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| The Donnellys: Sticks & Stones | Bonhoeffer | Having Hope at Home | Looking |
Bus Stop | Happy End | Belle Moral: A Natural History | Kitchen Witches | Wingfield's Inferno |
Edward II | The Lark |


Some Stage Door reviews of 2005

Others may be found here, here, here, and here!

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Edward II

by Christopher Marlowe, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
August 12-September 24, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Stratford’s First Marlowe”

In a move that has been long overdue, the Stratford Festival has for the first time staged a play in Stratford by Shakespeare’s great contemporary, Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). (In 1956 the Festival toured Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine the Great” to Toronto and New York, but that production never played in Stratford.) Marlowe’s “Edward II” is often considered Marlowe’s finest play and had an obvious influence on Shakespeare’s history plays, particularly “Richard II”. What has probably kept “Edward II” off the boards at Stratford is its open presentation of homosexuality, though, in fact, the play, unlike Derek Jarman’s 1992 film, is more about politics than sex. While it is too bad we have had to wait so long, it is still a credit to the Festival that it has finally felt bold enough stage such an important work. The current Stratford production, while not flawless, is solid and straightforward enough that no one interested in Shakespeare and his contemporaries should miss it.

Edward II, like Richard II and Henry VI, is considered one of England’s “weak” kings. These are kings who placed private concerns above public duty and were either indecisive or capricious in their ruling. A prime topic for Elizabethans was when, if ever, rebellion against a king could be justified since a king was God’s representative on earth. For Marlowe, a member of an atheist society, the question became one more purely of power and how it affects those who have it and lust after it.

Upon the death of his father Edward I, Edward II (1284-1327) recalls his lover Piers Gaveston, whom his father had banished. Although Edward’s openly homosexual affair pleases no one at court, especially his wife Queen Isabella, Marlowe makes clear that what enrages the nobles is not the king’s sexuality (see Act 1, scene 4, lines 394ff.) but rather his elevation of a commoner to high titles and his neglect of kingly duties in defending England against attacks from France and Scotland.

Chief among Edward’s enemies is Young Mortimer, who plots first Gaveston’s downfall and then Edward’s. Marlowe forces us to ask which is worse--a ruler who neglects his duties for love, or a baron who lusts for power for its own sake. How different is Mortimer, who uses Isabella and her son to further his ambition from Gaveston, who uses Edward to further his? Marlowe engineers a shift in our sympathies, a technique that Shakespeare would use again many times over. While Edward exults in his power our sympathies lies with the opposing barons, but when Edward loses Gaveston and then his own power our sympathies shift to him.

As Edward II, David Snelgrove ably displays the huge range of his character’s emotions from joy and disdain to confusion, outrage, courage, humility and finally utter despair. His characterization would be much stronger if, rather than switching from emotion to emotion sequentially, he were to show their frequent intermingling. It doesn’t help that he shouts throughout the first two thirds of the play. Marlowe’s spare verse requires careful use of pause and emphasis to bring out its ironies. He is most powerful in Edward’s final scenes when torture has made him almost a living ghost.

Jamie Robinson shows Gaveston gleefully flouting convention, virtually daring the barons to unseat him, a low-born coward overconfident that Edward’s favour will protect him. What he misses is the mercenary aspect of Gaveston, who boasts from the start that he can “draw the pliant king which way I please”.

As Queen Isabella, Michelle Giroux delivers her lines so artificially that it’s hard to believe anything her character says. By the end of the play she’s taken on the walk and all-purpose hauteur of a fashion model rather than try for any deeper characterization. In contrast, Scott Wentworth as Young Mortimer gives a gripping performance as the arch-Machiavel of the play. From his cold rage at having his ambitions thwarted to his hubristic reveling in his success that he control Fortune’s wheel, Wentworth details how Mortimer’s nature metamorphoses from justified anger to outright evil.

Among the barons David Francis as Old Mortimer, James Blendick as Warwick and Raymond O’Neill as Pembroke all give solid performances. As Lancaster, however, Walter Borden’s overemphatic delivery undermines his credibility.

Casting an inexperienced actor like Glenn Davis II in the key role of Edward’s brother Edmund, Earl of Kent, is a mistake. He is a figure who first defends the flawed protagonist, abandons him and then returns to him and thus is central in the playwright’s direction of our sympathies toward the protagonist. Shakespeare would make much use of this figure not just in history plays but in tragedies. Think of Kent of “King Lear” or Enobarbus in “Antony and Cleopatra”. Since Davis can’t make sense of the verse we miss out on Edmund’s vital commentary on the action.

As Maltrevis and Gurney, Steve Cumyn and Brad Rudy are excellent as the jailers with lower class accents who come to sympathize with their mistreated royal prisoner. Casting James Blendick as Edward’s assassin Lightborn is a brilliant stroke. He appears a shambling old man whose profession happens to be murder. His conversation with his victim Edward is chilling because of its very objectivity. With this kind of assassin, Edward’s murder, already horrifying enough in itself, is committed without the sadism emphasized in other productions.

Richard Monette’s direction is admirably straightforward. Some make object to the amount of kissing and fondling between Edward and Gaveston and a short glimpse of a gay orgy. This is a case where less would be more. While Monette makes it clear that Edward is in love with Gaveston, he should make it much clearer whether Gaveston is actually in love with Edward or merely using him. Monette does not reveal that Isabella and Young Mortimer are having an affair until they are in France, thus missing the chance during their various encounters in England to show up their hypocrisy.

Michael Gianfrancesco's costumes combine elements of Edward's time and Marlowe's and clichéd modern black leather for Gaveston. Since Gianfrancesco’s set is so plain, it falls to Kevin Fraser to define the scenes with light. While he does create scenes of natural lighting, what is most memorable is the wide range of sudden expressionistic effects he uses to signal abrupt switches in mood in a play where the atmosphere is always volatile.

It has taken 53 seasons for Stratford to stage “Edward II”. Now that Monette has demonstrated how gripping the work can be on stage, let’s hope Stratford can rally itself to produce the play again, not to mention others by Marlowe, before another 53 years go by. Productions of works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries benefit not just the audience and the actors in understanding the context in which Shakespeare wrote but also in presenting us with world-views different from Shakespeare’s, ones that as in “Edward II” are much darker and less comforting and, for good or ill, much closer to our own.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Lark

by Jean Anouilh, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
August 11-October 29, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Or the Dodo”

In 2002 the Stratford Festival gave audiences the chance to see Christopher Plummer as King Lear in an uninspired production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Now the Festival gives us the chance to see Plummer’s daughter Amanda as Joan of Arc in an uninspired production of Jean Anouilh’s “The Lark”. Famous names may be a draw but they mean little if they are embedded in a production that is not exciting in itself.

