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|The Duchess of Malfi | Much Ado About Nothing | South PacificHenry IV, Part 1 |
Oliver! | London Assurance |Spamalot | The Magic Fire |
The Heiress |
Twelfth Night | Don Juan | Fanny Kemble |
more!

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2006

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

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Monty Python’s Spamalot

music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle,
book and lyrics by Eric Idle,
directed by Mike Nichols
Canon Theatre, Toronto
July 15-September 10, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Bright Side of Life"

This summer the Mirvishes offer two musicals based on epics set in the Middle Ages, or a time like them, about quests for magical objects. Over at the Princess of Wales one can see the spectacular but deadly serious “Lord of the Rings” (reviewed above). Newly opened at the Canon one can see the deliberately tacky and profoundly silly “Monty Python’s Spamalot”. Monty Python fans, of course, will have no trouble choosing which to see. They’ll be over the moon with this staged version of the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. Those who seek sentiment and lush beauty won’t find it in this mercilessly satirical show and should head over to “Lord of the Rings”. They will, however, miss out on an evening filled with laughter.

As in the film, “Spamalot” follows King Arthur’s efforts first to gather knights for the for the Very, Very Round Table and then after direct intervention by God to find the Holy Grail, a cup, it seems, that He has somehow misplaced. Python alumnus Eric Idle, author of the book and lyrics, has transferred whole swaths of dialogue directly from the screen to the stage, including the debate about swallows and coconuts, serfs working in a semi-autonomous collective, insults from the French Taunter, arguments with the Knights Who Say Ni, Herbert’s father’s vain attempts to give instructions to his son’s guards and passages from the holy Book of Armaments. As in the film King Arthur prances about on an invisible horse to the sound of his servant Patsy playing coconut halves, the French pull in Sir Bedevere’s Trojan Rabbit, Arthur encounters the Black Knight who doesn’t give in even when he’s lost all his limbs and a Killer Rabbit chews off Sir Bors’s head.

There are some significant changes, however. Except for Galahad’s mother, played as in the film by a man, all the prime female roles have been cut. There is no witch burning scene, we never meet Prince Herbert’s intended bride and, most surprising of all, the whole sequence involving the desperate virgins of Castle Anthrax including the twins Zoot and Dingo has been cut. Instead, Idle has created a major female character, referred to but not appearing in the film, the Lady of the Lake. She functions rather like Arthur’s good angel by getting him out of trouble when things look more hopeless than usual. Idle obviates the need for Castle Anthrax providing a surprise revelation, even to Lancelot, about his sexual orientation.
This leaves the female chorus to function Benny Hill-style solely as titillating decoration.

Just as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” made fun not only of Arthurian legend, but also of the conventions of filmmaking in general, so the musical based on it satirizes of the conventions of musicals. The film begins with several false starts including the opening credits and first scene of the 1961 film “Dentist on the Job”. In the musical after the Historian has given us background about 10th-century England, the curtain rises on a scene of peasants in colourful costumes doing the famous “Fisch Schlapping Dance” in their native Finland. Oops, the cast misheard “Finland” for “England” and have to start again. Two songs by Neil Innes from the film make it into the score--“Knights of the Round Table” and “Brave Sir Robin-- along with “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by Eric Idle from “Life of Brian” (1979). Contrary to expectations, the famous “Spam Song” does not appear. The title derives from a line in “Knights of the Round Table”: “We dine well here in Camelot/ We eat ham and jam and spam a lot”.

John Du Prez and Eric Idle’s music parodies everything from Rossini to gospel, disco and rap. Andrew Lloyd Webber comes in for special ridicule in the self-referential duet “The Song The Goes Like This” for Galahad and the Lady of the Lake about sappy romantic show- stoppers that are reprised ad nauseam. Meanwhile, the song’s endless key changes upwards eventually make it too high for the actors to sing. In Act 2, the Lady of the Lake sings “The Diva’s Lament (Whatever Happened to My Part?)” about having been offstage so long.

Arthur sings “I’m All Alone” to his miffed servant Patsy, who is joined by an increasingly large chorus. The one satirical song I could have done without is Sir Robin’s big number “You Won’t Succeed on Broadway (Without Jews)”. Before it concludes with a version of the bottle dance from “Fiddler on the Roof”, it drags out so many tackified Jewish references like a Star of David in marquee lights that, unlike all the other numbers, an unwelcome sense of mean- spiritedness creeps into it.

“Spamalot” may be a touring production but the cast and presentation are absolutely top-notch. Michael Siberry in the Graham Chapman role of King Arthur makes Arthur less an obsessed lunatic and more a wonderfully grandiloquent dolt. Bradley Dean is excellent in the Michael Palin roles of the Marxist peasant Dennis who becomes Sir Galahad and Prince Herbert’s unpleasant father as well as the John Cleese role of the indefatigable Black Knight. David Turner sounds very much like Eric Idle in Idle’s roles of Sir Robin and Brother Maynard and is quite funny at showing Robin’s growing displeasure when his minstrels’ ballads turn to ridicule. Terry Gilliam’s role as Patsy has been much expanded and Jeff Dumas draws out all the humour of a servant continually neglected by his illustrious master.

