge for a night of humour and hijinks at someone else's expense!”

Thus reads the promotional blurb on Sabrina Noble’s new work, Whispering Lodge, directed by Elise Newman and debuting at the Toronto Fringe Festival, at Tarragon Theatre Mainspace till July 15. We walked over to see it last night, as Toronto Downtown Bed and Breakfast is just a kilometer from Tarragon, the subject matter was compelling and the price ($8) inviting.

A great investment on all counts!

Laura Jeanne Wickstead gives a solid and believable performance as the beleaguered innkeeper, Maybel, anchored to the faltering property by emotional ties and devotion. Patrick Cook plays Dan Seaton, the developer’s agent who, in cahoots with the city official (one of two roles played by Mark Albert) is determined to relieve her of this albatross. Albert changes hats (or, more specifically, coats) to play Maybel’s blue-collar friend, Tim, only to reveal himself in league with devilish Dan in the plot to steal Whispering Lodge from Maybel’s hands.

Stealing the show is Indrit Kasapi as Maybel’s assistant Peter, who is also reluctantly Tim’s son but lives with Maybel, where his bent for sewing and inventing is allowed to mince rampant. Kasapi has that enviable gift of conveying volumes with a simple glance. And that glance is inevitably directed at Seaton’s backside.

Also in dual roles are Luc Forgeron and Alyssee Rich who play touring tourists, and the spirits of Tecumseh and Laura “I don’t mind the walk” Secord.

Only one complaint: The show is only 45 minutes long. Not that you don’t get value for money, but only that we wanted more, and also lament that a play of this length has little commercial future. Perhaps Ms Noble could find inspiration from watching a few Fawlty Towers episodes, adding another guest or two to stretch the situation and hilarity in a subsequent incarnation.

Whispering Lodge deserves to be heard.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

 And speaking of other comments, here' s what YOU had to say...
 
Last night I went with a friend to see the play " Whispering Lodge" written by Sabrina Noble . We thought the play was fabulous - congratulations to the actors and more importantly congratulations Sabrina - well written!!
Carol Brown

 

 

The Brothers Karamazov

by Jason Sherman, directed by Richard Rose
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
June 3-September 24, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Dramatic Coles Notes"

For many years now the Stratford Festival has presented dramatic adaptations of classic novels--“Tempest-Tost” in 2001, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” in 2002, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 2003, “The Count of Monte Cristo” in 2004 and this year “The Brothers Karamazov”. Of these “Tempest-Tost” is easily the best even though it distorted the nature of a major character. Otherwise, these adaptations have proved artistic failures, especially the ones intended as “family entertainment”. It’s hard to know why the Festival persists in presenting adaptations of novels when there are so many classic plays written as plays out there that it never touches.

Jason Sherman’s adaptation of one of the greatest novels ever written is another of these exercises in pointlessness. Who is there who supposes that a two-and-half hour play (including intermission) will do justice to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s nearly 1000-page-long philosophical novel--the Festival, the adaptor, the audience? All those who do are deceiving themselves. Unsurprisingly, all Sherman managed to do in such a short time is to dramatize a précis of the plot. The play is thus a kind of dramatic Coles Notes on the novel, except with less information.

Sherman begins with the funeral for Fyodor, the despicable father of the Karamazov brothers, Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha. Replacing the novel’s omniscient narrator is the fourth Karamazov brother, Smerdyakov, Fyodor’s bastard son, who acts as Fyodor’s cook. Many will find this choice a major distortion to say the least, since Dostoevsky maintains a deliberate “Pro and Contra” (to quote one of the chapter titles) to balance his philosophical ideas whereas Smerdyakov is the most cynical character in the book. For those who know the plot, the choice is also odd since it requires Sherman to have a back-up narrator later on.

