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|Wiener Blut A Number | The Yalta Game -and- The Bear | Einstein's Gift | Oklahoma |

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Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2006

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

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Wiener Blut

by Johann Strauss, Jr., directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
December 28, 2005-January 8, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Mix-and-Match in Old Vienna"

Before there was “Mamma Mia,” there was “Wiener Blut”. The New York critics who have lately been decrying the so-called “jukebox” or “catalog” musical based on the back catalog of a composer or pop group seem to forget that pastiche music theatre is not a new phenomenon. “Wiener Blut” from 1899 is based on the back catalog of music by Johann Strauss, Jr. and has been in production somewhere in the world ever since. Clearly, what counts is the quality of the back catalog and the cleverness used in fashioning it into a cohesive story.

This is what has kept “Wiener Blut” alive for so long, though its first years were rocky. Strauss originally wanted to arrange and orchestrate melodies from his former compositions himself, but was too unwell to do so. The task fell to Adolf Müller, the house composer and conductor at the Theater an der Wien. Indeed, Strauss died more than four months before the work opened and it proved a complete fiasco. Only after its revival in 1905 with a revised book did it gain entry into the repertoire.

The story set at the time of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15) involves the mistaken identities among three couples--the estranged Count and Countess Zedlau of the miniature state of Reuss Gleiz Schleiz; the dancer Franzi, who is the Count’s mistress, and Prince Ypsheim, who falls in love with her; and the Count’s secretary Josef and the dancer Pepi, who wants to punish Josef for his neglect. The story blames all the infatuations and mix-ups on the intoxicating influence of Vienna itself, on “Wiener Blut” (literally, “Viennese Blood” but meaning “Viennese Spirit”).

As directed by TOT General Director Guillermo Silva-Marin and conducted by Kevin Mallon, the operetta is musically and dramatically a lot of fun and proves a delightful entertainment for those who wish to end the old year or begin the new with the sparkle of Vienna. The show is strongly cast with two crucial exceptions who prevent the production from reaching quite the level of infectious giddiness it ought to have. These are tenor Mark DuBois and soprano Katerina Tchoubar as the Count and Countess. DuBois has given innumerable fine performances over the years and would seem an ideal candidate for the Count. Yet, at least on opening night, he seemed mentally preoccupied and, though able to float lovely high notes, his singing in general seemed to require great effort, thus rather undermining the desired impression of in operetta of suavity and grace. As for Tchoubar, while her upper register is clear and rich, her lower register lacks the power to project through the small TOT orchestra. When we add to this her very indistinct consonants, most of what she sang was unintelligible.

This is a pity since Silva-Marin seemed to look at the Count and Countess plot more seriously than usual. After all, the two have been separated for four months, with each blaming the other. DuBois acted the part well in his major confrontation with the Countess, but Tchoubar seemed content to act her part only on the most generalized level. Playing up the real dissonance between husband and wife helps cut the sentiment, makes the plot less trivial and gives the couple something substantial to overcome by the end. It’s too bad the two singers were unable to capture this vision on stage.

Luckily the other four principals were in fine form and made the evening a pleasure. Soprano Jackalyn Short is best known to Toronto audiences for her appearances with Opera Atelier. It was a pleasant surprise to see her lend such a solid vocal and dramatic presence to Franzi. She found much more in the character than in other productions I’ve seen. Franzi does have an underlying anxiety that she will be cast aside either because the Count with reconcile with his wife or because of new flame he thinks he’s found in Pepi. Short thus gave the piece the kind of dramatic heft it needs while the pinpoint accuracy of her runs and high notes supplied vocal fireworks in abundance.

Unlike when he appeared as the rather formal Prince Sou-Chong in the TOT’s “Land of Smiles” in 2002, it’s now evident tenor Marcel van Neer feels thoroughly at home on stage. His portrait of Josef, who is so obsessed with “order and good governance” in the midst of growing chaos, revealed a perfect sense of comic timing and true comic flair. If Short got the dramatic side of the operetta exactly right, van Neer did precisely the same with its comic side while still fully displaying his customary beauty of tone and phrasing in a truly memorable gem of a performance.

Supporting Short and van Neer were fine performances, vocally and dramatically, from Carla Huhtanen as very peppy Pepi and Sean Watson as a comic Prince Ypsheim. Huhtanen with a crystal clear voice and bubbly personality gave us a delightfully dotty Pepi, who could sing such nonsense refrains as “Dui, Dui, Duri! Dui, Dui, Duri!” and make them seem perfectly natural. Watson was a treat as the stuffy Prime Minister of Reuss Greiz Schleiz, who finds his stern façade cracking in the anything-goes atmosphere of Vienna. Nicole Bower and Rosalind McArthur as two guests at the embassy sang the lovely duet “Geht's und verkauft's mei' Gwand” that opens the third act.

Over the years the TOT has perfected the art of elegant, minimalist staging. David Rayfield’s large hinged French doors when ingeniously folded in various configurations skillfully suggested the three locations the work requires. Cameron More’s lighting enhanced the mood of each scene. Silva-Marin’s direction was lively and straightforward. His updating of the scandals at the Congress of Vienna to reflect the government sponsorship scandals detailed in the Gomery Report was very funny, à propos and could even have been pushed farther.

Conductor Kevin Mallon is most associated with the period instrument band, the Aradia Ensemble. Leading the TOT’s fine 16-member salon orchestra, Mallon drew a clear, clean sound and chose precise tempi that washed away any encrustations of sentiment clinging to this familiar music to make it sound fresh and exciting. The score may be a pastiche, but playing of such conviction proved why it has been so popular for so long.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

A Number

by Caryl Churchill, directed by David Storch
CanStage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto January 12-February 11, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"My Three Sons: The Next Generation"

British playwright Caryl Churchill's play "A Number" from 2002 is now receiving its Canadian premiere at CanStage. It is an absolutely fascinating work that packs more mystery and ideas into its 55
minutes than most plays do in two or three times its length.
Unfortunately, the cast and direction do not always rise to the level of the text.

The play consists of five encounters between an older man named Salter (though no names are used in the dialogue) and a young man who may be his son. "May be" are the all-important words since the action, set sometime in the near future, is about cloning. The first young man named Bernard has come to Salter because he has just seen a man who looks exactly like him and wants Salter to tell him what happened and if he is the original or just a copy. The second young man, also named Bernard, but slightly older and with an air of danger about him visits Salter for the same reasons. Each Bernard comes back for a second confrontation because to their dismay, and ours, Salter does not tell the same story and always alters it under pressure.

The first story is the more palatable. Salter claims that his wife and only son died in a car accident and his had his son cloned because his son was so perfect. The doctors at the hospital, however, did not make one copy, but twenty, supposedly without his knowledge. In his second version he claims that when his wife died his son became unmanageable so at age four he sent him away to have a copy made so that he could "start over" with new one. Again, more copies were made than were authorized. Neither story is satisfactory. Salter insists he will sue the hospital, but in unspecified time covered by the action, he never even begins proceedings. All we know for sure is that the son who finally believes he is the original is bent on killing the copy raised in his place. In the final encounter we meet a third look-alike called Michael Black, who, unlike the first two, seems to be meeting Salter for the first time and is totally unperturbed that he may be a clone.

Churchill's story asks what the fundamental characteristics of identity are--biological, social, cultural. Since all three look- alikes act in completely different ways, she seems to suggest that no matter how well man can replicate nature, nurture and relationships are what define the self. At another level, Churchill asks what we accept as "truth" in a play. What makes us accept that actors who are not related are supposed to be father and son? And how to we make that judgement? By the time Salter meets his third "son", we feel he has experienced a major tragedy, the loss of the two Bernards, even though we can never be certain of the facts behind it.

Director David Storch and designer Robin Fisher have make the set in the Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs an raised runway with the audience on both sides, audience, appropriately enough, staring at audience. On stage are two identical chairs set at the extremes of this runway facing each other--another clever visual metaphor.