Yet, the performer who really steals the show is Rick Holmes in the John Cleese roles of Sir Lancelot, the French Taunter and Tim the Enchanter as well as the Michael Palin role of the head Knight Who Says Ni. He is hilarious in the scene when Lancelot discovers his sexual orientation is not what he thought it was and suddenly finds himself the reluctant star of a Peter Allen-inspired showstopper until he gradually gets used to the idea. He is even more manic than Cleese in the French Taunter’s vituperations and captures all the looniness of the Knight of Ni.

Other fine performances come from Tom Deckman as the pompous Historian; Not Dead Fred, the man who protests he is not quite ready for the plague cart; and funniest of all a Prince Herbert even more effeminate that Terry Jones was in the movie. Christopher Gurr also channels Terry Jones as Dennis’s Mother, Sir Bedevere and Concorde.
And John Cleese appears via recording as voice of God.

Pia Glenn in the sole major female role has a lot to do to hold up the distaff side of what is mostly a boys’ night out. Luckily, she has a marvelous voice and a vibrant presence. She has a comic gift for sending up the many clichés of pop vocals no matter what the idiom. The show’s most memorable song not from the film is “Find Your Grail” which she sings both straight and as a send-up of gospel music.

For the costumes for characters from the film, Tim Hatley has stayed very close to Hazel Pethig’s original designs. For all the other costumes--the faux Finnish peasants, the Lady of the Lake and her backup singers, Lancelot’s new South American friends--he creates outfits that are highly coloured, intentionally clichéd exaggerations showbiz costumes. Hatley’s scenic design is imbued with the eccentric cartoon style of Terry Gilliam. And Elaine J. McCarthy’s projections, also in Gilliam’s style, give the sense of animation integrated into the show as it was in the film.

Famed director Mike Nichols has done a splendid job of catching exactly the right tone of gleeful absurdity. Indeed, on stage much of the dialogue sounds even funnier than in the film because it is so clearly and precisely spoken. If you want grand spectacle and earnestness there is “Lord of the Rings”. But to such an outrageously imaginative, laugh-out-loud show like “Spamalot”, who could say Ni?

©Christopher Hoile


Your comments and reviews are always welcome

London Assurance

by Dion Boucicault, directed by Brian Bedford
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford June 1-October 21, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“The Must-See Play at Stratford”

My simple advice to you about “London Assurance” is “Go see it!” You may never have heard the name of this comedy from 1841 or the name of its Irish author Dion Boucicault (1820-90), but that’s no excuse to miss one of the funniest shows you’re likely to see this summer. You will, however, have heard of Brian Bedford who stars in the play and directs it. The play proves to be the perfect vehicle for the comedic talents of this great actor.

The story centres on the ageing London roué Sir Harcourt Courtly, who intends on carrying out the provision of a deceased friend’s will that he marry his only daughter Grace Harkaway. The country girl Grace is only 18 but she also plans to honour her father’s will since she does not believe in love--that is, until she meets an attractive young man calling himself “Augustus Hamilton”, who is in fact, Sir
Harcourt’s only son attempting to flee his London creditors.
Meanwhile, Sir Harcourt finds himself less attracted to Grace than to the delightfully named Lady Gay Spanker, who seems to regard her wimpish husband Dolly as a doormat. Egged on by Charles’s enigmatic friend Richard Dazzle, Lady Gay enters into a plot to unite Charles and Grace while shaming Sir Harcourt.

In his director’s notes Brian Bedford is quite right to see “London Assurance” as a kind of stepping-stone in English drama between the late 18th-century comedy of Sheridan (e.g., “The School for Scandal”
of 1777) and the late 19th-century comedy of Oscar Wilde (e.g., “The Importance of Being Earnest” of 1895). Indeed, the Beau Brummelesque Sir Harcourt Courtly outfops and outdandies all the fops and dandies of 18th-century drama but finds himself in a new world characterized by Richard Dazzle where a person with no background whatsoever can rise in society through sheer force of wit and self-confidence (i.e.
“London assurance”) alone. Not to give too much weight to such a frothy play, but Boucicault does seem to depict the passing of a world where phusical appearance and love affairs constitute one’s social capital to a less romantic world where words deceive more easily than looks and money is the ultimate goal. The text is so peppered with epigrams that the play does seem the most Wildean comedy of its period before W.S. Gilbert’s “Engaged” of 1877. More’s the pity Boucicault should have tuned from this kind of comedy to concentrate on the favourite genre of the day, melodrama.