We discover that Dmitry is engaged to Katerina but both he and his father are enamoured of Grushenka. Alyosha, a monk in training, and Ivan, a writer and atheist, are ideological opposites but while Alyosha’s affection is directed at the crippled girl Lise, Lise is attracted to Ivan. Having presented the characters including some perfunctory philosophical exchanges on the order of “I believe in God” versus “I don’t”, the play morphs into a conventional mystery when Fyodor is murdered.

The trial scene that takes up most of Act 2 is totally absorbed in who was where when, who heard what about whom, who has the money that was under Fyodor’s mattress, was the door to Fyodor’s house locked or not, and so on, thus highlighting the petty details of the story over whatever relevance the story itself might have. By the end, Sherman has involved us in none of the characters or in the plot in which the women’s motivations in particular are totally unclear. His modern diction which includes such words as “über-bad” is often jarring.

The performances are highly variable. Ron Kennell is well suited to the role of the envious outsider Smerdyakov. The character’s cynicism and hatred drips from his every word. Scott Wentworth would be a good Fyodor Karamazov, but unfortunately he finds it necessary to put on an “old man” voice that he suddenly drops for any serious exchange. Jonathan Goad is excellent as the dissolute Dmitry Karamazov, made irresolute and ineffectual by wallowing in his own depravity. Shane Carty’s blustering as the intellectual Ivan Karamazov undercuts the crucial philosophical matters he brings up. Then director Richard Rose has him put on a funny voice as the Grand Inquisitor for the snippet given of that famous chapter thus lessening its already lessened impact. Peter van Gestel is well cast as the ardent Alyosha Karamazov, though he is given so little scope to express his disillusionment with the monastic life, his appearance out of his habit comes as a surprise.

As Katerina Vekhovtsev, Michelle Giroux seems more concerned with appearing stylish than in communicating anything about her character. Dana Green, so riveting in “Orpheus Descending”, has disconcertingly been encouraged to play the conflicted Grushenka Svetlov as if she were Marilyn Monroe complete with the star’s mannerisms and breathy delivery. What the point is remains a mystery. Dixie’s Seatle’s Mrs. Hohlakov seems like an American housewife not a rich Russian matron. Only Maggie Blake as the manipulative, wheelchair-bound Lise Hohlakov is able to suggest more than one dimension to her character.

Richard Rose has directed the play in the all-purpose, neo-Brechtian style he used at the Tarragon Theatre for David Young’s adaptation of Alastair MacLeod’s novel “No Great Mischief”. All the actors sit on chairs at the back of the stage watching the other actors perform in front of them. When the actors’ scene is finished they return to their places. This process leads to a certain self-conscious theatricality, but how this is equally relevant to Dostoevsky and MacLeod is unclear. The effect leads to boredom since we as audience are forced to watch a seated cast of 25, most of whom at any given time are not acting.

Designer Charlotte Dean claims in her programme note that she has used entirely shades of brown to “give us visual clarity and let the audience concentrate on the characters and their dilemmas”. In fact what that palette provides is an unrelievedly drab stage picture. Graeme S. Thomson’s set consists entirely of assorted tables and chairs moved about by Smerdyakov to represent the various locations. While Thomson as lighting designer conjures up a pleasant glow for the religious scenes, he generally reinforces Dean’s dreary colour-scheme by setting most scenes in dim half-light.

Some theatrical adaptations of novels make us want to go out and read the novel again or for the first time. A small handful are satisfying as theatre on their own. Sherman’s adaptation does what no play should--it leaves us in complete indifference.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
June 1-October 29, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Not So Hot”

The Stratford Festival’s current production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” has been mounted to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Tennessee Williams classic’s first production. It is only a lukewarm tribute. Some of the cast are simply not up to the demands Williams makes and director Richard Monette has taken a view of the play at odds with its structure.

Those who know the play only by the famous 1958 film of the same title starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman, a film that Williams hated, will be surprised to discover what the play itself it really like. The film removed all references to homosexuality and gave the story a Hollywood feel-good ending in contrast to the highly ambiguous ending of the original. Besides that, Williams revised the play in 1974, spicing up the language with the four-letter words he couldn’t use 20 years before and completely rewriting the third act. It is the 1974 version that Stratford is staging.