Where the production fails is in the actors' handling of the text which consists, not unlike Beckett or Pinter, almost entirely of isolated words and fragments of sentences. Both Gary Reineke as Salter and Shawn Doyle as the three "sons" read these fragments rapidly as if all they signified were anger and confusion. Well- played Beckett or Pinter show that much more can be made of such a text, an atmosphere of dread or hopelessness created or a sense of power games being played. One leaves feeling Storch and the actors have not fully explored the play.

Reineke, really too old for the part, seems more like a grandfather than a father to the younger man but does get more out of the fragments' ambiguities than Doyle. Doyle is excellent at clearly differentiating the three sons, but approaches the fragments only as keys to naturalistic acting. Lighting designer Kimberley Purtell should concentrate on creating atmosphere and not on creating flashing futuristic patterns on the space between the chairs as if we were on the Starship Enterprise. For his part Storch stages the encounters well, but we don't really feel the sense of mounting anxiety that Churchill seems to ask for. She certainly wouldn't want us to exit to the Beach Boys' song "God Only Knows", which succeeds in trivializing the whole evening.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Yalta Game by Brian Friel &
The Bear
by Anton Chekhov

directed by Douglas Beattie
Touchmark Theatre, River Run Centre, Guelph
February 11-18, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Delightful Double-Bill"

Touchmark Theatre closes its 2005-06 season with a delightfully intriguing double-bill of Russian subject matter filtered through an Irish sensibility. First comes “The Yalta Game” adapted by famed Irish playwright Brian Friel from Chekhov’s short story “Lady with the Lapdog” followed by “The Bear”, Friel’s adaptation of an early vaudeville by Chekhov. Both works are expertly directed, designed and performed, just as we’ve come to expect from this fine company.

“The Yalta Game”, which premiered in Dublin in 2001, finds fiftyish roué Dmitry Gurov whiling away his time at a seaside café in Yalta, a resort town on the Black Sea, where Chekhov himself used to spend his summers. Within his purview comes a lady with a lapdog, Anna Sergeyevna, with whom he imagines and then succeeds in having a brief affair. Once separated both come to realize that through what they thought of as merely a casual fling they have in fact met the love of their life. Since they are both married to other people, what can they do?

To this simple plot from Chekhov’s story, Friel adds “Yalta Game” of the title. Late in the story Chekhov says of Dmitry “he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night”. Friel begins the play with this idea. His Dmitry sits at the café playing the “Yalta Game” by
inventing secret or past lives for the various people who stroll by.
Anna is part of these general speculations before he meets her.
Since the play begins with Dmitry’s direct address to the audience, Friel encloses the action in a framework that makes it difficult to distinguish truth from fantasy. Friel also has Anna directly address us, but is her voice a realist counterpoint to Dmitry’s or is it included in his fantasy? Friel thus cleverly places us in the characters’ situation where imagination seems to triumph over reason.

Director and designer Douglas Beattie places the action on an empty, bi-level wooden stage where, except for a few tables and chairs, we have to imagine the various settings. We also have to conjure up from the actors’ gestures the lapdog, who, at one point, is said not actually to be there. Brian Tree is perfect as the fantasist cad, whose cynical view of the world is overturned by meeting Anna. It is a finely detailed portrait of someone whose deprecating view of others proceeds from his own negative view of himself. It’s a pleasure to see this Stratford veteran carry a play like this in a way that festival never seems to allow him. Rebecca Northan is a sensitive, complex Anna, suggesting even before she speaks an unhappiness lurking beneath her surface placidity. That it should burst out in passion and self-recrimination is no surprise.

“The Bear” is an excellent counterpart to “The Yalta Game”. Here, too, a man and a woman move from being strangers to falling in love, but where the situation is imbued with sadness in “The Yalta Game”, it is purely comic in “The Bear”. We meet the widow Elena, who has been mourning the death of her promiscuous husband for a year. Her aged servant Luka urges her to give up her secluded life but Elena insists that she will remain faithful to her husband even if he never did to her. Into her life barges a misogynist lieutenant Gregory, who demands that Elena pay him money her husband owed him or he will go bankrupt and will not leave until she does so. Rather like a Russian provincial version of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict, we detect from the vehemence of their professed dislike of each other the spark of attraction. In one of many ironies, the more we get to know Gregory the more he manifests all the worst traits of Elena’s late husband.

Thom Marriott, big and tall and with a booming voice is ideal as the bear-like soldier of the title. He makes very clear how Elena’s
standing up to him turns from anger to admiration to infatuation.
Rebecca Northan turns in a fine portrayal of Elena hinting through her irritation with Luka that despite what she claims her self- imposed seclusion is becoming irksome. Brian Tree, in the more familiar role as the comic servant, sends the audience into paroxysms of laughter every time Luka, plagued painfully with arthritic knees, has to negotiate a step. His look when Elena commands him “to throw out” the enormous Gregory is priceless.

In 2002 the Soulpepper Theatre Company of Toronto presented “The Bear” in an adaptation by Jason Sherman. Both Sherman’s adaptation and Albert Schultz’s direction treated the play simply as farce. In contrast, both Friel’s adaptation and Beattie’s direction seem more intent on seeing how this skit from 1888 looks forward to Chekhov’s four great full-length plays. Friel’s adaptation makes more a point of the characters’ language showing how Elena fairly rapidly descends from hauteur to the gutter language of Gregory. Beattie concentrates most of the physical comedy on the figure of Luka while exploring the psychological comedy of Elena and Gregory as they like Chekhov’s later characters juggle various states of conscious and unconscious self-deception. As a result, what in other hands seems simply a funny skit takes on a greater, more satisfying resonance.

Given the wall-less set backed by a blank screen, much of the credit for establishing mood and sense of place must go to lighting designer Jeff Johnston-Collins and sound designer Luke De Ruiter, especially in “The Yalta Game” with its frequent changes of location. Under Douglas Beattie Touchmark again achieves a level of production and performance equal to the best of our major classical theatre companies.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Einstein’s Gift

by Vern Thiessen, directed by Susan Ferley
Grand Theatre, London
February 10-25, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
(Mary Alderson's review follows)

"The Use and Abuse of Science"

 

London’s Grand Theatre is currently presenting a well-cast, handsomely mounted production of Vern Thiessen’s Governor General’s Award-winning play “Einstein’s Gift”.  If the production never really seems to catch fire, it has mostly to do both with the direction and with the play itself.  Yet, there is no doubt that the play’s subject matter concerning the use and abuse of science is both important in itself and highly relevant today.
 
The title of the play is misleading since the main character is not Albert Einstein, who serves as narrator, but Fritz Haber (1868-1934), winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918, and, until recently, largely forgotten.  Haber received the Nobel Prize for the “fixation of nitrogen from the air”, a process conceived to fertilize soil that prevented the starvation of millions after World War I and on which billions of people still depend.  The same process, however, could also be used to make chlorine gas, a use the German military exploited in World War I and which Haber supported, thus earning him the dubious title as the “father of chemical warfare”.  Haber, in fact, personally oversaw the first “successful” release of poison gas at Ypres and on the Eastern Front.  In the 1920s he sought unsuccessfully to extract gold from seawater as a means for Germany to pay its war reparations.  Later he developed a cyanide gas called Zyklon B to be used as an insecticide.  The Nazis found another application when they used it in extermination camps.  Members of Haber’s own family were killed there with Zyklon B.
 
Thiessen has constructed the play so that its two acts reflect each other.  In Act 1 Haber converts from Judaism to Christianity because he knows it will improve his chances for advancement in Germany.  At the end of Act 2, he returns to Judaism, in exile from a Nazi Germany that still regards him as Jewish.  Act 1 focusses on Haber’s meeting his first wife Clara and on the positive and negative outcomes of his fixation of nitrogen.  Act 2 focusses on he meeting his second wife Charlotta and his development of Zyklon B.
 
