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|The Gambler The Real McCoy |

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2006

"The Gambler"

Written by: Ronald Weihs
Directed by: Molly Thom
At the Artword Theatre
Closing Date: Feb 19th

Review by Stage Door Guest Reviewer Ari Lipsey

Ronald Weihs’ “The Gambler” is a fusion of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella by the same name, and parts of his third wife Anna Grigoryevna Snitkina’s autobiography. The former is of a seedy group of utilitarian upper class gentry, while the latter is the story of a young woman who believes in an older artist mired in self-doubt, though for the first time in recent memory, the artist character isn’t played by Woody Allen.

The most noticeable contrast is the women of the stories. In the novella section, they are glamorous but scheming, while Anna is an angelic, without sin and the instrument of Dostoevsky’s deliverance. We can all relate to this. Our youths are littered with lovers whom we gravitated to on a ferocious instinct we believed to be love, only later to discover that it was all for naught. These objects of affection become less appealing with every subsequent heartache. But “The Gambler” is not a celebration of these valorous women. It, like us in our youth, is seduced by the wrong women and the life they inhabit. The stage is literally set at the opening, as it’s stage split in two: on our left is Dostoevsky‘s (David Ferry) dwelling, taking up about 1\6th of the stage, where all the action between him and Anna (Claire Jenkins) takes place. The rest is the lavish set of Roulettenberg, the location of most of “The Gambler”. Now there may be several excuses for this: The geometry of the stage; the fact that “The Gambler” section has more actors/action/take up more of the play etc.

But despite Anna’s claims that she is a modern woman, she’s not given a modern play. Forget the fact that she’s not a collaborator to the work; she doesn’t even rise to the level of muse. She’s a cheerleader, albeit one with an eye on the game, but that’s it. Jenkins acquits herself admirably, giving a performance that bursts beyond the confines of her blocking during a particularly crucial monologue, but the character is underwritten and she’s been left to fend for herself. This becomes evident during the denouement, which is three excruciating scenes long. Had the love between Dostoevsky and Snitkina been built up gradually, at the same pace as the events of “The Gambler”, we would have had all we needed for the happy resolution that follows the climax. Instead, we watch the history of these two unfold in a space smaller than a bachelor pad kitchen. Wiehs took the easy way out here, and it’s a mistake.

That said, the inclusion of Dostoevesky and Anna are probably dramatically necessary. In fact, a 1997 film on the piece uses the same device. Both Weihs and the writer of the film probably encountered the same problem: the characters populating Roulettenberg are pretty irredeemable. They’re all focused on money, and seem to not mind how they get it as long as they can use it to gratify themselves. Both The General (Karl Pruner) and his step-daughter Polina (Irene Poole) are both waiting for her land-owning elderly Grandmother (Jennifer Phipps) to put her other foot in the grave. It doesn’t quite work out as planned, as the Grandmother shows up near the end of the first act. Thank God, as the play lags until Phipps wheels into the scene. Prior to her Grandmother grand entrance, we follow Alexei (also David Ferry), a 25 year old gentleman, who has taken to borrowing money off every good heated soul he can find, notably Mr. Astley (Brett Christopher), all the while pining for Polina. It’s made clear he has a better chance of beating the house than scoring with this lass, though he tries to do both on a number of occasions. The General, for his part, has taken a fancy to Mlle Blanche (also Irene Poole), a notorious black widow of a lover.

There isn’t much movement until Act 2, but I respect that, as too often, productions tend to play their best cards early. But by the second act, the roulette table has morphed into a narrative device, and winning and losing seem dictated rather conspicuously by narrative need. Still, for a story about addicts, it makes for a more interesting device than heroine.

It’s not so much that “The Gambler” is bad, but that it’s unremarkable.

These characters, save Polina and The Grandmother, aren’t particularly interesting, but Weihs conveys emotions like honor and pride effectively to a modern audience that may not so easily buy into these concepts. There’s also some neat costume design. Characters interchange so rapidly, there isn’t much a costume designer can do, but I appreciated that Brett Christopher’s French Comte des Grieux had a top hat, while his Mr. Astley sported a bowler.

It should be noted that, if I read the audience correctly, I was in the minority here. Then again, I was about 30 years younger than the median age.

These women were born in a time where a story about a voice of encouragement from the sidelines was a tribute to women, not condescending to them. But it was a sold out house, and the show got a standing ovation, and having seen almost 40 plays in the last year, I can say that in theatre, it’s much rarer for the house to win.