The play, set in one room of a plantation mansion in the 1950s, consists of several interlocking struggles. Most obvious is the struggle between two sides of the Pollitt family to inherit the Big Daddy’s plantation. On one side is Big Daddy’s older son Gooper, a lawyer, and his wife Mae, who already have five children with one more on the way. On the other is a childless couple, Big Daddy’s younger but favourite son Brick, a alcoholic former football player and radio announcer, and his wife Margaret, referred to by everyone including herself as Maggie the Cat. Big Daddy has left no will and indeed does not know he is dying of cancer. In fact, a false medical report has led him to believe he is perfectly well except for a spastic colon.

The trick both sides have is first to convince Big Daddy (and his wife Big Mama) on this his 65th birthday that he is dying and second that their side has the better claim on the estate. Gooper’s side is united putting forward both primogeniture and their fertility as justification. Maggie’s side is not. She needs the inheritance in order not to sink back into poverty. Brick, however, has drunk himself daily into a stupor since the death of his best friend Skipper, cares nothing about the inheritance, has come to loath Maggie, whom he blames for Skipper’s death, and refuses to sleep with her. Only Big Daddy’s love of Brick and hatred of Gooper are in their favour, but Maggie fears their childlessness plus Brick’s degraded existence may compromise that advantage and result in her being cast back into oblivion.

Maggie is one of the great roles in American drama, but Cynthia Dale is simply not up to the task. The long first act which is almost a monologue in front of the taciturn Brick requires a tour de force of acting. Confronted with her husband’s hatred, Maggie tries every ploy possible from seduction and cajoling to ranting and insult to get Brick’s attention to try to win back his love. Her increasing fear, pain and desperation have to be clear no matter what ploy she tries or how composed she appears. Dale’s performance is too mannered and brittle from the start. She seems to be imitating a Williams character rather than playing one. She does display a range of emotions but does not show the simultaneous presence of conflicting emotions on which the role is built. The part is just too large for her to inhabit naturally, much less fully.

As Brick, David Snelgrove has the same problem. Brick is silently waging his own inner battle between his love for Skipper and his own virulent homophobia. This is all the more surprising since neither Maggie nor even Big Daddy is homophobic. Big Daddy, in fact, inherited the plantation from known gay couple who used to sleep in the very bed in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom. Though playing someone who drinks without pause throughout the play, Snelgrove is unable to show the gradations in Brick’s drunkenness. Nor does he show gradations in his reactions to Maggie or to Big Daddy. We have no glimpse of how Brick and Maggie could ever have gotten together let alone have been “blissfully happy” together as they claim.

As Big Daddy and Big Mama, James Blendick and Lally Cadeau take their characters to the brink of caricature but luckily pull back. Blendick first makes Big Daddy appear much larger than life but quickly sets about to humanize him. In the crucial Act 2 confrontation between father and son, Blendick shows both Big Daddy’s pain at not being able to communicate with Brick and the habits in his own nature that prevent communication from happening. In his exulting in what he believes is a reprieve from death, he expresses a hubris linking his character to the great figures of ancient tragedy.

Cadeau plays Big Mama as a woman inured to self-deception. Her husband’s repeated public insults she construes as affection, though Cadeau lets us glimpse the fact that Big Mama is consciously hiding her pain. The same is true for how Cadeau portrays Big Mama’s efforts to believe Big Daddy is well. Like so many of Williams’ women, Big Mama uses various ruses to keep the harshness of reality at bay, though never with complete success.

Thom Marriott and Brigit Wilson are well cast as the grasping, hypocritical Gooper and Mae as are Robert King and Steve Cumyn as the professionally useless Reverend Tooker and Doctor Baugh.