Anouilh’s 1953 play “L’Alouette” or “The Lark” in Lillian Hellman’s adaptation, presents the trial of Joan of Arc in which key events of Joan’s past are acted out in flashback rather than reported. Anouilh knew that France had no Joan of Arc to defend its lands in World War II and, worse, had a government that collaborated with the Nazis. “The Lark” looks Joan’s condemnation as a collaboration of the Catholic Church with the English. American director Michael Lindsay-Hogg says in his programme notes he thought “some of the issues would become clearer to the audience” if he updated the setting from medieval France to France in 1943 under the Nazi Occupation.

In fact, just the opposite happens. Under Lindsay-Hogg the English become Nazis and Warwick, an SS officer decorated with the Iron Cross. The Catholic Church, which in Lindsay-Hogg’s update should become the Vichy Government, remains, however, the Catholic Church and its representatives are costumed both as bureaucrats and churchmen. Yet, if the court trying Joan is ecclesiastic, how is it that the Grand Inquisitor is played by a woman (Martha Henry)? Women still cannot be priests much less attain so lofty a position. And if she is the Grand Inquisitor why has costume designer Dana Osborne made her so inappropriately fashionable with mules, a leg-revealing skirt and jaunty miniature hat?

Anouilh’s text is clearly about the relations between secular and religious politics, but Lindsay-Hogg’s update has made it unclear whether the other half of Joan’s opponents are Catholic (in which case the Grand Inquisitor should be recast) or the Vichy government (in which case all the talk of religion makes no sense). The 1943 setting also means that Joan becomes merely “a female resistance fighter” as the programme calls her which hardly accords with the all the special attention she is granted. And who exactly is Charles the Dauphin in 1943 when France no longer is a monarchy?

As if this were not confusing enough, throughout the action the mattress of Joan’s prison cell remains on stage where Joan retreats when others talk. Designer Osborne claims that “The play is Joan’s hallucination, a sort of dream”. So what then are we seeing? Is it Joan of Arc imagining she’s being tried in 1943 or is it an ordinary resistance fighter imagining she is another Joan of Arc? The result of the directorial concept as realized by Osborne and set designer Eugene Lee is, in either case, a muddle.

Lindsay-Hogg, best known for directing movies and television, seems to have no clue how to translate action to the Festival stage. Actors remain in fixed positions for inordinate amounts of time making this production one of the most static in recent memory. The actors intone the words slowly as if they were all equally important. There is no sense of rhythm or life. The play is only two and a half hours long but the glacial pace, lack of focus and addled concept make it seem twice as long.

Does the presence of Amanda Plummer make the production worth seeing? Only if you are addicted to seeing famous names on stage, I’d say. Her way of communicating Joan’s spiritual and worldly innocence is to play her as a little girl in both voice and gesture. This is fine in the early scenes when Joan is actually supposed to be a young girl, but becomes problematic as time moves forward and Plummer is still using her little-girl voice. After all, when Joan was executed in 1431 she was 19 not 9. The wide range Plummer achieves within these narrow parameters is surprising, but to find Joan unchanged either by battle or incarceration starts to make her look more dim-witted than otherworldly.

Plummer is surrounded by a number of fine performances. Chief among these is Bernard Hopkins as the Bishop Cauchon, depicted by Anouilh as the one person who authentically wants to save Joan’s soul. His pleading with Joan to recant make up the most moving moments of the evening. The most successful of all the flashbacks is Joan’s visit with Robert de Beaudricourt played by Brian Tree. Anouilh’s Joan, whose main insight is into male psychology, manages to get the comically dense Robert to give her a horse and an escort by convincing him that it was all his own idea.

As Warwick, Joan’s main secular opponent, Graham Abbey successfully uses the lower register of his voice (something he should do more often) to lend his character greater authority. Lindsay-Hogg adapts Abbey’s real-life foot injury into the performance by having Warwick creep about on two crutches. The trouble is that Lindsay-Hogg so wants Abbey to create a spider-like effect it makes Abbey (or Warwick) look as if he’d never learned to use crutches properly. As for Martha Henry’s Grand Inquisitor, once you get over the inappropriateness of her casting and costume, she creates a wonderfully icy portrait of an ecclesiastical bureaucrat. It’s too bad that Lindsay-Hogg forces her to sit in on stage in silence for the entire first act rather than have her make a surprise entrance in the second. Stephen Ouimette is wasted in the role of the Promoter (the Church prosecutor), since aside from a few strident outbursts, he is confined to silence even longer than Henry.

Steven Sutcliffe plays the role of Charles the Dauphin as if he were Bertie Wooster, and in yet another bizarre choice, Osborne has costumed him as a British twit complete with tennis racket. Meanwhile, the young Sara Topham, with obviously fake grey hair, has been cast as Charles’s mother Queen Yolande. She plays the role well, but greying young people’s hair for older roles smacks of amateur theatre. Does the Festival really have no actresses of the right age for the part? In other roles, Jean-Michel LeGal is an ardent defender of Joan as Brother Ladvenu, Ian Deakin is Joan’s brusque peasant father and Barry MacGregor is a stalwart Captain La Hire.

Anouilh’s play has much to say about the creation of images for secular or religious propaganda. Anouilh foresees the present in that his representatives of Church and State are more anxious how to “spin” the event than in Joan herself. Given the relevance, Amanda Plummer and the right director and designer this might have been a triumph. Instead, major confusions in both direction and design plus a leaden pace make this show a tedious experience. It’s so earthbound and lifeless, it’s more a dodo than a lark.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Wingfield’s Inferno

by Dan Needles, directed by Douglas Beattie
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
June 4-August 14, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Hot Night in the Old Township"

It wasn’t so long ago that people referred to Dan Needles’s series of plays about Walt Wingfield, the fictional stockbroker turned farmer, as the “Wingfield Trilogy”. A coffee store in Stratford has even immortalized this name as one of its house blends. But now, the original play, “A Letter from Wingfield Farm” from 1985, has now spawned not two but five sequels to become the “Wingfield Hexalogy”. The sixth installment, “Wingfield’s Inferno”, which had its first preview this year at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria, B.C., on May 10, and is now playing at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford, will help satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetites of all lovers of the series (known as “Wing-Nuts”) for more of Walt’s adventures.

The question naturally arises, “Is this Wingfield as good as the others?” To this, I can easily answer “Yes”. You meet all of your favourite characters and several new ones, the incidents are hilarious and Hope, Walt’s daughter born during the ice storm in Part 5, speaks for the first time. If, however, the question is more specifically “Is this Wingfield as good as the fifth installment, ‘Wingfield on Ice’?”, then, regretfully, I would have to say “No”.