The play begins in 1945 with Einstein reflecting on his friendship with Haber and proceeds to guide us through Haber’s life.  On the one hand, Thiessen uses Einstein, a theoretical physicist, as the opposite of Haber, who believes strongly in applied science.  The warning Haber’s life poses twice over for Einstein is that any development in science, theoretical or not, can be used for mankind’s betterment or its destruction.  To make that point, though, it is not necessary that Einstein be the narrator.  It’s rather like writing a play about Salieri’s life with Mozart as the narrator.  One suspects that Thiessen has used Einstein to make the play more accessible and put his name in the title to generate interest.  “Haber’s Gift” would, in fact, be a more appropriate and ironic title, especially since the word “Gift” means “poison” in German.  Having the figure of Einstein skulk about the stage, watching the scenes he is recounting and, besides playing himself, taking on bit parts as photographer and such, seems faintly ridiculous.
 
The production is well cast.  Jerry Etienne gives Haber a strict, stiff Prussian personality whose instinct is to repress emotion.  Except for one outburst near the very end, Thiessen gives us little opportunity to discover what Haber thinks of the numerous contradictions in his life and work.  In absence of this, Etienne creates the sense of a man who lives behind a façade of received ideas and makes us wonder what kind of catastrophe it will take to shatter it.  Haysam Kadri is a very believable, albeit rather too handsome, Einstein, whose tone of voice brings out the work’s sense of chastened nostalgia.  Einstein was young once, too, and it is good to avoid caricature, but one doesn’t really imagine him moving with the grace and agility Kadri gives him.
 
Claire Jullien is excellent as Haber’s first wife Clara Immerwahr, a scientist in her own right who helps Haber with his work but, despite her intelligence, has to contend with taking second place.  Jullien shows us this growing undercurrent of unease that finally breaks out when Clara is outraged at her husband’s support for chemical warfare.  Clara’s story is so interesting it’s a pity she disappears at the end of Act 1.  As Haber’s second wife Charlotta, Adrienne Gould equally fine as an outgoing, life-loving woman in contrast to Jullien’s introverted Clara.  Shane Carty does as much as he can with the role of Haber’s friend Otto, but Thiessen doesn’t lay enough groundwork to prepare us for Otto turnabout late in the play.  William Vickers and Darren Keay both play three roles each.  Vickers is especially good as the Nazi supervisor Rust, who tells Haber he must fire all the non-Aryan faculty at his institute.  Vickers uses smiles, politeness and a calming tone as Rust metaphorically puts a dagger to Haber’s throat.  Unfortunately, Thiessen gives Keay little to do in any of his roles.    
 
The physical production is very appealing.  John Thompson has created a clever set of faux-granite and marble suggesting the halls of academe when so many of the scenes take place.  A moving wall dividing the set into front and back cleverly facilitates scene changes and suggests the world of external and internal divisions the characters inhabit.  Judith Bowden has designed attractive period costumes in creams and browns.  So much fun is made of Einstein’s wearing the same jacket over thirty years, one wonders why she did not make it look as worn as it’s said to be.  Andrea Lundy’s lighting casts an autumnal glow over most of the scenes but shifts to an appropriate harshness for scenes on the battlefield.
 
Despite the top-notch cast, an air of lassitude seems to inform the action.  Part of the blame has to go to director Susan Ferley, who gives the same unvaried pacing to the entire evening.  But most of the blame must rest with Thiessen himself who is so occupied in marching us through his chronology that he gives his characters virtually no time for reflection.  Even Einstein as narrator does little more than tick off the passing years rather than comment on them.  We get the fairly simple message that science can be used for good or evil, but to be more fully engaged with the characters, we would really like to know more about what these people caught up in such turbulent times think about what is happening and what they are doing.
 
As a play about science, “Einstein’s Gift” cannot touch a play like Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” (1998).  Not only does the latter play have a more elegant structure, but it is also entirely concerned with the interpretation of events.  It makes more demands on its audience but as a result is also more rewarding.  I am pleased that Thiessen has brought such a complex, equivocal figure like Fritz Haber to our attention, but I wish he had done so in a more innovative and compelling fashion.
 
©Christopher Hoile                                      

                       

 Your comments and reviews are always welcome

 

And here is Mary Alderson's review of
Einstein's Gift:

 

Thought-provoking and entertaining theatre

One might think that Einstein’s gift was his genius. But in the current production at the Grand Theatre, Einstein’s gift is the spirituality that he gives to his colleague Fritz Haber.  This makes the title of the play that much more intriguing – Einstein, by his own admission, was a non-practising, non-observant Jew. Einstein’s Gift is the story of Fritz Haber, with Albert Einstein as the narrator.  The story itself is what makes this a great play, and credit goes to Canadian playwright Vern Thiessen who brilliantly turned a fascinating true story into a great stage play.  Director Susan Ferley recognized the quality of the play and assembled a cast of superior actors to present this interesting tale.  All the key roles are filled by Stratford Festival regulars.

Einstein and Haber are colleagues – scientists, researchers and professors, as the 20th century unfolds. Einstein, played by Haysam Kadri, leads the audience to believe they are friends, while Haber (Jerry Etienne) views their relationship as almost adversarial.  Einstein loves the theory behind science and shows little interest in the end results of his work, while Haber, the elder of the two, appreciates science only for its practical uses. We learn more about Haber through his relationships:  with his two wives, Clara Immerwahr (Claire Jullien) and Charlotta (Adrienne Gould), and with his research assistant Otto (Shane Carty).  Completing the cast is William Vickers as the Christian deacon and the Nazi government minister, and Darren Keay in various supporting roles.

When we meet Haber, he is frustrated by being rejected for university professorships because he’s a Jew.  He forsakes his Jewish faith and is baptized a Christian, as he realizes this is the only way he’ll advance his academic career.  Later his wife faces a similar situation.  Although a brilliant Ph.D., she is excluded from academia for being a woman. She works on Haber’s research at home, receiving no credit, and commits suicide when she sees the horrors their joint work has wrought.  

Haber starts out as an idealist, vowing to use science to better society.  He invents nitrogen fertilizer, so that European farmers can increase production and feed the growing population, which could otherwise starve.  Unfortunately, the chlorine gas he developed in his fertilizer research is used as chemical warfare by the Germans in the First World War.  But in his extreme patriotism for Germany he embraces the cause and works in the German army.

In the 1930’s, his research in agriculture leads him to invent insecticides to improve food production.  But the Nazis use this as poison gas to kill Jews in the work camps. When the Nazis finally reject him based on his Jewish background, he flees Germany.  When Einstein visits him, he’s a broken, sad man, and Einstein presents him with a gift of a Jewish prayer shawl and yarmulke.

At this point in the play, Einstein still appears to be a young man, but Haber has aged considerably.  While there is an 11-year age difference, one would expect Einstein to look older.  Presumably, Einstein as narrator is more of a spirit who glides in and out of scenes, than a character in the story.  We assume that Einstein will age when his scientific discovery is used to create the atomic bomb that kills so many Japanese.

Thiessen has cleverly worked some comedy into the very serious plot – Haber is a great story-teller and it’s amusing to see the facts of the story change to suit the point he is trying to make in that instance.  There are also some lighter moments in the dialogue as the two geniuses spar – to make the story more intriguing they both fence and debate.

This study in patriotism, which leads to pride, arrogance, hubris and its downfall, keeps the theatre audience mesmerized.  The very simple set and the shadowed lighting is perfect, as it doesn’t interfere with the thought-provoking message.

This play will capture the attention of students of German history, chemists, physicists, those of the Jewish faith, and anyone who appreciates good theatre. The Grand, with brilliant direction and an excellent cast, has forced us to question and think.  Vern Thiessen wrote Einstein’s Gift in 2003:  we look forward to seeing many more of his works produced.

Einstein’s Gift continues at the Grand Theatre in London until February 25.  Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593. 

 Mary Alderson, a resident of Strathroy, offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis.   As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who is currently the Community Economic Development Officer with the Sarnia-Lambton Business Development Corporation. 

 

Oklahoma!

by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
directed by Max Reimer & David Connolly
Theatre Aquarius, Dofasco Centre, Hamilton
February 24-March 11, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

 

"You’re Doin’ Fine, ‘Oklahoma!’"