In his programme notes director Richard Monette claims that Williams as a playwright is “non-naturalistic”. That is certainly true of some plays like “Camino Real” but not of this one where all the action is set in a single room and where stage time equals real time. Playwrights from Strindberg in his “Miss Julie” onwards have used this technique to set up a pressure-cooker atmosphere in which the characters are trapped. Monette’s frequent ploy of having actors step into a spotlight at the front of the stage to address the audience for some of their longer speeches destroys this carefully constructed atmosphere and its purpose. Monette claims that in doing this he is bringing out the play’s likeness to Greek tragedy. He forgets that the great innovation in Greek tragedy was Aeschylus’ addition of a second actor so that one individual could be seen to speak to another. None of the speeches Monette highlights are soliloquies, so to cut out the reactions of the second actor plunged in darkness not only goes against Williams but is also not Greek.

Lorenzo Savoini’s set, in fact, does more to relate the play to Greek tragedy than Monette’s mistaken direction. The enormous central shuttered door recalls the large central door of ancient theatres and his omission of the room’s walls, while non-naturalistic, reinforces the lack of privacy anyone has in the mansion. Steve Hawkins’ lighting constantly heightens the mood and helps create the tension of the simultaneous inner and outer storms that are brewing throughout the action. Dana Osborne’s costumes capture the period but her two-tone orange maternity set for Mae suggests more that Mae is colour-blind than that she has bad taste.

One of the reasons Tennessee Williams’ plays have stood the test of time is because he was able to create characters of such complexity. This production has a fine Big Daddy and Big Mama who do full justice to their roles. It’s a pity that Stratford could not find a Brick and Maggie to do so as well.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Orpheus Descending

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Miles Potter
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
June 23-September 25, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

"Gone Too Far"

Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending" (1957) is one of the playwright’s more difficult works to bring off. It is a rewrite of his first Broadway play, "Battle of Angels" (1940), and was made into the film "The Fugitive Kind" (1959) starring Marlon Brando. The play’s diffuse structure, its heavy-handed symbolism and the demands placed on the two leads present challenges that are hard to meet. The Stratford Festival’s first production of the play doesn’t meet enough of these challenges to be called successful, but it does feature a sufficient number of fine performances to make this rarity worth seeing.

Like so many other Williams' plays "Orpheus" concerns the arrival of a young, handsome drifter in a small Southern town and the emotions and jealousies his arrival stirs up. Unlike Williams' best-known plays, "Orpheus" begins with an unusually long exposition. We are introduced to four of the local biddies gossiping in the Torrance Mercantile Store as they set up a buffet lunch for owner Jabe Torrance's return from hospital. After the arrival of the local outcast, Carol Cutrere, they become a kind of chorus recounting the past history of Jabe's wife Lady and her father. Lady's father who came to America from Italy set up a wine-garden that local thugs burnt down, her father with it, for his having served liquor to a black man. Now Lady, trapped in a loveless marriage with the sickly Jabe, dreams of setting up a "confectionery", her own version of her father's wine-garden, in the mercantile store.

Into this setting of hatred where events seem on the verge of recurrence steps a drifter with the highly symbolic name Valentine Xavier. Classical Hades was surrounded by the river Lethe and the Styx. The location of Williams' story is Two-River County. Val is the Orpheus of the title with a guitar instead of a lyre. He has had an affair with Carol but he thinks he has put that "corruption" behind him. In this hell he finds Lady, his Eurydice, the only woman he has ever loved. But as his last name suggests, Val is not merely Orpheus but Christ. Unsurprisingly, the last part of the play takes place on Holy Saturday. Val even wears a snake-skin jacket, a symbol of regeneration, that eventually is sloughed off and passed on to another of the "fugitive kind".