Over the years Walt’s anecdotes of country life, told in the form of letters to a newspaper editor, have become more closely linked in exploring a common theme. This technique reached a peak in “Wingfield on Ice” a play that dared to take on the biggest theme of all--birth, death and rebirth. “Wingfield’s Inferno” finds Needles torn between the earlier episodic mode of Wingfield vignettes and the revelatory mode in “Wingfield on Ice”, where all details contributed to the central theme.

In “Wingfield’s Inferno” that central theme is insurance, or more broadly the question of how to know whether taking a risk or playing it safe is the wiser course of action. The question is prompted by the event that opens the play, the burning to the ground of the Orange Hall, the focus of community life in Persephone township, the place where Walt and Maggie got married, the place where Maggie gave birth to her first child Hope during the ice-storm. The Hall was not insured. Walt’s task at the behest of the enigmatic town clerk Harold is first to raise funds for rebuilding and then to see if the town’s application for a grant to renovate the Orange Hall can somehow still be approved even though the Hall no longer exists.

This situation leads Walt to various rants about how insurance which originally was established to protect people has now become a means that restricts people’s lives. He compares modern insurance companies to the usurers and those who have done violence to art whom Dante places lower in seventh circle in his “Inferno” than tyrants and suicides. Some very funny side plots dealing Walt’s attempts to rid his hen house of skunks and Willy and Dave’s attempts to train a horse to race don’t really have much to do with the theme of insurance. Their moral seems Robbie Burns’s that the “best-laid plans of mice and men Gang aft agley”. At the same time, the grand set-piece of the whole play, the elaborate ruse that Harold and the redoubtable Mrs. Lynch cook up to deceive the visiting Joe Clark-like Member of Parliament in which Walt is a helpless pawn, seems to demonstrate just the opposite. Needles’s periodic attempts to relate these events to the theme seems forced whereas in “Wingfield on Ice” they grew naturally from the given circumstances. “Wingfield on Ice” dealt with some of the darker sides of country life like isolation and multigenerational feuds between neighbours. But in “Wingfield’s Inferno”, Needles exaggerates first the risks of treating Hope’s ear infection and then its escalation into a full-blown medical emergency.

Having said all this, I can aver that virtually no one but those compelled to compare “Wingfield on Ice” with “Wingfield’s Inferno” will be troubled by these differences. The episode of “tricking the MP” has the aura of a true classic and the episode of “catching the skunk” gives actor Rod Beattie an ideal opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of physical comedy.

Beattie’s ability to morph from one identity to another among the familiar gallery of past characters and the many newly added characters both animal and human continues to astound. Many practitioners of the one-man show could learn from him how to keep multiple characters distinct through simple but significant changes in voice, posture, and gesture. Timing as perfect as his, though, must surely be innate.

Though the Wingfield series most often plays on proscenium stages, director Douglas Beattie has thoughtfully re-blocked the action to make full use of the Tom Patterson Theatre’s thrust stage. Even those in the wretched seats of Section B will not feel left out. As usual, Louise Guinand's lighting cues are tied closely to the text. In the most notable example her lighting makes us aware that the Orange Hall is on fire long before Walt realizes it.

A person does not have to have seen the previous five plays to enjoy this new "Wingfield", but newcomers may wonder why Rod Beattie’s introduction of certain characters from the past produces such howls of laughter. It is a laughter of delighted recognition. American audience members may also be puzzled by certain Canadian references, to which all I can say is, “Guess what, this is a Canadian play. Get used to it”. While “Wingfield’s Inferno” may not be quite as thought-provoking as it would like to be or, indeed, as “Wingfield on Ice” was, it’s a highly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud show that will have you eagerly waiting for “Wingfield #7”. As usual Beattie will tour of "Wingfield’s Inferno” around Ontario and beyond. If you can't make it to Stratford, the next stops are the River Run Centre in Guelph (December 8-10) and the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto (April 25-June 4). “Wing-Nuts” will need no encouragement. Newcomers may well find themselves hooked.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Kitchen Witches

Victoria Playhouse Petrolia till August 13, 2005
Stage Door Guest Review by Mary Alderson

Kitchen Witches fails to conjure surprises

 

The Kitchen Witches, currently running at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia, has an intriguing premise and starts out with some hope, but in the end, it fails to deliver on the promised laughs.  The idea is a good one:  two women who have competing cooking shows on the local cable station hate each other.  When Izzy tries to take over Dolly’s show, the sparks fly, but the small audience loves the conflict.  So the producer, Stephen, decides to continue with the two women cooking and fighting together.  By the end, it becomes a little too didactic, and somehow, out of scatological humour, the audience is supposed to learn a lesson about true friendship.  Neither the bodily function jokes, nor the message about friendship, work very well.  

 

Playwright Caroline Smith wrote this for the Sterling Festival Theatre in 2003.  With tighter editing and by replacing some of the old gags, it could be improved with dialogue to match the creative premise.  The problems were not with the local cast – they did what they could with a tedious script.  Liz Gordon as Dolly showed a delightful talent for accents, and a face for comedy.  Elva May Hoover as Izzy was somewhat reminiscent of Betty White when she played TV cook Sue Ann Niven on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show.  Like Sue Ann, Hoover plays Izzy as all sweetness for the camera, but a real witch when the camera is off. Ed Sahely plays Stephen Biddle, the exhausted producer trying to garner ratings at a cable channel.  Sahely was excellent as the radio personality in Looking at VPP a few weeks ago, and is known for his comedy in the improv television series, This Sitcom: Not to be Repeated.  However, in this show, he is reduced to a lot of yelling and doesn’t have the opportunity to demonstrate his comedic timing. 

 

Courtney Micks plays Rob, the camera girl, who is obviously working under some court-ordered volunteer program.  Rob (who doesn’t want to be called Roberta) shows her bad attitude throughout.  Micks is also the apprentice stage manager.  But while the cast performs well, the gags are old and tired, and the plot has no surprises, right up to the predictable ending. 

 

The Kitchen Witches continues with eight shows a week at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia until August 13.  Call the box office at 1-800-717-7694 or (519) 882-1221 for tickets.

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Belle Moral: A Natural History

by Ann-Marie MacDonald, directed by Alisa Palmer
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 16-October 7, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
(James Wegg's review follows)

"Gang Agley "

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s “Belle Moral: A Natural History” is a substantial rewrite of her play “The Arab’s Mouth” first produced by Factory Theatre in 1990. On the evidence of the Shaw Festival production the play is still in need of major revisions. MacDonald has so much to say about such a wide range of topics that she has neglected to develop a sound plot or well-rounded characters.