 

Theatre Aquarius is currently presenting a straightforward, entertaining production of the great old musical “Oklahoma!” as part of its celebration of Max Reimer’s tenth anniversary as Artistic Director.  This first collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II is so full of dancing and well-known melodies, it’s surprising there has been no major professional revival of it in Southern Ontario before now.  Toronto hasn’t seen it for ages and neither the Stratford nor Shaw Festival has ever presented it.  All the more reason, then, to head over to Hamilton to catch a performance at the Dofasco Centre.

 

“Oklahoma!” from 1943 is from the golden days of the American musical when having only one memorable song was not enough to make a show a hit.  “Oklahoma!” boasts one great tune after another--“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’”, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “Kansas City”, “I Cain’t Say No”, “People Will Say We’re in Love” and, of course, the title song among many others.  Act 1 ends with the innovative 15-minute “Dream Ballet”, originally choreographed by Agnes de Mille, in which the central character imagines her fate with the two men vying to take her out later that day.  “Oklahoma!” is one of the first musicals where dance sequences are not simply interludes but move the action forward. 

 

The story is simple although its implications are not.  Laurey, a young woman on a farm in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 20th century, loves the cowboy Curly and he loves her, but each is too proud to admit it.  To spite Curly, Laurey says she’ll go to the box social (a party where girls’ lunch baskets are auctioned off for charity) with her farmhand Jud Fry.  Jud, however, is pathologically obsessed with Laurey.  His moodiness and habit of collecting pornographic postcards make one worry should Laurey find herself alone with him.  Meanwhile, in operetta fashion, this main plot is paralleled with a comic subplot in which Ado Annie, the girl who “Cain’t Say No”, is unable to choose between the itinerant Persian peddler Ali Hakim, who just wants to get her in bed, and the cowboy Will Parker, who wants to marry her if only he can get the $50.00 together that her father demands.  All these tensions come to a head at two communal meetings in Act 2.

 

Theatre Aquarius has assembled an excellent cast.  Amy Walsh gives one of her best-ever performances as Laurey.  Her bright soprano is ideal for conveying both Laurey’s innocence and her determination.  Not only is she a fine singer and actor, but she is also an accomplished dancer and moves with beautiful poise throughout the “Dream Ballet”.  Paul Nolan is a real find as Curly.  He may not have the rich baritone associated with the role on recordings and film, but he makes up for it by being matched in age with Laurey and having a voice appropriate to a young man.  While Walsh delivers her songs in an operetta style, Nolan tends to choose a pop style but always comes through with a big voice and strong top notes when needed.  He’s also a fine actor and dancer and, what’s especially important for this role, has that mysterious something called charisma.  George Masswohl as Jud gives the most intense and complex performance of the evening.  He shows a man who has been beaten down and despised so long he has begun to despise himself.  His belief that Laurey likes him seems to be the only thing that keeps him going.  Masswohl makes Jud a slow-witted, unattractive character but one for whom we feel both fear sympathy.  If “Oklahoma!” were “The Great Gatsby”, Masswohl makes Jud the George Wilson figure, one of society’s outcasts excluded from life celebrations by a callous world.  The audience rightly greeted his curtain call with a roar of acclaim.

 

Among the comic characters, Jennifer Waiser is hilarious as a squeaky-voiced Ado Annie.  Jay Davis as an athletic Will Penny, the one so bowled over by Kansas City, is much better as an actor and dancer than as a singer.  Ed Sahely shows what a master of comic timing and intonation he is as Ali Hakim.  Karen K. Edissi is a pleasure throughout as Laurey’s good-hearted Aunt Eller, Kara Purdy has come up with a truly annoying laugh for man-crazy Gerty Cummings and Sandy Winsby has a wonderful scene at the end as Andrew Carnes, a judge whom people heed only when it’s convenient.

 

Jean Claude Olivier has created a simple set with two solid building fronts on opposite sides of the stage between a painted scrim and backdrop evoking the wide open spaces of the Plains.  By contrast, the smokehouse room for Jud is claustrophobic and reflects a man’s mind that has turned in on itself.  Michelle Vanderheyden has designed a lovely set of period costumes that stay within the sunny palette of the piece.  Kevin Fraser’s lighting enhances every scene but is particularly effective when a mood of menace of conflict is called for. 

 

“Oklahoma!” is directed and choreographed by Max Reimer and David Connolly.  Their choreography is lively and at its most inventive in the box social scene in Act 2 when events start to descend into chaos, but overall it tends to be over-reliant on a small repertoire of staple moves.  As directors, the two deserve credit from not attempting to skim over the show’s darker aspects.  Why hasn’t Laurey told Jud off before now since he always spies on her, and why does she use him to make Curly jealous?  How nice a guy can Curly be in visiting Jud to try to play on his despair to drive him to suicide?  And why does Hammerstein emphasize that the happy ending comes at the expense of true justice?  Reimer and Connolly bring all this out and as a result make the musical a richer experience.

 

My main complaint with the Theatre Aquarius production has to do with the sound.  The 11-piece band under conductor Steve Thomas uses two keyboards to simulate the sound of strings but includes only a bass as a real stringed instrument.  As a result the accompaniment sounds distinctly undernourished and artificial.  It always helps to have at least one violin in the pit to give an authentic timbre that a synthesizer can help fill out.  Besides that, two thirds of the pit is covered making the orchestral sound boxy and monaural.  As has become common in musicals, all the singers were miked, but whoever was manning their microphones was frequently too slow in switching them on in time, so that opening words were often missed, and off in time, so that we got to hear the dancers panting after their exertions.  The amplification was also not set at a uniform level with some too lous and some too soft.  The production had already had two previews and four regular performances by the time I saw it--time when such technical problems should already have been solved.

 

Luckily imprecise miking is the only blot on an otherwise highly enjoyable evening.  Once that is fixed this excellent, energetic cast can be even more confident that they are showing off “Oklahoma!” for the great work it is.

  

©Christopher Hoile

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Lady in the Dark

by Kurt Weill, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
February 17-19, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

 

"Elizabeth Beeler Lights Up the Dark"

 

Toronto audiences owe the Toronto Operetta Theatre a major debt of thanks for staging the Canadian premiere of Kurt Weill’s legendary musical “Lady in the Dark” (1941) and doing so in such an elegant, inventive production.  By focussing on the characters and their relationships and by taking them seriously, director Guillermo Silva-Marin gets right to the heart of this groundbreaking musical and makes us see it for the fascinating work is. 

 

“Lady in the Dark”, with a book by Moss Hart and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, tells the tale of Liza Elliott, the successful editor of the women’s fashion magazine “Allure”.  She has been having an affair with a married man, Kendall Nesbit, the magazine’s founder, and is being romantically pursued by matinee idol Randy Curtis.  Lately, though, she has been feeling miserable and after lobbing a paperweight at co-worker Charley Johnson, she realizes she is losing control and seeks help from psychoanalyst Dr. Brooks.  Liza insists her problems have nothing to do with these men but are related to a song she can’t get out of her mind.  Brooks assures her the answer lies in her subconscious mind and asks to relate the vivid dreams she has been having.

 

“Lady in the Dark” was an experimental work in 1941 and still is today.  Rather than alternating dialogue with separate musical numbers, “Lady in the Dark” groups all the music into four discreet, extended sections representing Liza’s dreams.  Ordinary speech thus represents the waking state and music the subconscious.  There are plusses and minuses in this radical structure.  On the plus side, the world of dreams gives Weill and Gershwin an immense freedom to expand the boundaries of what popular music can do.  Together they achieve a complexity that really is not seen again in musicals until Sondheim greatest works.  On the minus side, the sections of Hart’s dialogue are much longer than usual and, given the imaginative exuberance of the dream sequences, inevitably, pale in comparison.  The musical may thus be inherently flawed, but flawed in such an interesting way that it does not deserve the production limbo into which it has fallen. 