The linking of Orpheus and Christ is fascinating in itself, but also gives the play a heaviness than only an emphasis on the naturalism of the action can overcome. Unfortunately, director Miles Potter has decided the music of Marc Desormeaux and the sound design of Peter McBoyle should underscore every symbolic reference even though Williams’ himself in the play’s garrulous style has underscored every reference too many times already. Any time Xavier’s guitar is mentioned or touched we hear a guitar chord from the speakers. At any mention of the fateful events of past, ominous thunder rolls. The effect is to debase an already highly melodramatic play since it assumes we can’t get the significant points without being hit over the head with them.

Similarly, with characters already overloaded with symbolism from Greek mythology and Christianity, the director’s task is to draw us in through the naturalism of their interactions. Here the production runs aground on the severely misjudged performance of Seana McKenna as Lady Torrance. Lady came to America as a child and is now middle-aged. McKenna gives her an accent so thick, it seems less like she has lived in the States for forty years but has just stepped off the boat, and not from Palermo via Caracas as she says, but from Russia, perhaps, via Greece. I grew up next door to an Italian immigrant family and none of them sported an accent with the clipped rhythms and plosive final consonants that make McKenna seem more like a stage gypsy than a real person.

Worse than that, McKenna communicates none of Lady’s internal conflicts. She gives us no hint that Lady’s initial harshness to Xavier is because she is repressing her own feelings of attraction, her mixture of fear and longing. We should get the sense of a powerful, bottled up emotions that finally explode, but when McKenna’s Lady finally declares her love for Xavier is seems to come out of the blue and even then it is not accompanied by a relaxation into sensuousness.

Jonathan Goad is excellent as Xavier. He accomplishes the difficult task of making us believe through his natural charisma that Xavier has somehow retained his innocence despite his lurid past. Williams requires him to be an object onto which women project their fantasies of lust, fear or hope but at the same be a real person with his own hope of starting a new life. Goad’s understated performance meets these demands with ease. His credible singing and guitar playing top off the naturalness of his portrayal. Given McKenna’s severe and artificial Lady, we don’t get the feeling of growing mutual love between them that would help draw us into the action.

The production features a number of other fine performances. Chief among these is Dana Green, who as the social outcast Carol Cutrere gives the single most powerful performance of the evening. Green captures Carole’s complex mixture of distain for the narrow-mindedness of those around her as well as an aching longing for something that will change her and take her out of an existence she, too, seems to despise. She thinks she’ll find that saviour in Xavier, and her second encounter with him, mascara running down her cheeks, is heart-rending. Carole’s openness contrasts with Lady’s repression. If only McKenna were playing at this level of intensity it would energize the whole show.

David Francis is truly frightening as Lady’s cruel husband Jabe. Rather than mellowing him, his deathly illness means he no longer holds his malice toward Lady in check. The contrast between his bellowing voice and corpse-like appearance make him the eerie personification of death Williams intends.

As Beulah Binnings, Fiona Reid leads the chorus of hypocritical biddies with Brigit Wilson as Dolly Hanna, Dixie Seatle as Eva Temple and Joyce Campion as Sister Temple. In her subtle way of using precisely right emphasis on every word, Reid brings out the full humour of her lines and acts rings around Wilson, whose only resource is shrillness. As Vee Talbot, a visionary artist who adds another layer of symbolism to the already symbol-laden play, Sarah McVie is allowed to indulge in wild overacting when understatement could achieve much more.

In smaller roles, Thom Marriott is threatening as the brutal Sheriff Talbot, Scott Wentworth displays a consuming regret as Lady’s one-time love David Cutrere, and Michelle Giroux is appropriately haughty as Jabe’s judgmental Nurse Porter.

Peter Hartwell has designed a rectangular counter with rounded edges for the centre of the Tom Patterson stage. During the course of the action this is effectively used as barrier between characters and, near the end, as a trap. His costumes reflect the 1950s but his outfits for Lady are until the final scenes so conservative that it’s hard to believe that a woman once filled with life would choose them for herself. Kevin Fraser’s lighting reinforces the atmosphere of an ever immanent thunderstorm and John Stead has created the cringe-makingly realistic fights.