The action is set in a stone house called Belle Moral (a play on “Balmoral”, I presume) on coast of Scotland a few miles outside Edinburgh in the spring and summer of 1899. Pearl MacIsaac, a budding young amateur scientist with an interest in evolution, is left alone with her Aunt Flora after her father’s recent death. They await the return of Pearl’s aimless artistic brother Victor so that their father’s will can be read and the estate settled. Victor arrives but almost immediately attempts suicide. Meanwhile, the family doctor Seamus Reid and Flora furtively discuss what to do with the creature in the attic and when to tell Pearl about it.

“Belle Moral” is thus like a cross between a gothic novel and a modern play about science like Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia” (1993), though without that work’s inventive alternation between time periods. MacDonald has set the play on the cusp of the twentieth century when everything is in the world is changing. The trouble is that she also wants to discuss everything in the world that is changing. Art versus science, paganism versus Christianity, impressionism versus realism, photography versus painting, objectivity versus subjectivity, human versus animal, madness versus reason, masculinity versus femininity are just some of the many themes MacDonald brings up in the course of the play. Unfortunately, she hasn’t thought of a structure that can express these themes dramatically. The action, such as it is, depends on delay. Nothing can be revealed until Victor arrives. Then nothing can be revealed until Victor recovers. Then nothing can be revealed until Pearl decides if she will marry. This leaves the many themes to be explored simply as straightforward debates. They don’t move the action forward since there is none. The delays in revealing information are meant to create suspense but they are too artificial managed to do so.

As it turns out, how the family deals with the revelation of the secret being in the attic is actually the main point of the play. The result is that all the most dramatic action is crammed into the play’s last half hour requiring MacDonald to give Pearl a long summary speech that attempts rather desperately to tie all the varied themes of the play together. Her necessarily general conclusion is that we should celebrate the diversity of all life on earth and simultaneously feel our unity with it. It is an uplifting conclusion, but we arrive there not as in MacDonald’s hit “Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)” through the protagonist’s active exploration of different modes of behaviour but simply by waiting for MacDonald to reveal crucial information.

Even if the play itself still seems like a draft in need of editing and greater focus, it could hardly have a finer production. Judith Bowden’s design is fantastic. The painted back panels show both a view of craggy seascape and the painting Pearl’s mother is said to have made. The painted tree branches of the back panels extend onto the stage surface. Antlers protrude from all the furniture and from the heads of the actors changing scenes. Bowden thus captures the notion of a continuum of art and nature more elegantly than does MacDonald. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting creates some exquisitely mysterious scenes especially those involving the “Creature” in the attic. Paul Sportelli’s music enhances the sense of otherworldliness. It’s a pity then that as soon as the speaking begins this wonderfully ambiguous atmosphere vanishes.

Although MacDonald has given none of the characters a clear arc of development, the actors do their utmost to make their portraits convincing. Fiona Byrne makes Pearl a vital figure, initially so caught up in science she has no appreciation for art or subjectivity. She delivers Pearl’s final speech with such passion we forget MacDonald has given us no clue to what has caused Pearl’s view suddenly to become so inclusive. It seems that Dr. Seamus Reid is meant first to appear as kindly and only gradually to reveal a more sinister nature. This is how Peter Millard ably plays it even though MacDonald’s text veers back and forth in portraying his true nature even after we hear that he supports eugenics. Jeff Meadows accomplishes the difficult task of making Victor a sympathetic character even though MacDonald has made none of the motivations for his actions at all clear.

Donna Belleville is source of constant humour as Aunt Flora with her malapropisms and her readiness to believe in supernatural explanations for everyday occurrences. Bernard Behrens, made up to look about 150, is hilarious as the family servant called “Young Farleigh”. The single most moving part of the play is Behrens’s recitation of Robert Burns’s famous poem “To a Mouse” where Behrens’s phrasing and tone open depth’s of meaning behind its familiar words.

Jeff Madden makes a positive impression as Farleigh’s grandson “Wee Farleigh” with his, surprising predilection for French cuisine, and Graeme Somerville lends the bland lawyer Mr. Abbott a useful air of mystery. Jessica Lowry gives such a sympathetic performance in the nearly silent role of the Creature, one wishes MacDonald had given up the faux suspense and introduced her earlier so we could better follow her progress once Pearl learns of her existence.

Alisa Palmer’s smooth direction cannot cover up the play’s flaws. This is a potentially fascinating drama of ideas but without a clear focus or compelling story nothing gels in genre, mood or themes. Fans of MacDonald will not want to miss such a fine production, but even they will probably have to admit that “Belle Moral”, at least in its present form, is not one of her better works.

©Christopher Hoile

 

Belle Moral:  A Natural History

by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Shaw Festival ( to Oct 7,2005)

Play by ear lies well

êêêê
Stage Door Guest Review by S. James Wegg (09/09/05)

Magic has come to The Shaw.  Not just pixies and red-headed faeries, banshees and werewolves that lurk above and below the plot, but on the Courthouse Theatre’s ever-flexible stage until October 7, Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Belle Moral:  A Natural History weaves its irrepressible spell and makes believers of us all. 

The multi-layered reworked material (originally produced as The Arab’s Mouth in 1990) has found its voice and makes its points brilliantly.  Over three fast-moving acts, art is pitted against science, truth struggles with lies, pride goes to bed with greed and humanity’s penchant to be “cruel to be kind” is explored with honesty, humour and pathos.

The turn-of-the-twentieth-century Scottish Manor is craftily rendered by Judith Bowden’s design and Kevin Lamotte’s mastery of light and dark.  Swinging walls, rolling horned furniture and the all-important specimen jar (home to a human/canine ear) keep the production flowing easily from scene to scene.  Whether in the study, drawing room or the secret-filled attic, the breadth of the country estate is as believable as the likelihood of hidden passageways that those who play fast and loose with reality must travel to protect the family shame.

Music also plays an important role in the collective suspension of disbelief.  Composer/pianist Paul Sportelli’s able fingers and inventive mind have come up with an entrancing soundscape replete with a brooding “Waltz Macabre,” Satie-like, desolate underscoring—even an aural signpost of the Industrial Revolution as a trio of piano thirds heralds the passing of a train to begin Act III.  All of this combines in a wonderfully eerie fashion to produce the canvas upon which the actors can play. 

Belle Moral is home to the MacIsaacs.  As the action begins, Father has just died; Mother long ago succumbed to a difficult labour.  There are two children.  Pearl MacIsaac (Fiona Byrne, too fast in her delivery to savour MacDonald’s insights and wit in the early going) is purposely single and studious (the aforementioned ear her current subject)—a modern woman whose life is driven by facts.  Her younger brother Victor (played with unabashed enthusiasm by Jeff Meadows) wears his kilt “regulation,” prefers cafés to commerce and is haunted by the loss of his mom at childbirth. 