 

Above all the show provides a showcase for an accomplished singer-actress in the demanding role of Liza.  Elizabeth Beeler is simply wonderful.  She achieves the difficult task of making Liza vulnerable enough so that we can believe she would seek help and be shaken by its revelations, yet tough enough that so that we can believe she is a success in the competitive, male-dominated world of magazine editing.  Beeler gives Liza such a winning personality that her performance alone creates the strong throughline the musical needs to link the spoken sections with the musical sequences.  She is sassy and sophisticated in the great song “One Life to Live”, she makes the long narrative “The Princess of Pure Delight” a pure delight and gives a knockout performance of “The Saga of Jenny”.  At the preview I attended this last deservedly received the loudest and longest round of applause for a single song that I’ve heard in years of attending TOT productions.

 

Of the other cast members only Thom Allison in the Danny Kaye role of gay fashion photographer Russell Paxton is equally adept at commanding the stage in both the spoken and sung sections of the work.  He has such presence and poise the energy level on stage noticeably increases whenever he appears.  He rattled off the tongue-twisting patter song “Tschaikowsky” (made up solely of the names of fifty Russian composers) as if were the easiest thing in the world.

 

Fred Love gives a fine performance of “This Is New”, but needs to rev up a notch his portrayal of movie star Randy Curtis.  He does show the ordinary guy beneath the Hollywood image, but needs to project that image more strongly.  Curtis Sullivan has to wait until the very end to show off his fine baritone.  In the meantime his portrayal of Charley Johnson comes off more like a Western ranch-hand than a New York advertising manager.  Stuart Graham is a fine singer but this musical requires a stronger actor in the role of Kendall Nesbitt.  Sean Curran makes a good impression the non-singing role of Dr. Brooks by sounding professional and authoritative while avoiding the clichés that often attend stage portrayals of doctors.  Peter Buzny has a good cameo as Ben, a boy Liza knew in high school who turns his attention to Liza only because he’s miffed at his real girlfriend.  Rosalind McArthur shows real comic flair as Liza’s tough-talking assistant administrator Maggie, but should choose one accent and stick with it.

 

In his director’s note, Guillermo Silva-Marin states that the TOT does not have the resources to present the dream sequences with full production values.  It’s true that with its fashion magazine setting and four dream worlds to present that the show could easily eat up a large budget.  It also could easily become a show about production values rather than about the story.  In fact, the TOT’s limited budget has the advantage of keeping our focus on the story.  Silva-Marin as designer creates through a few well-chosen design features a black-and-white Art Deco world that recalls big city films from the 1930s and’40s.  Colour makes an appearance only in selected gowns Liza wears, most notably the stylish blue gown of the “Glamour Dream” whose colour symbolism vis-à-vis Liza is not revealed until the end.  Silva-Marin signals the dream sequences through stylized movement simple additions (or subtractions) to the ensemble’s wardrobe and subtle changes in lighting.  Given the major role music plays in marking the difference between reality and dream, we really need no more than these minimal visual cues.

 

One of the joys of the evening is hearing the work as it would have sounded in 1941--unmiked and in his original orchestration for 13-piece band including three trumpets and trombone.  Under conductor Jeffrey Huard the band produces a gorgeous sound and revels in Weill’s complex rhythms and rich, piquant sonorities.  The Entr’acte with its impression of a jazz band jamming is particularly impressive as is the dazzling Circus Dream sequence with its references to Sullivan and Prokofiev.  The TOT chorus, many of whom had small individual parts, sings gloriously throughout.   

 

Even if sections of dialogue do not always come off as well as they might, one leaves feeling privileged finally to have seen this famous work and lucky that Toronto has a company like the TOT willing to take on the challenge of presenting it.  I, for one, would gladly see it again especially with the marvelous Ms. Beeler in the title role.

 

©Christopher Hoile

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Past Perfect

by Michel Tremblay, directed by Leah Cherniak
Tarragon Theatre, Toronto
February 28-April 2, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

 

"Six Times is Not the Charm"

 
The Tarragon Theatre is currently presenting the Toronto premiere of Michel Tremblay’s “Past Perfect” (“Le Passé antérieur”) in Linda Gaboriau’s translation.  The play premiered in Montreal in 2003.  The main character is Albertine, who features in several of Tremblay’s novels but is best known from the play “Albertine, in Five Times” (“Albertine, en cinq fois”) from 1984.  In that play Tremblay has five actresses portray Albertine at ages 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70 who interact with each other and with her sister Madeleine, portrayed by only one actress.  “Past Perfect” is solely concerned with one evening in the life of Albertine at age 20.  While it may seem that this prequel fills us in on the missing decade in Albertine’s life, it does not, in fact, tell us anything we could not have deduced from the earlier play.  “Past Perfect” an immeasurably lesser work made worse by misguided direction.       
 
The intermissionless 105-minute-long play is set in the 1930s.  Albertine has supposedly recovered from a nervous breakdown brought on when her boyfriend Alex dumped her for her younger sister Madeleine.  In fact, she is still consumed with rage and passion and has donned her sister’s new dress hoping to meet Alex when he comes by for Madeleine and to win him back.  In a series of one-on-one confrontations, Albertine’s mother, her sister, her brother and finally Alex himself each tell Albertine that her ploy is futile, that she should face reality, that she should listen to others for a change and that her self-centredness drives people away.  To counter them, Albertine insists that no one understands her because her passion is so absolute. 
 
The first problem with the play is that its central character is not merely unsympathetic but actively obnoxious and does not change in the course of the action.  Indeed, Albertine’s primary stance is that she will not change.  One might think when Alex himself says he does not and did not love her that Albertine might come to her senses, but, no, she insists that he is wrong.  The second problem is that the play is inherently repetitive.  Since Albertine refuses to change we basically see the same conversation four times in a row.  The reappearance of her mother at the end makes it five.  Rather than the richness of “Albertine, in Five Times”, “Past Perfect” gives the impression of thin material that long overstays its welcome.
 
To make matters worse, director Leah Cherniak has decided to fix the play by emphasizing its metatheatricality.  It is clear from the text that Albertine is caught up not in the passion of love as she thinks but in the passion of playing someone spurned in love.  As if the play did not already underscore this five times, Cherniak decides that Caroline Cave will act the role of Albertine in a highly theatrical manner to contrast with the naturalism of the other four characters. 
 
The trouble is that Cherniak has an extraordinarily limited view of theatricality.  Cave shouts and snarls all her lines from start to finish, strikes poses and indulges in all manner of melodramatic gestures.  As if to justify this approach Cherniak has clips of films from the 1930s screened on the back wall of the set.  This backfires because one can’t help but notice how subtly and elegantly Greta Garbo and Bette Davis suffer compared to the screaming harpy Cherniak has made of Albertine.
 
Cave has shown on numerous occasions what a subtle actor she is, but Cherniak’s direction gives her no room for subtlety.  She has Cave begin at such a high volume level and in a mode so over the top that she leaves her nowhere to go for the rest of the play.  It’s to Cave’s credit that she is able to carry off such trying display of intensity with no sign of exhaustion.
 
In contrast, Cherniak has directed the other four characters to give understated performances.  This also has drawbacks.  As Victoire, Albertine’s long-suffering mother, Nancy Beatty is at once an instantly familiar Tremblay character, but her low-key delivery of lines means they are not always clearly articulated.  Claire Calnan, who on the night I saw her seemed to have a bad cold, presents Madeleine as a much weaker figure than one would expect from “Albertine, in Five Times”.  It’s impossible to see how Madeleine would remain Albertine’s primary confidante for decades to come.  Jeffrey R. Smith is well cast as Albertine’s gay brother Édouard and is best at suggesting that an underlying rapport exists between them despite their professed dislike.  From Brendan Gall’s first entrance as Alex we know instantly he is no match for Albertine in either passion or desire to fight.  Gall plays him as such a milquetoast it’s hard to see how he could possible be the unwavering focus of Albertine’s all-consuming passion.  Indeed, if Cherniak’s goal is to make Albertine look ridiculous, her direction of Gall does the trick.
 