Despite my criticisms, fans of Williams will likely want to see the Stratford production of “Orpheus Descending” since it is such a rarity. Few theatre companies can meet its requirement of a cast of at least 18. After the play’s violent and disturbing conclusion, one leaves the theatre recognizing on the one hand the play’s flaws and on the other that it contains virtually all the themes Williams would elaborate in the rest of his work. A different Lady and subtler direction would make this “Orpheus Descending” a more powerful experience than it already is.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Looking

Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until July 2,2005.
A Stage Door guest review by Mary Alderson
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Laughing out loud at Looking

Playwright Norm Foster has done it again with a great new comedy, as Victoria Playhouse Petrolia stages the world premiere of Looking. Foster was in the audience on opening night at VPP seeing his latest work on the professional stage for the first time. Known as “Canada’s pre-eminent comic playwright”, Foster is the author of such hits as The Melville Boys, Wrong for Each Other, Ethan Claymore, and The Foursome, which was produced at the Grand Theatre in London last January.

Looking will be another hit for Foster, as he keeps the audience laughing out loud with a string of great one-liners. The show opens with two middle-aged divorced men, Matt and Andy, discussing how Andy could meet a woman. Andy is “looking”, and he decides to put an ad in the personal column of the newspaper. Val calls him and they agree to meet at the local pub, “The Private Dick” (lots of obvious gags there). Then Val convinces her friend Nina to go along with her on the blind date, and meet Andy’s friend Matt. Ironically, Matt and Nina fall for each other right away, but Val isn’t too sure about Andy. The two relationships stumble along with plenty of laughs.

All four characters are well cast. Ed Sahely, who was on the hilarious but short-lived improv TV show “This Sitcom: Not to be Repeated”, is excellent as Matt, the radio broadcaster – he doesn’t like the term disc jockey. Ralph Small plays Andy, who can sing the first line to every song from the early 70’s, but gets stumped on the second line. He can’t even remember what comes after “American Woman …….” Medlodee Finlay is Val, who hasn’t had sex since her divorce six years ago – “two more years and I regain my virgin status,” she says. Mary Long plays Nina, a cop, who can get lots of dates, but has difficulties with relationships.

The comparison of the parallel worlds of the men and the women is great comedy. Foster’s clever writing allows the two worlds to meet on stage, and the actors do an excellent job with the dialogue. They all have very good comedic timing, and they frequently have to fill space waiting for the audience’s laughter to subside.

Whether you’re in the dating game or not, you can identify with the situations Foster has created, and the humour lies in the familiarity of the incidents. If you’re looking for some laughs, see Looking.

“Looking” continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until July 2. Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or (519) 882-1221 for tickets.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Journey's End

By R. C. Sherriff, directed by Christopher Newton
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 27-October 8, 2005

by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
(James Wegg's review follows)

"A Powerful Journey"

One function of festivals of classic theatre is to make us aware of how past generations have portrayed problems still with us today. In so doing they provide us with an historical context for current debates. This season at the Shaw Festival a play like Shaw’s “Major Barbara” showcases a seductive devil’s advocate who trumpets the social benefits of the arms industry. In Brecht and Weill’s musical “Happy End”, capitalism is portrayed as just another form of gangsterism. Even in Lillian Hellman’s Chekhovian play “The Autumn Garden”, the author confronts us with a character who lived happily under the Vichy government in France and whose charm and fame licenses any kind of aggression.

But the play of the Shaw’s 2005 season that strikes the clearest chord with today’s events is R.C. Sheriff’s “Journey’s End”. Dealing with the life of British troops in the trenches in World War I, the play’s portrait of the psychological ravages of war are as accurate and relevant now as they were when the play first appeared in 1928.