Watching over the siblings is Aunt Flora (Donna Belleville, a marvel at every turn).  Her re-interpretation of the English language adds many laughs even as her sense of duty to her late sister confounds and confuses her soul.  The servants (Young Farleigh, masterfully given by Bernard Behrens and his grandson, Wee Farleigh whose Pan costume drew applause on its own) are judiciously used by MacDonald to both provide relief from their dysfunctional masters and mock the notion of classes while serving tea.  

With the wayward Victor’s arrival home, Flora summons her father’s lawyer, Mr. Abbott (Graeme Somerville) to read the will.  This causes much apprehension in the family physician, Dr. Reid (Peter Millard, whose rhythm couldn’t quite match his colleagues’).  It’s the good doctor who has provided Pearl with the curious body part.  Despite being a contemporary of MacIsaac Sr., Dr. Reid, after everyone learns the surprising conditions of the will, offers to wed the “cut … off at the ovaries” heiress, but without bedroom privileges. 

Much mayhem ensues, not the least of it centres on the possibility that not all of the dearly departed are six feet under.  As the plot heats up (with the nearly wordless Jessica Lowry showing an admirable range of character—both animal and human), the playwright’s deeper thoughts rise to the surface, seemingly unbidden. 

In this era of racial profiling and the institutional warehousing of the “freaks” of nature (too often, young persons living with the effects of acquired brain injury are deposited in nursing homes for seniors), the characters and audience alike are confronted with the horrors of such inhumanity and their catastrophic results.  In this manner, the work becomes a timeless discussion of how we really treat one another. 

Happily, director Alisa Palmer is on the same page.  She has coaxed her talented ensemble into just the right mix of bare-assed humour (no exaggeration!) and introspective angst to effectively harvest the rich material that lies in every page.  Not least of which is the oh-so-subtle mixture of music (“Au Claire de la Lune,” both sung and interweaved into the score), people (the mystery of Claire) and food (chocolate éclairs all around).  Would that all such writing be as rich and satisfying. 

Director - Alisa Palmer

Cast

Fiona Byrne, Jeff Meadows, Peter Millard, Donna Belleville, Jessica Lowry, Jeff Madden, Bernhard Behrens, Graeme Somerville

Production

Production designer

Judith Bowden

Lighting designer

Kevin Lamotte

Original music

Paul Sportelli

 


Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Bus Stop

by William Inge, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 15-November 27, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door


"Lives at an Impasse"


In 2001 the Shaw Festival had a major hit with William Inge’s “Picnic” directed by Jackie Maxwell, now the Festival’s Artistic Director. This year Maxwell directs Inge’s follow-up to “Picnic” (1953), “Bus Stop” from 1955. Both plays are about loneliness and the many varieties of love. Both feature a brash, attractive young man and a girl who must decide if she will or will not run away with him. Yet, if “Bus Stop” proves to be a less intense experience than “Picnic”, it is because the later play is resolves its questions in comedy, whereas the events in “Picnic” are framed as tragedy.

As is mentioned twice in the programme notes, “Bus Stop” has virtually no plot. Inge wrote, “I regard a play as a composition rather than a story, as a distillation of life rather than a narration of it”. The play uses a device as old as the “Canterbury Tales” (referred to in the play) or Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, in observing the interactions of an isolated and varied group of travellers. In this case, the bus from Kansas City to Topeka has had to stop on the way overnight at Grace’s Diner because a snow storm has closed the road. The town residents we meet are Grace and Elma, the high school girl Grace employs, and Will, the town sheriff. Arriving in town are the bus driver Carl, a former professor Dr. Gerald Lyman, Cherie a nightclub “chanteuse” and two cowboys from Montana, Bo, an award winner at the rodeo, and his lifelong friend Virgil.

During the course of the action, Grace and Carl have their first sexual liaison, while Lyman, a suspected pervert with a predilection for young girls, chats up Elma with the goal of meeting her later in Topeka. The inexperienced Bo, who has fallen instantly in love with Cherie, assumes that their one night of love-making meant something, and has forced Cherie against her will to go with him to Montana to be his wife. Cherie, who is no stranger to sexual relations, is outraged by Bo’s assumptions and asks the sheriff for protection. A fourth aspect, likely reflecting Inge’s repressed homosexuality, is how Bo’s interest in Cherie will affect his friendship with Virgil. Our interest is in how these parallel relationships play off each other and are finally resolved, how each of the characters is changed by the experiences of this one night.

Inge makes the technical challenge look easy of portraying several mutating conversations all occurring within the same room. The play’s deceptive simplicity and its gradually evolution towards a happy ending masks its concern with a collection of fundamentally lonely people whose lives each come close to tragedy.

Anyone undertaking the role of Cherie has to contend with the shadow of Marilyn Monroe’s performance in Josh Logan’s famous 1957 film version. An actress has to make the role her own. Nicole Underhay tries to do this but the results are not very interesting. While she conveys Cherie’s changes from emotion to emotion quite well, what we don’t see is a rich interplay of conflicting emotions. Cherie’s attraction and repulsion with regard to Bo are closely connected. Underhay shows us one or the other but not their complex mingling.

Martin Happer, on the other hand, is excellent as Bo. Bo is the most dated character in the play--a tough, 21-year-old cowboy who is naïve, conventional and a sexual innocent. Happer makes Bo believable by showing that he is socially awkward in general, not just around women but in any kind of group. The brittleness of his bravado makes his innocence shine through.

Norman Browning steals the show as the lecherous Dr. Lyman. It is a depiction, both hilarious and sad, of a man who can’t stop himself from going through his old routine of seduction even though he is aware how tired it has become and despises himself for engaging in it. He gets progressively drunker, more maudlin, more desperate, more absurd both to himself and others until he finally passes out. The scene in which he plays Romeo to Elma’s Juliet is the hysterically funny highlight of the show even though it ends in Lyman’s collapse into tears.

As Elma, Diana Donnelly is very good at showing how an intelligent high school girl could be taken in by the superficial show of scholarship and worldliness that Lyman uses as bait. He may indeed be the smartest person she as ever met in her circumscribed life in small town Kansas, but she is naïve in equating knowledge with virtue. It is too bad that Donnelly doesn’t show us some glimmerings of doubt about Lyman and downright odd that she is not devastated or at least shaken when his true nature is revealed.

Mary Haney is wonderful as Grace, a no-nonsense woman who knows she needs a man from time to time to keep her from getting “grouchy”. Guy Bannerman gives us a fine vignette of an ordinary bus driver who suddenly realizes there may be some pleasant relief to the boredom of his daily routine. Michael Ball puts in a convincing performance as stern sheriff who can beat up a young guy not out of anger but to teach him a useful lesson. As Virgil, Peter Krantz has one of those quiet roles at which he so excels. Bo constantly confides in Virgil and depends on his advice, but Krantz subtly suggests a repressed inner pain in Virgil, who knows that the more he helps Bo win over Cherie the closer he comes to losing him as a companion.