Ari Lipsey reviews Toronto Theater at torontotheater.blogspot.com

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Real McCoy

Written and Directed by: Andrew Moodie
at the Factory Theatre
ends Feb 25

Review by Stage Door Guest Reviewer Ari Lipsey

Andrew Moodie warns us in the programme that his play, "The Real McCoy", is not the story of the real Elijah McCoy, the black Canadian-born inventor who many attribute as the source of the phrase denoting authenticity. It would seem perplexing that a story called “The Real McCoy” would be about a fake McCoy, and that its promotion would be wedded to “Black history” month. Most of the tragedies of the play happened differently in real life, and some didn't happen at all. But I’m not too fussed about it. For storytellers, history can often act as an albatross. Historical heroes are often less noble than the ideals they represent (Che Guevara), and God seems less inclined to exact retribution on Earth to some of his more odious creations (The world's greatest mass murderer, Chairman Mao lived a life of luxury compared to his subjects, and died at a ripe old age). Any writer can remain true to history; it’s staying true to one’s characters and one’s fictional world that proves trickier, and that’s why “The Real McCoy” is a spectacular work.

Moodie creates Elijah McCoy as a tragic hero of the Greek tradition in a Kafkaesque world (by this, I mean that the play is set in a world that’s mechanisms are stacked against our protagonist, not all that business with shadows and bureaucrats). And the flaw McCoy possesses, unlike most of the hamartiais the theatre deals with these days, is one the majority of the audience can relate to: the desire to be the complete master of one’s own fate, to defy the laws of science, to defy God’s decrees. I’m used to seeing the word entropy as a science fiction device; here, it’s the engine of the dramatic conflict.

I last saw Moodie in Tideline, where he robustly played an imaginary knight. Elijah McCoy (Maurice Dean Wint) is almost the inverse of that character. A calm, cool, refined man who encounters a plethora of animated characters.

Moodie and Dean Wint could have taken the easy route and played McCoy as an eccentric genius, but elect instead to portray a mild-mannered man with a ferocious desire for progress. He is frustrated by the racism of his day because it is an “inefficient” organizing principle of society, not because he is personally affected by racism. This emotional reservation from the pervasive issue of his life is tested in painful ways, but Wint makes sure that McCoy doesn’t lose his pride and his resilience until the finale, and when it happens, it’s doubly powerful. We see the lengths Moodie has to go to break this character, and only the most cynical viewer could not have pity for this man.

The play runs the gamut of McCoy’s life, and begins in childhood where McCoy is played by Kevin Hanchard. My only problem with the piece happens in this section. McCoy’s father (Ardon Bess) has religious convictions that lead to friction with McCoy later in the script, but they are never really developed for the full payoff.

After it’s resolved that McCoy is gifted, we are taken to Edinburgh, Scotland, where McCoy studies engineering at the University on a partial scholarship. Here he encounters students apparently devoid of the British “academic camaraderie”, and the conclusion to his relationship with them proves the bridge between Hanchard’s McCoy and Dean Wint’s. This section also showcases McCoy’s mentor, his Scottish engineering Professor (Bruce Beaton), whose influence is felt throughout McCoy’s life.

When he returns to North America, McCoy encounters his first of many disappointments. His prospective employers in Detroit reject him because of his skin color, and he is forced to work as a fireman on a train. He meets his first wife, a well-bred woman from Kentucky (Zainab Musa), but tragedy inevitably befalls the couple.

But “The Real McCoy” is not a sobfest. There are many points of working humour, noticeably by Musa, Beaton, Hanchard and Marcia Johnson, who plays McCoy’s second wife. Their courtship gets a hardy laugh from the audience because its well-crafted rather than reliant on crassness. These lighter moments are so pivotal, because they airbrush how deeply tragic this story is. Inherent in a play about a black man in a racist society is our hope for him to triumph over that society, and that happens far too little here.
McCoy, like Lear, is a man more sinned against than sin, so we need to be distracted from that, and Moodie, unlike most dramatic writers with a powerful theme, seems completely at ease with comedy.

I saw “The Real McCoy” at just the right time. I was beginning to worry that I would have to lower my expectations as not to sound too negative about the Toronto Theatre scene. Often plays have an interesting concept, a well thought-out character, or an original stylistic innovation, and I was beginning to think this was the best I could hope for. “The Real McCoy” shows us all that we’re not out of line to demand better.

Ari Lipsey reviews Toronto Theater at torontotheater.blogspot.com


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