The plays depicts a representative selection of men of different ranks attempting to maintain a semblance of normality in the totally abnormal circumstances of war. The six scenes are set in a dugout at St. Quentin from Monday, March 18, 1918, to dawn on Thursday, March 21. March 21, 1918, was the beginning of the Germans’ last great offensive of the war. Those in the play’s original audience, would have known that the British Fifth Army, of which the company in “Journey’s End” is a part, collapsed under the Germans’ sudden massive onslaught. Though Sheriff writes in a naturalistic style, the attempt to live a “normal” life in the face of oblivion gives the whole work an existential cast and hence a universality that transcends its specific time and place. Many claim that Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is the first play to make waiting its subject. But Sheriff’s play, where the majority of the action focusses on the troops’ waiting for the German assault is clearly a precursor. As with Beckett’s characters, waiting in the face of the unknown throws the meaning of everything these men do into question.

The one man suffering the most from this crisis is Captain Dennis Stanhope, played magnificently by Evan Buliung. Stanhope has been in the trenches longer than anyone and has taken to drink to steady himself. He has refused leave because he has become so inured to the awful reality of war he knows he won’t be able to face the “reality” he left behind again. He knows how much he has changed and is afraid to have those who knew him see how altered he has become. Buliung communicates all this. You sense the effort his Stanhope needs to rally himself to set a model for his men even as he realizes privately he is no model to follow. Buliung shows that the tension between the inner man and the outer is the engine, soon to collapse, that keeps Stanhope going.

It is therefore painful for Stanhope that Second Lieutenant Raleigh, an old friend of the family and former schoolmate who idolizes him, should deliberately transfer into his company. Raleigh wants to be with his childhood hero, but Stanhope is oppressed by the memories of the past Raleigh brings with him and by the thought that through Raleigh his present decrepit condition will be known to those back home. Jeff Lillico plays Raleigh with all the naive enthusiasm the part requires, painfully suggesting a newcomer who conceives of war as a kind of sport and who is thus totally unprepared its horrors.

Stanhope’s only confidant is Lieutenant Osborne, a schoolmaster in civilian life, played by Patrick Galligan in one of his best ever performances. Osborne calms Stanhope in his drunken rages and soothes him when he awakes from nightmares with the tenderness of a father with his son. It is even more frightening, therefore, when Osborne, a man we have thought a rock of strength, collapses in despair moments before a sure-to-be-fatal mission. Galligan is masterful here and in showing the lingering fear even after Osborne has pulled himself together when he is discovered in tears.

The chief source of comedy in the play is the cook Private Mason whose wry humour Simon Bradbury catches perfectly. The men pretend mealtimes are a night out at the club and that the food is fine cuisine, a fantasy encouraged by Mason’s deadpan remarks. William Vickers sympathetically plays a representative of the ordinary man in Second Lieutenant Trotter, for whom food is the reality that helps keep the reality of war at bay.

Jeff Meadows paints a disturbing portrait of the malingerer Second Lieutenant Hibbert. The very presence of someone so unafraid of displaying his fear to fight raises the level of tension among the rest of the men who expend so much energy in hiding their fear. As a colonel, Anthony Bekenn softens the cliché of the pompous officer, but still shows how distanced those in command are from the physical and psychological conditions the men face who must carry out their orders. Blair Williams and Douglas E. Hughes fill the smaller roles of the war-weary Captain Hardy and a company sergeant-major.

As with last year’s “Floyd Collins” set in a cave, the Court House Theatre proves an ideal venue for a play with a claustrophobic setting. Designer Cameron Porteous has made the entrance to the company’s dugout unnervingly call to mind a medieval hell-mouth. Louise Guinand’s lighting marvelously recreates various degrees of murk. Christopher Newton has so directed the play that tension grips you from first to last and underlies even the most superficial exchanges. The inevitable climax is overwhelming.

Sheriff’s plays celebrates the heroism of those who sacrifice their lives for their country even as it deplores the waste of those lives and questions the politics that demand such sacrifice. It is a powerful play given a powerful production. No one should miss it.