Designer Sue LePage has created a marvelously realistic diner on stage with views into the kitchen and out the front windows and door. Her outfits for Cherie capture without caricature exactly the kind of tackiness that poor white trash might consider glamorous. Jackie Maxwell sustains Inge’s mood of comedy tinged with melancholy as she efficiently guides our focus from one conversation to the next. I would have liked the conversations to flow into each other more freely rather than appear as discreet entities as they sometimes do. Maxwell’s sense of detail extends to making absolutely clear the complex question of which conversations are or are not overheard by others and if overheard exactly by whom. Andrea Lundy’s lighting is key in shifting our focus among the various sets of conversation partners.

If the Shaw’s production of “Bus Stop” is not ideal, it is still very fine. Maxwell’s insightful direction shows us the complex layers of meaning that lie beneath the seemingly uncomplicated surface of the action. The resonance from the various parallel strands of the action cause the play to linger in the mind long after the final curtain. Maxwell clearly understands Inge and I hope she will continue to explore his work.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Happy End

by Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 28-Oct 8, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Duller Cutting Edge"

In 2003 the Shaw Festival’s production of Brecht and Weill's 1929 musical "Happy End" was a great success for everyone involved. While the current remount lacks some of the precision and fire of the original, it is still one of the smartest productions of Brecht and Weill to come along in Ontario in quite some time.

Beyond Michael Feingold’s clever adaptation of the book and lyrics, most of the credit for the show’s success must go to Polish director Tadeusz Bradecki. Too many North American directors get tangled up in Brecht’s theory of the “alienation effect” and forget that its point is not to obscure the story being told but to make us look at more rationally. Bradecki comes from a European tradition where Brechtian techniques have long been integrated into mainstream productions. Thus, rather than battering us with an array of these “V-Effekte”, Bradecki has subtly integrated them into the production itself.

Peter Hartwell’s set has wooden wings that serve for both the gang’s hangout and for the Salvation Army mission. The backdrop is a black cloth with a moveable platform in front that shows it is a “set as set”. A rectangle of cloth, not a cyclorama, with an etching of a big city is the symbolic clue that we are in Chicago. A fore-curtain has the Salvation Army shield and “S” on it, but streaks through the “S” also make it look like a dollar sign. Teresa Przybylski’s period costumes are naturalistic enough, though she gives the Lillian Holiday, the main character, a tunic of a brighter blue to make her stand out from her Sally Ann colleagues. Bradecki demonstrates the “costume as costume” in the simplest possible way by having the actors start to take off their costumes after the finale as the walk away from the audience. They then turn back to the front to sing a reprise of the “Bilbao Song” half divested of their costumes. Jeff Logue’s lighting, appropriately enough, tends toward the expressionistic and theatrical rather than the naturalistic.

More important than the physical production is the stylized acting technique that Bradecki has had the cast adopt. For this to be effective the style must be uniform across the board and that’s exactly what the Shaw company, so used to ensemble work, achieves. The style Bradecki has chosen is, suitably enough, the slightly exaggerated mode of Hollywood gangster movies of the 1930s with its accentuated sudden physical shifts to signal changes in mood and attitude. The result is that the whole work not just the songs and dance numbers appears minutely choreographed. Jane Johanson’s precise, angular choreography for the musical numbers bursts with wit and humour.

The difference in this remount is that a certain jokiness has crept into the production blunting the razor sharp edge of the original. Bradecki had kept the stylized acting from becoming cartoonish in 2003, but that is not always true now. There have also been some significant changes of cast. The most important of these is the replacement of Blythe Wilson with Glynis Ranney in the role of Lillian Holiday. Ranney is a fine performer whose work I have enjoyed on many occasions. It’s interesting to see how differently Ranney interprets the role from Wilson, but ultimately it has to be admitted that Wilson’s approach not only better suited Bradecki’s overall view of the work but also made it much more exciting. Wilson presented the Salvation Army Lieutenant Lillian as person as tough and fanatical as her gangster nemesis Bill Cracker. Wilson sang Weill’s marvelous signature hits, “The Sailors’ Tango” and “Surabaya Johnny”, with an unbeatable mixture of pain and derision, iciness and seduction. This made created an intriguing dynamism between Bill and Lillian that drove the action. Ranney plays Lillian as a waifish young woman who forces herself to stand up to Bill. She relates the songs more closely to operetta than cabaret and brings out their emotion more than their satire. As a result Bill always seems more powerful and the struggle lacking in energy.

Otherwise, the performances are excellent. Benedict Campbell reprises his role as the swaggering Bill Cracker full of sneering menace. Neil Barclay returns as the improbably cross-dressing Sammy Wurlitzer as does Jay Turvey as the fear-mongering Asian caricature that is Dr. Nakamura. Turvey’s punchy rendition of the “Song of the Big Shot” is still a showstopper. Jeff Madden is a likeable innocent as Baby Face Flint. It’s fun to see Patty Jamieson dig into an evil character like the gang’s mysterious ringleader “The Fly”, though Glynis Ranney gave the role a more pathological edge in 2003.

On the side of good, Donna Belleville is very funny as the stolid Major Stone, who can’t conceal her attraction to Sammy Wurlitzer and his organ. Jenny L. Wright is the easily censorious Sister Mary and Julie Martell has a delightful moment as a quivering Sister Jane singing “Don’t be Afraid”. David Leyshon reprises his role as Captain Hannibal Jackson, who has the unfortunate habit of blacking out and falling full-length to the floor.

While it’s a pity the remount has lost its edge, the work itself is as transgressive as ever. In the present political climate it’s exhilarating to hear big business demonized in song, sanctimonious religiosity shredded and the goals of gangsters equated with those of charities. This is definitely a red musical not a “red state” musical. Paul Sportelli, for once conducting a band the same size that the composer intended, brings out all the humour and anger in Weill’s music. It may not be as perfect as it was in 2003, but the show still has enough kick and style to demonstrate why Brecht and Weill’s aggressively subversive art is so appealing.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Donnellys: Sticks & Stones

by James Reaney, directed by Andrey Tarasiuk
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
June 21-Sept 14, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
Your comments and reviews are always welcome


“A Dull Start to a Canadian Classic”


The Stratford Festival has done theatre-lovers a big favour in staging “Sticks & Stones”, the first part of James Reaney’s Donnelly Trilogy. The recent flourishing English Canadian drama has produced few works that after so few years can be called “classics”, but Reaney’s “The Donnellys” is certainly one of them. Students have read the plays and learned about the major impact they have had, but, until now, few people who missed their first production in 1973-75, myself included, have had a chance to see any of them in professional productions. Now Stratford has given us that chance.