In accordance with Cherniak’s use of film clips, designer Yannik Larivée places heavy red curtains on either side of the back wall as if Albertine’s living room were also a cinema.  On the square thrust stage he has placed the family’s shabby furniture on a revolve.  On the one hand, this introduces some sense of movement into a static situation.  On the other hand, the revolve makes only one complete turn during the action thus reinforcing the feeling that absolutely nothing has happened in the play.  Albertine is emotionally (and literally) in exactly the same spot as when the play started except that her irrational position has become even more entrenched.  As is so often the case with prequels, many people after seeing “Past Perfect” will wish that Tremblay had left well enough alone since this Albertine is so immeasurably narrower a person than the woman of “Albertine, in Five Times.”
 
©Christopher Hoile           

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings

Music by A.R. Rahman, Värttinä with Christopher Nightingale,
book and lyrics by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus,
directed by Matthew Warchus
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
March 23, 2006-open run
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
 

"Too Precious"

 
Costing about $27 million dollars (Canadian) and billed as the most expensive theatrical event ever staged, the stage version of “The Lord of the Rings” has finally opened at the Princess of Wales Theatre.  As it turns out LOTR is not the disaster some feared nor is it the brilliant success one might have hoped for.  The show does far better than one might expect in the dubious goal turning J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy into a single evening’s entertainment, but the creators still need to decide what they want to do most with the story--to make it sing, to impress us visually or to tell the story well.  They accomplish the second, but should forget the first and concentrate on the third.
 
When LOTR was first announced it was billed as a musical.  It is not a musical and LOTR publicity no longer claims it is.  Rather, it is a theatrical spectacle bursting with technical wizardry, a 3 1/2 hour-long play dominated by talk and action accompanied by continual orchestral music.  Songs arise only when characters might naturally sing whether to celebrate, comfort or entertain.  Indian composer A.R. Rahman’s sweeping exotic action film scoring contrasts nicely with Finnish folk group Värttinä’s homey Hobbit melodies. 
 
The idea of trying to condense a thousand-page epic to material for one evening seems hopelessly quixotic.  After all, filmmaker Philip Jackson needed nine hours of film to tell the story and still had to leave much out.  To add largely unnecessary songs to the tale means that there is even less time to tell the story.  Authors Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus spend half the running time on the trilogy’s first book, then fast forward to the ending.  As a result anyone unfamiliar with the novels or films will likely have difficulty following the story.
 
The quest of the Hobbits Frodo and Sam as aided by the wizard Gandalf and hindered by the corrupted Hobbit Gollum becomes the main plot.  The friendship of Frodo and Sam is the show’s one solid emotional anchor.  The only subplot to receive much attention is the romance between the human Aragorn (known as Strider) and the half-elf Arwen, who must forego immortality if she chooses to marry Aragorn.  Unless you’ve seen the film you won’t know that the huge red eye projected on the back wall represents Sauron and even then the show never makes clear who he is.  The same is true of the broken sword Narsil of King Elendil, the kind of detail whose meaning only Tolkien aficionados will know.  Those fans will be happy to know that this LOTR, unlike the film, includes Gandalf’s and Frodo’s final meetings with Saruman.  
 
The show’s design is terrific.  As you enter the auditorium of the Princess of Wales Theatre you may be disoriented by moving leaf patterns on the floor.  That is because before the show and during the action and intermissions, the auditorium is lit for effect just like the stage. Designer Rob Howell’s fantastic set of intertwining tree branches extends from the proscenium over the ceiling and across the first boxes on the sides of the theatre to envelop us in the world of Middle Earth.  The Hobbits are already busy with the task of catching fireflies requiring them to run through and over seats while to try to find your place.  It may be a throwback to the environmental approach of “Cats”, but it creates a warm, whimsical mood right from the start.   
 
Howell’s costumes are very similar to those in the films with the wizards in hooded cloaks, the elves in white and the Hobbits in earth tones.  His imagining of the circus-trained Orcs, Black Riders and Ents is a particular triumph, the first on boots with bent metal springs and the second two on stilts.  Audience members may not even see the disappointing tin-foil Balrog that does battle with Gandalf in Act 1 since at that moment wind machines blow huge quantities of smoke and black paper “ashes” into the audience.  The giant spider Shelob that does battle with Sam in Act 3 is much more effective because there is no attempt to hide the black-clad assistants manipulating its legs.  Throughout the show clouds scud across the cyclorama at the back of the stage, changing in nature to accord with the mood of the action.            
 
Dominating the stage is a 40-tonne, three-ringed revolve fourteen metres in diameter containing seventeen independent elevators, the centre of which can rise three metres above the stage.  It is used to thrilling effect in travelling and battle scenes.  Frequently characters chase across the three rings while the rings are in motion and while the elevators simultaneously reshape the landscape traversed with their rising and falling.  It’s an impressive piece of machinery, but inevitably you find yourself watching more what it is doing than what the actors are doing on it.  Worse, director Matthew Warchus is often tempted to use it for spectacle at the expense of narrative clarity.  His staging of the climactic struggle between Frodo and Gollum on Mount Doom is hopelessly confused.
 
The producers have assembled an absolutely top-notch cast.  James Loye and Peter Howe play Hobbit friends Frodo and Sam with great feeling.  The change in Frodo’s mood under the malign influence of the ring and Sam’s mounting concern and vigilance over him become the core of the entire drama.  Carly Street’s Arwen and Evan Buliung’s Aragorn radiate heroism and love tinged with sadness.  Brent Carver is basically too young to play Gandalf.  He suggests the wizard’s world-weariness but the old man voice he puts on communicates weakness not authority.  Michael Therriault has the juiciest role as the decrepit Gollum, once a Hobbit known as Sméagol, obsessed with regaining his “precious”, the ring.  He’s a tortured character in which good and evil constantly vie for dominance.  But Therriault, in full scenery-chewing mode, gives him so many tics and twitches it’s distracting.  Since he screeches out all his lines it’s difficult for far too long to tell which personality is which.
 
The rest of the cast have very little to do.  Owen Sharpe and Dylan Roberts as Frodo’s Hobbit companions Pippin and Merry are given no room to develop their personalities and come off more as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.  Richard McMillan as the evil wizard Saruman, curiously costumed like a Chinese mandarin, periodically strides in to growl at people and exit.  Cliff Saunders as Bilbo Baggins does create at least a rough sketch of the Hobbit who brought the ring back to the Shire, but such fine actor/singers as Victor A. Young and Gabriel Burrafato as the elves Elrond and Legolas make the most of their few lines but otherwise simply stand about looking noble.  Shawn Wright does get a chance to bring out the humour in Barliman Butterbur and especially in the painstakingly deliberate Treebeard, but Dion Johnstone’s Boromir is killed off before we get a chance to know him.       
 
Among the women Rebecca Jackson Mendoza’s Galadriel seems to have dropped in from Las Vegas not Lothlórien.  The gooey Celine Dion-like ballad she’s given serves no purpose and is delivered in a casino style alien to the rest of the show.  Ayrin Mackie makes Éowyn an appealing character but, as with Boromir, her plotline is over only moments after it begins.  Through demeanour more than words Kristin Galler shows Rosie Cotton to be a simple, honest fun-loving Hobbit girl, enough really to see why Sam loves her.       
 
The producers seem to have made three fundamental mistakes in approaching the material.  First, to begin with the conception of LOTR as a musical was wrong-headed.  Instead, the focus should have been on telling the story on stage as well as possible and if music comes to play a part, so much the better.  This is the situation the producers have arrived at, but sequences like the long, pointless song-and-dance number at the Painted Pony Inn or Galadriel’s equally pointless ballad are relics of this earlier conception that literally stop the action in a show that is already pressed for time.  Second, the producers should not have been fixated on the idea of telling such an epic tale in only one evening.  The fact that the first preview lasted 5 1/2 hours should have indicated that they had more material than a single evening could hold.  The RSC had a major success with its two-part “Nicholas Nickleby” as did the RNT with its two-part “His Dark Materials”, both presented to sell-out crowds.  LOTR, with a fan-base even larger than for a lesser Dickens novel or Philip Pullman’s trilogy, could surely have stood a two-part treatment and would have become more of an event at the same time.  The third error is the belief in expensive machinery over imagination.  While the central revolve is a marvelous device, it is Paul Pyant’s sensational lighting that more than any other single element is responsible for creating a sense of mood and setting throughout the show. 
 