©Christopher Hoile

 

Journey's End

By R. C. Sherriff
Shaw Festival, till October 8, 2005
Stage Door Guest Review by James Wegg

Compelling Conviction of Man's Folly

R. C. Sherriff’s three-act depiction of life in the trenches in the run-up to the Germans’ last great offensive of WW I should become required reading for the world’s military:  officers, troops and their conniving, cowardly leaders; Christopher Newton’s Shaw production—with its engaging cast and detail-rich set—should become required viewing for veterans of any conflict, programmed this year no doubt to complement the commemoration of the “end” of World War II. 

But wars never end.  The fighting stops, treaties are signed, the media moves to another story.  Yet the devastation both lingers in the wrecked families and minds of the living, even as new dead are harvested daily.  Still today, hidden landmines and buried mortars continue their deadly function well past their “best before date.”  What a spectacular tribute to the know-how of the world’s military industries’ excellence:  Death “R” Us, indeed. 

Captain Stanhope (Evan Buliung) has been leading his company for so long that he’s the only one remaining from the original cast.  The men love him.  His dedication to duty and courage are as legendary as his “hard drinker” skills:  a bottle-a-day keeps his demons away.  As the play opens, his charges are set to relieve another company for a six-day stint that will coincide with a mighty push from the Boche—dug into their own muck just “the width of a soccer pitch” away.  Grey-haired Lieutenant Osborne (Patrick Galligan), affectionately known as “Uncle” to his much younger colleagues, is a schoolmaster who keeps what little remains of his sanity by reading passages from Alice in Wonderland.  His opening dialogue to complete the take over from Captain Hardy (Blair Williams) is one sided:  Galligan’s read is spot on—simultaneously all business and providing much of the back story, where Williams seems content to deliver his replies on a superficial, too-hurried plane that dampens much of the script’s sub-text and irony. 

The glue to the scenes and much of the comic relief comes in the form of the company cook.  Private Mason (Simon Bradbury, brilliant in his timing and tone) mixes up his own survival techniques.  He banters to the point of being “familiar” with his uppers as he tirelessly dishes out “yellow soup,” “onion tea,” and scotch. 

The new officer on the block is Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Jeff Lillico).  Using family influence, Raleigh has had himself assigned to serve with Stanhope, his former schoolmate and hero.  They were more than just acquaintances.  Stanhope carries a picture of Raleigh’s sister, Madge, in his tunic.  Now, with her little brother constantly at his side, Stanhope is petrified that his alcoholism will be reported and squelch any chance of their union once victory has been declared.  In the script, and through Newton’s interpretation (notably ignoring the “few tattered magazine pictures pinned to the wall of girls in flimsy costumes), the slight simmer of just how close the attractive boys/men were is left to the imaginations and sensitivity of the audience. 

Their reunion is a major plot point, yet Lillico errs in playing the early scenes more “ah shucks” than just star-struck naïve, which robs Act I of its pace.  But the proceedings begin an unstoppable march of their own when Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Jeff Meadows, magnificent emotional range) breaks down and tearfully admits his inner fears to Stanhope.  From here, the writing and performances gain strength and momentum that never abate until the inevitable carnage clears the set of anything but death.  Stanhope and Raleigh say their goodbyes unforgettably.  No food jokes remain:  chef has exchanged his soup spoon for a machine gun, his best customer, Second Lieutenant Trotter (William Vickers, the pride of the officers in his ability to lift his delivery to the very front of the lines) having escaped “raid duty” because of his excessive girth steps into the line of fire with a target few could miss. 

Newton and his capable team—Louise Guinean’s oil-to-electric candle technique a marvel; Cameron Porteous’ design faithful to the era, if not the reality of how dirty the men “living” in the cesspools of combat would really be; the uncredited sound designer’s bombs, birds and squealing rats added convincing depth—have brought Sherriff’s horrific truth to life with skill, insight and care.  More’s the pity its message will continue to be lost on those who predicate war, dismissed as mere theatre and far beyond their sense of reality.

(c) 2005 James Wegg

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