That being said, one wishes the current production were better than it is. The 14-member cast who play 100 characters is a mixture of strong actors and weak. The choral work both in voice and movement is not as precise as it should be, and the staging by director Andrey Tarasiuk is not inventive enough.

James Donnelly and his wife Judith immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1842 and eventually settled in Biddulph Township near the small town of Lucan only 30 kilometers from Stratford. They had seven sons and one daughter. On February 4, 1880, a 40-man vigilante group clubbed the couple to death along with one of their sons and a niece visiting from Ireland. They burnt down the house along with the bodies. Though six people were charged. No one was ever convicted.

Reaney’s trilogy seeks to discover what could have led the Donnellys to such a fate. “Sticks & Stones” deals primary with James and Judith’s early trials in their new country and concludes with their decision to stay in Biddulph despite the enmity of the community. To show what happened Reaney’s play ranges back in time to the clannish rivalries between “Black” and “White” in Ireland before the “Black” Donnellys emigrated and forward to their murder and beyond to a time when their story has become legend and a fit subject for travelling players. Indeed, its time scheme includes the present since Reaney has James Donnelly mention at one point that he’s in a play “right now”.

Reaney’s influential storytelling method is non-linear and non-naturalistic. The entire cast narrates the action, sometimes as individuals, sometimes as a chorus, until the action crystallizes into dramatic scenes which the rest may comment on even as they progress. The scenes are linked associatively, more by theme than by cause and effect. Indeed, the point is to show what a tangled number of causes can combine to bring about a single effect, in this case the murder of an entire family.

In her production notes, designer Victoria Wallace says that she and director Andrey Tarasiuk asked themselves, “What’s the least we can work with in terms of visuals and props?” While the original production used a great many props, she says “This new approach gave us an opportunity to listen to the words, the wonderful poetry of the work”. That sounds admirable but it misses the point that what made the Donnelly Trilogy so successful was the very theatricality that they are attempting to avoid. Besides that, if it is minimalism he is after, Tarasiuk should have tried to reduce the cast even further so that so more of them could spend more time acting than standing about.

In his minimalist staging, Tarasiuk does achieve some good effects. One time he has the cast divide into two lines, each person holding a stone, sometimes clashing with each other, sometimes carrying it to the other side and setting it down to show how the borders of the Donnelly farm shift back and forth over the years. Another time he has four men of the cast hoist Andrew Massingham as Tom Cassleigh on their backs suddenly becoming Cassleigh’s wagon and horses. In these instances Tarasiuk uses the cast’s actions imaginatively to reinforce the text. Far too often, however, his imagination does not rise to the level of the text and he is content merely to move the 14-member cast into different geometric patterns that don’t necessarily have anything to do with what they are saying. He calls the play a “tell-and-show” piece, but in his hands there is too much telling and not enough showing.

It doesn’t help that the acting abilities of the cast are so uneven. Diane D’Aquila as Judith Donnelly give the best performance in the show. More than anyone she brings out the rough beauty of Reaney’s poetry and creates a character filled with vitality and indomitable will. Peter van Gestel as her son Will also gives well-realized performance. However, as Judith’s husband James, Robert King cannot match D’Aquila in intensity or in speaking verse. He delivers all of his lines in the same uninspiring drone of dull anger.

Standouts in the rest of the cast include Kate Hurman, as Mrs. Donnelly’s spite-filled neighbour Mrs. Fat, Brad Rudy as the slimy Showman taking his egregious melodrama of the Donnelly story on tour, Andy Valásquez as tavern-keeper Andy Keefe punished for doing trade with the Donnellys and Sarah Wilson who comes into her own towards the end of the play as the Donnellys’ only daughter Jenny. While David Snelgrove makes very clear distinctions among the four characters he plays, Shane Carty, Roger Shank, and Andrew Massingham, rather unhelpfully, do little or nothing to distinguish the three to four roles they each are given.

On opening night there were verbal lapses from virtually everyone in the cast and lack of precision in the choral passages and movement. This suggests that the piece had been under-rehearsed. While we have to be pleased that Stratford is remounting the Donnelly Trilogy at all, we do wish Stratford would do so with the all care and imagination this classic deserves.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Bonhoeffer

by Peter Krummeck, directed by Christopher Weare
Toronto Fringe Festival, Glen Morris Studio Theatre, Toronto
July 7-16, 2005
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

“A Man for Our Times”

Very few of the 134 plays at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival are come from outside Toronto, much less outside Canada. One of the most notable of these is “Bonhoeffer”, presented by ACTS (African Community Theatre Service) of Cape Town, South Africa. “Bonhoeffer” is written by and stars white South African writer and director Peter Krummeck, who with Archbishop Desmond Tutu developed ACTS, a reconciliation-through-drama workshop process, in defiance of the law during the Apartheid era.

Over its 75 minutes and seven scenes, “Bonhoeffer” traces the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) one of the most important Christian theologians of the 20th century. The play begins and ends with Bonhoeffer imprisoned in Nazi Germany. He attempts to explain the many decisions that have brought him to his situation. He helped Jews escape into Switzerland, he formed a group that became the major focus of Christian opposition in Germany while his own Lutheran church did nothing, he returned from safety in New York to Germany because he felt he actively had to fight evil and he was a member of the group inside the Abwehr who failed to assassinate Hitler in 1944. His last years were spent in the concentration camp at Flossenbürg where he was hanged for treason.

The focus of the play is the question of how a Christian is to act when confronted with evil. The image that recurs throughout the play is of watching a maniac driving a car toward a crowd of people. Does the true Christian remain a pacifist? Does he do nothing and hope to comfort the people after they’re injured? Or does he try to stop the driver? As Bonhoeffer realized in his famous formulation, “Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act”.

The play follows the familiar structure of one-person plays about famous people by finding them a some point near the end of their lives narrating while acting out the events that have led him to that point. As author Krummeck begins in this way but gradually has Bonhoeffer address us directly as people not of his time. A device which is supposed to break down the fourth wall here curiously has the opposite effect. Bonhoeffer addresses us as if through a wall of glass while we sit helpless to do anything but watch his fate unfold. Krummeck thus simply and brilliantly has the situation of the audience parallel that of Bonhoeffer’s pacifist Christian.

Krummeck’s performance is amazing. Usually the one-person show is used as a vehicle to show off the actor. Here Krummeck disappears so deeply into the character that we truly feel we are watch Bonhoeffer, not an actor playing that role. He gets the accent down perfectly of an educated German who has learned British English. More importantly, he makes a decent intelligent, self-effacing man vitally interesting. We see a man whose simple heeding of his conscience leads him to martyrdom, without any clichéd histrionics--rather with the sad knowledge that given the time and the place of his life no other outcome could be expected.