Indeed, despite all the ultra-high-tech accoutrements, the simplest scenes are the best.  Visually the most beautiful scene is when Bilbo recounts the time when the Hobbit Déagol dived deep into a river to retrieve the ring and we see actor Joel Benson “swim” down from the above the proscenium to the stage floor to illustrate the narrative.  Emotionally, the high points are also simple--Aragorn’s leave-taking from Arwen or Sam singing to Frodo to calm his fears.  If only there were more moments like these, the show could fill us with wonder.  Here, not in million-dollar machinery, the real magic lies. 
 
©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

And Speaking of Feedback ...

We thought LOTR was SPECTACULAR.

We disagree with critics who have ravaged the acting (it is superb) and the lack of emotional pull (if you want that, go see some Tennessee Williams), or the music (it is hauntingly beautiful and completely appropriate, if not particularly hummable). This show was designed first to be a spectacle and it accomplishes that in every move. You do not have to even be a LOTR fan to be completely enthralled with the stagecraft, the lighting, the effects, the costumes, props - we guarantee you'll be bounced or blown out of your seats like no other production you've ever seen.

There are some excellent actors there, too, doing a wonderful job. Michael Therriault is superb as Gollum - no one has done it better. Brent Carver's Gandolf is not Ian McKellen's - so much the better; Brent's has a more humorous and playful side to him. But in the end, it's the spectacle that makes this the most exciting 3.5 hrs in theatre history.

Go see for yourself, and let us know how you feel about it!
--- Jim & Rog, proprietors of Stage Door

The Glass Menagerie

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Miles Potter
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
May 31-October 22, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Mary Alderson's review follows, here.

Dusting Off Williams’ Menagerie

Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” is one of the most produced of all American plays.  It is a great play, but the fact that it requires only four actors and one set means it crops up far more often than other equally worthy plays.  CanStage mounted a production just last year and in 1997 in Toronto there were productions running simultaneously at the Tarragon and at the Royal Alex.  Yet, there is always room for a good production and the current one at Stratford, while not perfect, features fine performances and has much to recommend it.

One of director Miles Potter’s best achievements is to make the Wingfields, a family from the Deep South, dislocated to St. Louis, Missouri, feel like a real family.  Potter reinforces Williams’ text with silent gestures.  Glances or avoidance of eye contact among the mother Amanda and her children Tom and Laura depending on the subject matter under discussion and contemplation of themselves in a full-length mirror in the hallway and of the portrait of the father who abandoned them show that the Wingfields are all united by dissatisfaction with their present condition and haunted by a tragedy none of them understands. 

For once, the design makes some attempt to illustrate the narrator Tom’s claim that the play is “memory” and therefore “not naturalistic”.  At key moments Potter allows lighting designer Kevin Fraser to illuminate Peter Hartwell’s otherwise naturalistic set from behind to show it up as merely cloth stretched over wooden frames while turning the actors into mere shadows.  Periodically the portrait of the absent paterfamilias glows thus literally highlighting the pall his absence has cast over the family.  Otherwise Fraser casts a warm golden glow over the set as if the Wingfields’ apartment were an ember about to die out. 

Hartwell’s design suggests that the Wingfields have retained a few prized items of furniture from their past life, but does not really capture the shabbiness bordering on poverty in which the family lives.  In this he follows the peculiar Stratford design rule (as in “Coriolanus” and “Oliver!”) that presents poor people as picturesque rather than as dirty or ragged.  Hartwell has Amanda return from a D.A.R. meeting in two-piece ensemble and a fur-collared coat that show no sign of wear.  Even the old-fashioned gown Amanda digs out for the arrival of the gentleman caller shows no signs of expected ageing or yellowing. 

The play is anchored by a subtle, highly detailed performance by Steven Sutcliffe as Tom.  His gentle Southern accent and fey demeanour and delivery help relate the character in Williams’ most autobiographical play back to Williams himself (whose real name was Tom) and his homosexuality.  These suggestions of Tom’s gayness help explain more than the character’s writing poetry why other men at the warehouse where he works avoid him, why he “goes to the movies” so often and why he has such a need to escape his family.  Sutcliffe brings out the full poetry of Williams’ poetic prose with masterful use of pauses to enhance emotion and effect.

As Amanda, Seana McKenna gives a wonderfully warm performance.  Her accent, as one would expect, is stronger that Tom’s and makes her seem even more out of place--a Southern belle in a box of an apartment.  Under director Miles Potter, she captures the aspects of Amanda that evoke both ridicule and pathos at the same time.  Her love of polysyllables, her ineffective attempts to inculcate proper behaviour and her unstoppable volubility on the subject of grandeur of her past are all undercut by the realities of the present and her own decision to marry the least suitable of her many “gentleman callers”.  In some productions Amanda’s love for her children appears stifling, but here it seems part of genuine if desperate attempt to atone for the decision that led her family to its present destitution.

Matthew McFadzean, making his Stratford debut as Jim O’Connor, the Gentleman Caller, gives the character an edge one seldom sees.  He makes Jim, straight from his self-improvement classes, come on too strong at first, as much in his way as Amanda does in trying to impress him.  There is no sense, as in some productions, that he falls in love with Laura, but rather that he finally steps down from his posturing long enough to feel pity for a girl who so hopelessly admires him.  MacFadzean makes Jim’s enthusiastic speeches about the glorious future show that he is as much of a dreamer as the Wingfields are.

Sad to say, but the one person who seems miscast is Sara Topham as Laura.  She has been so impressive in so many other Stratford productions it seems a surprise, but the previous characters she has excelled at have all been passionate, witty or extrovert, just the opposite of what makes Laura who she is.  While all the other actors effortlessly inhabit their roles, one senses Topham’s conscious effort to restrain her gestures and speech.  Laura is Tom’s older sister and should have an accent at least as strong as his, but Topham makes no attempt at one.  Her Laura stares blankly in the distance but that is not enough to convey the character’s fragility and otherworldliness.

Potter has emphasized the play’s humour far more than is usual.  He may be trying for a kind of Chekhovian “laughter through tears” but it does rob Amanda’s speech of desperation after the Gentleman Caller departs of the shock it should have.  At that point the mask she has been wearing drops and she sees that she and Laura will literally and symbolically have to confront a lightless world.  Yet, Sutcliffe’s final summation as Tom is so emotionally raw it refocusses the play on tragedy and regret and his request to Laura to “Blow your candles out” has all mixture of love and pain in it of someone deciding to remove a loved one from life-support.  After so much humour, the sadness at the end takes you by surprise and makes you realize that despite its flaws Potter and his actors have made this familiar play seem new.

©Christopher Hoile   


Mary Alderson's review of Glass Menagerie:

Glass Menagerie an emotional, exhausting journey

At the completion of the Stratford production of The Glass Menagerie, one feels as worn out as the as the characters. The two woman are exhausting – Amanda because of her constant chatter about her glorious past as a southern belle, and Laura because she is pitiful. These two female characters are so well portrayed that the audience is dragged on the emotional trip with them.

Seana McKenna is excellent as Amanda Wingfield. She is the image of faded southern charm. Her transition from gushing to maintain appearances, to becoming angry with Tom is smooth and believable. McKenna is far more interesting in this role than as Olivia in Twelfth Night.

Similarly, Sara Topham excels as the lost soul, Laura Wingfield. Her vacant stare is a realistic portrayal of Laura's simple-mindedness. She handles the challenging role well – the audience knows Laura isn't stupid, just backward and a little slow. Topham is fascinating to watch as the different emotions appear across her face; she is far more remarkable as Laura than her stilted portrayal of Dona Elvira in Don Juan .