The play premiered in 2002 but has become even more relevant. Bonhoeffer’s statement to his keepers (whom he also plays) that their hate-mongering Christianity is not his Christianity, is chilling in light of how religions of peace continue to be distorted into religions of hatred. Bonhoeffer’s position as a man of conscience in a time of war offers an important touchstone for people today. Krummeck’s play, his brilliant performance and Christopher Weare’s clear-sighted direction make this one of the must-see plays of the festival. After Toronto, the play will travel to Winnipeg (July 20-30), Saskatoon (Aug. 5-14), Edmonton (Aug. 19-25) and Vancouver (Sept. 10-16). See it.

©Christopher Hoile


Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Having Hope at Home

by David S. Craig
The Red Barn Theatre (Jackson's Point)
July 8 – 23, 2005
by Barbara Jacobsen, Guest Reviewer for Stage Door
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Tonight, the stars were out in more ways than one as the stellar cast performed, to a packed house, David S. Craig's award-winning play "Having Hope at Home".  This is a hilarious yet touching story of a young, expectant couple,  Carolyn and Michel, (played by Lesley Faulkner and Paul Lemelin) whose simple, rural life-style is about to come belly-to-belly with Carolyn's snooty, upscale parents' expectations. To make matters worse, Carolyn and Michel have opted for a home birth, in spite of the fact that father Bill (Alex Fallis) is a prominent Specialist in Gynecology and mother Jane (Mari Trainor) an ardent and successful hospital fund-raiser!  These highly critical parents, who have not visited the young couple before, have been invited to a peace-offering dinner in the old farmhouse, also inhabited by Grandpa Russell (Mel Downey).  Of course, the home birth issue has not been mentioned even though the mid-wife Dawn (Alison Smiley) is "on call".  Amid the flurry of  preparations, with an understandably nervous Carolyn directing traffic, the fun and - you guessed it - the contractions - begin!   
 
   The stage setting is just right - the interior of an old, ramshackeldy farmhouse which shows signs of decay with insulation sticking out of the cracks in the walls, wallpaper peeling , kitchen cabinets in need of repair --- but some efforts have been made to add a "homey" feeling.  Into this room walk the sophisticated "Invitees" and they are not impressed.  Mother Jane tries her best to be complimentary but, as Carolyn had predicted , she has chosen a completely useless house-gift of a "Birk's box" - containing a Royal Doulton figurine - when what was really needed was a new carburator for the rototiller!  Father wants everyone to know that, in HIS  house, he has just added a new, climate-controlled wine cellar.  In the midst of all this, Carolyn is cramping up , timing her contractions while pretending all is "normal".  Maybe it's just gas?
 
   Each actor "delivered" on cue in this remarkable multi-generational comedy. 
The role of Carolyn was a triumph in every way as the actress showed outstanding versatility.  We watched her move from warmth, sincerity, tenderness to strength of character  and a steely resolve to have every family member become completely honest with each other.  Every mother or mother-to-be felt each pang as she struggled not only to bind her family together but to simultaneously endure the final stages of giving birth. 
 
  What did she see in her rather "Nebbish", ineffective husband, Michel, who was stymied by his pretentious in-laws ? Well, we soon found out.  This young man was not only good with the cows and machinery -- and yes, with him in charge, they'd always be in debt - but the actor movingly conveyed his deep love, devotion and tenderness for his wife .  As for his relationship with his own family -- well it was fine as long as he lived in Ontario and they lived in Quebec! 
 
   If I ever had to choose a mid-wife, I'd pick one like Dawn.  Her character conveyed a warm, capable, calming influence , a woman who took pride in her work and didn't mind speaking out when necessary - we  had no  doubt about where she stood on the subject of home birthing.  A sensitive portrayal  given to this important supporting role. 
 
   As the Father,  Bill remained stiff, rigid and uncompromising until the very last act.  Then Carolyn got him to finally use the "Love" word. It was only then that he came "real" and alive for us. I loved his insightful words , "I hoped my children would end up being better than me - instead, thank god, they ended up being themselves"! 
 
   Poor Mother Jane - caught between a rock and a hard place , she owed allegiance to both husband and child.  This actress gave a multi-facted performance and was able to convey her character's  flexible, sensitive side -   personifying the concept that men build the houses but women fill them . 
 
   I've left the best for the last.  What a tour de force for the actor playing Grandpa Russell!  His crusty, curmudgeonly ways had us rolling in the aisles! 
To him went many of the funniest lines and,  pretending they were his beloved cows, he milked them to the last drop!  Incapacitated by arthritis, (how many can relate?) - he found an innovative way to cut up the carrots, biting off chunks and spitting them into the bowl!  In this play, Grandpa took the cake ----- or should I say the rhubarb pie?
 
   In the end, did every difference get resolved?  No, but there was lots of Hope , maybe influencing the choice of the new baby's name.  After Hope was born, Jane asks her daughter, "May I come to visit sometimes?"  and Carolyn answers , "How often is sometimes?"  leading us to imagine that they are going to take it one step at a time. 
 
   This play, then, raised more questions than answers, regarding  that mysterious realm of family relationships.  But was it entertaining?  YOU BET!
 Were there standing ovations? Not really  - just steady, appreciative clapping,  a smile on every face,  a good feeling , some great theatre and a fine ending to a beautiful evening. 
 
by  Barbara Jacobsen

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Looking

by Norm Foster
Port Stanley Festival Theatre until July 23, 2005
Guest Review by Mary Alderson

Looking Again

If you didn’t catch the new Norm Foster comedy, Looking , when it was playing in Petrolia recently, it is currently on stage at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre. Like Victoria Playhouse Petrolia, Port Stanley has handled Foster’s funny, but touching, script very well.

As I said in this column a few weeks ago, Foster is probably Canada’s most popular and prolific comedy playwright, turning out a string of hits such as The Melville Boys, Wrong for Each Other, Ethan Claymore, and The Foursome

Looking is the story of middle-aged divorcees who are seeking that special someone. After responding to a personal ad, one couple decides to meet, and each brings along a friend to act as a “buffer”. The “buffer” couple hit it off, and the plot takes several twists before the relationships are all sorted out. Foster’s demonstration of the parallel male and female lives is cleverly written.

Kudos to Jim Doucette as Matt and Marcia Tratt as Tina for excellent performances. Wright Staines’ lighting made the simple set work – although the changing of the hinged table and switching the boxes to chairs was sometimes cumbersome. Looking, with just four characters, works well on Port Stanley’s small stage, and it suits the intimacy of the small 140-seat theatre.

Looking continues until July 23 at the Port Stanley Festival Theatre. Call (519) 782-4353 for tickets.

 

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