The Glass Menagerie is an often-performed favourite by Tennessee Williams. Amanda Wingfield was once an upper-class southern belle who had as many as 17 gentleman callers in one day. Unfortunately, she chose the wrong one – she married a telephone man, and “he was in love with long distance”. He apparently was a drinker who abandoned his family. That left Amanda to raise her two children. Laura is physically handicapped with a limp. She also has a mental disability, although the family never speaks of it, and pretends it doesn't exist. Amanda believes that Laura's lack of social skills are just shyness, and with enough prodding and pushing, Laura will get over it and become charming like her mother.

Amanda also pushes son Tom. He works in a warehouse at a job he hates, to support the two women. Amanda constantly nags at him about table manners, smoking, and going out, treating him like a child. She becomes obsessed with the idea that Tom must bring home a “gentleman caller” for Laura.

Steven Sutcliffe is good as Tom. He narrates the story – we hear of the events from his memory and his point of view. While it's obvious that his mother is really irritating him and driving him away, Sutcliffe also manages to show that Tom still has some good times with his mother. This portrayal of the love-hate relationship is probably typical of many families.

Matthew MacFadzean gives a fine interpretation of Jim O'Connor, the gentleman caller. He seems to genuinely enjoy his visit, and sincerely tries to build Laura's confidence. MacFadzean is able to show that Jim likes Laura, but he's not going to fall in love with her.

The lighting for The Glass Menagerie is excellent – it works well with the concept of this story being related from Tom's memory. The set is a well done as a drab apartment of the 1930's era, complete with the metal day bed in the living room, and an old Victrola.

Director Miles Potter offers audiences a fascinating look at a somewhat dysfunctional family, pulling us into their fantasies and then smacking us with their reality. In taking us on this journey, he drags us through their emotions. Is it uplifting entertainment? No, but it's a slice of life, well written by Williams and well acted by a gifted cast.

The Glass Menagerie continues at the Avon Theatre, Stratford until October 22. For tickets, call the box office at 1-800-567-1600 or check www.stratfordfestival.ca .

Mary Alderson, a resident of Strathroy, offers her view of area theatre in this column on a regular basis. As well as being a fan of live theatre, she is a former journalist who is currently the Community Economic Development Officer with the Sarnia-Lambton Business Development Corporation.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Coriolanus

by William Shakespeare, directed by Antoni Cimolino
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 29-September 23, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

See Also Mary Alderson's review here.

“Two Great Performances in a Bazaar”

The Stratford Festival’s fourth production of Shakespeare’s political tragedy “Coriolanus” features superb performances by Colm Feore in the title role and by Martha Henry as Volumnia, the hero’s martial mother. The two create the clearest depiction of this complex mother and son relation that I’ve seen. How disappointing then that Santo Loquasto’s design is so confusing that even those familiar with the play will have trouble following the action.
Shakespeare took the subject for his final tragedy from Plutarch “Lives” set in a period about 500 years before Julius Caesar. The play explores one of Shakespeare’s favourite structures--a battle between two worlds each divided within itself. Rome and Antium are at war but within each country there is tension between the nobility and the common people. Coriolanus is a man born and bred to martial action but who cannot disguise his disdain for the plebs, a ploy necessary if he is to become a consul as his powerful mother wishes. His personality, so heroic in battle but so unsuited to politics, makes Coriolanus one of Shakespeare’s clearest examinations of the tragic character.

Colm Feore, who so easily communicates hauteur and egotism, is an ideal Coriolanus. He is far more effective than was Tom McCamus in 1997 or Len Cariou in 1981. He shows us a hero whose vigour and selflessness find their natural outlet in battle. In peacetime he visibly chafes against the restraints of domesticity and the dissembling required in politics. When Coriolanus is forced by custom to show is wounds to the populace, Feore makes us feel his mortification that goes a long way toward garnering our sympathy for this usually unsympathetic tragic figure. Coriolanus as a man of action is a kind of anti-Hamlet and so has very few speeches of reflection. These few, however, director Antoni Cimolino and lighting designer Gil Wechsler have visually isolated and highlighted so that we get the sense of a man aware of his nature and of his inability to change it. Feore’s insightful reading of Coriolanus’ speeches show clearly, for once, how this figure relates to Shakespeare’s sequence of great tragic characters.

Martha Henry, who had to suffer innumerable directorial impediments in Richard Rose’s ill-conceived production in 1997, now has the chance to revel in the full complexity of Volumnia. On the one hand, she is the model Roman matron for whom honour is the supreme virtue. Henry makes clear how her son’s love of violence and disdain for the “rabble” derive from her. Yet, on the other hand Henry shows how Volumnia lives so vicariously through her son that her she can’t see that her political ambitions for him not only contradict his nature but will inevitably bring him to ruin. In the masterful scene where Volumnia goes to Antium and pleads with the exiled Coriolanus to make peace with Rome, the exultation in Henry’s face painfully contrasts with the pall of doom that covers Feore’s.

The rest of the cast is uneven. Best are Don Carrier and especially Bernard Hopkins as the Roman tribunes Sicinius and Brutus, who stir up the plebeians’ wrath again Coriolanus more to boost their own power than to right any wrongs. Paul Soles is keen to make a lovable comic character of Coriolanus’ mentor Menenius, but he and director Cimolino miss the full tragic impact of Coriolanus’ rejection of him at the end. Soles also is so given to mumbling that the import of Menenius’ famous parable of the body in Act 1 goes missing. As Coriolanus’ trusty friends Cominius and Lartius, Stephen Russell and Roy Lewis are forceful and well-spoken. Robert King turns in a fine comic portrait of the Third Citizen blissfully unaware that he contradicts himself whenever he speaks.

The greatest disappointment is Graham Abbey as Coriolanus’ Volscian rival and later ally Tullus Aufidius. Abbey communicates neither the menace nor the cunning that Scott Hylands did so powerfully in 1981. The two archenemies are supposed to be equals, but Abbey fades into the woodwork. As for the women, Nicolá Correia-Damude does little to make Coriolanus’ wife Virgilia more than a weepy non-entity and Keira Loughran speaks Shakespeare’s sinewy verse as if it were modern prose.

With such strong performances from Feore and Henry all would be well, but the bizarre choices of designer Santo Loquasto undo all the clarity the two actors create. In their programme notes Cimolino says he wanted to set the play in its historical period (i.e., about 500 BC) while Loquasto says he wants to avoid a “toga party”. The result is a design that does not reflects 6th century BC at all but looks more like a medieval bazaar. The Roman senators are dressed like Jewish high priests, while the people look like Afghani peasants. Even stranger, the two tribunes are garbed as Catholic clerics. When fighting the Romans don jackboots and Nazi-style helmets. Over in Antium, Aufidius sports a modern upper arm tattoo, the senators and servingmen look like a delegation to the Starship Enterprise and the Volscian people are dressed as Berbers. Coriolanus’ costumes change from black at the beginning to--guess what?--a white toga at the end for “symbolic” reasons known only to Loquasto and, since he had to approve it, Cimolino.

With so many speaking parts it’s important to keep things clear. The Romans must look different from the Volscians in one general way, not in several different ways. We have to know whether the director thinks the two societies are mirror images of each other, if the Romans are more advanced than the Volscians or vice versa. Cimolino and Loquasto don’t seem to know. Within each nation we have to be able to tell the class of the citizens easily since that is so much a part of the play. To have them all appear to be from different ethnic groups hopelessly confuses the issue.

At the end when the Volscian populace is supposed to tear Coriolanus limb from limb, Cimolino substitutes a special effect--what seems to be a robot carcass with gas jets protruding from it meant, no doubt to recall a similar image used at the start of the play. The play already implies a circular structure and does not need such reinforcing especially when the burning prop distracts us from the final words of the play.

Colm Feore and Martha Henry may be the best Coriolanus and Volumnia you will ever see. Alone and together they reveal the greatness that lies in this difficult work. It’s a great pity their performances should have to struggle against such muddled directorial and design decisions.

©Christopher Hoile

See Also Mary Alderson's review here.

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