Designer Desmond Heeley, always with an eye for fantasy, has created marvelous sets and costumes. Within the proscenium of the Avon Theatre, Heeley has built a second, highly ornate but faintly decrepit-looking proscenium to frame the action while placing a set of old-fashioned footlights along the rim of the stage. This second frame basically signals to the audience that they are seeing a play from another time period and urges us to appreciate the creaky plot devices and older dramatic convention like the use of asides as enjoyable relics from this period. His costumes are equally fanciful with Sir Harcourt appearing in a sequence of outfits each more outrageous than the last. Lady Gay comes a distant second in her parade of colourful sporting wear. In his programme note, Heeley mentions that his design work on stage only if properly lit and praises lighting designer Michael J. Whitfield as “a magician with light”. Whitfield’s lighting helps make Heeley’s designs look very much like the hand-coloured etchings one might find in books of the period.

Brian Bedford is known for playing to the audience even when a play does not require it. “London Assurance”, however, is absolutely riddled with asides giving Bedford ample opportunity to address us throughout the play supplemented with host of winks, smiles and poses. Only someone who is a master comic actor like Bedford could get away with such tactics but, indeed, the pavonine nature of Sir Harcourt really demands such display. Bedford’s performance is a joy throughout. He milks more humour than you can imagine from a character who is well over 60 but admits to only 40. His attempts to maintain dignity while trying to cover up the numerous back and leg pains of age are exquisitely funny. It’s a performance you’ll never forget.

As director Bedford has brought out the best in the entire cast.

Adam O’Byrne is excellent as Charles Courtly, who deceives Sir Harcourt into thinking he is a timid scholar when in fact he is one of the best known rakes of London. Sean Arbuckle has never been better as his friend Richard Dazzle, living up to the name with an effulgent charm and gleaming smile that hide his parasitic ways.
Keith Dinicol is in top form as Sir Harcourt’s aptly named valet Cool, who can tell a brazen lie without the slightest change of expression. Brian Tree looks like a Dickensian caricature as Lady Gay’s mousy, hen-pecked husband Aldolphus, who is frequently struck with hilarious bouts of incoherence. James Blendick is quite at home as the hearty country gentleman Max Harkaway, uncle of the young Grace. Only Tim MacDonald’s performance as the lawyer Mark Meddle is peculiar. It’s hard to tell whether this figure of satire is meant to be simply overzealous, slightly mad or both.

Among the women Seana McKenna seems to be thoroughly enjoying herself as the horsy, effervescent Lady Gay Spanker, a model of a liberated woman far ahead of her time who loves the masculine activities of
riding and shooting above all things and is game for any adventure.

Sara Topham’s comically bookish Grace Harkaway is like a forerunner of Cecily in Wilde’s “Earnest”, except that she repudiates romantic love until Sir Harcourt’s son happens to come her way. Sophie Goulet fully exemplifies Grace’s well-named servant Pert.

While Bedford may be a master of the aside, he has also taught the rest of the cast the difficult task of slipping in and out of the stage action without a hint of awkwardness to address us. Indeed, his great achievement is to have captured precisely the right level of stylistic exaggeration necessary for this piece and to have instilled this sense of style into the whole cast. The resulting unity of style and uniformly high level of the performances are what makes this production such a joy. Let’s hope Stratford will in future resuscitate other such rarities with such magnificent vitality.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Henry IV, Part 1

by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford May 31-September 24, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“So pester’d with a popinjay”

Except for “Richard III”, Stratford has so long shown an aversion to Shakespeare’s history plays that it is surprising to see “Henry IV, Part 1” on the playbill just five years after it was last presented and in tandem with “Part 2”. One might think that a revival so soon might mean director Richard Monette has a new take on the play--and he does. But, unfortunately, it’s one that makes a shambles of the play’s structure and meaning.

The action shifts among three groups--the court ruled by Henry IV, who privately wishes to atone for having seized the crown from Richard II; the world of the rebels who challenge Henry’s right to rule; and the underworld of the tavern presided over by that “great Satan”, comic though he is, Falstaff. This third world of whores, drunkards and thieves in Eastcheap is where Henry son and heir, Prince Hal, spends his time to the great consternation of his father.

What Monette does is to play up the comedy in this complex play at the expense of everything else. The world of the tavern is comic but there should be an unpleasant undercurrent since, as Prince Hal reveals in his famous soliloquy “I know you all” in Act 1, he is merely using them for his own advantage and plans to discard them all, including Falstaff, when the time is right. From the very first moments of this production when Monette shows us James Blendick Falstaff struggling to get up off the floor because of his weight, we know that any hope for subtlety is gone. Monette has Bardolph, Peto and Gadshill (Barry MacGregor, Tim MacDonald and Keith Dinicol) played as interchangeable imbeciles. In the important role-playing scene in Act 2, when Falstaff pleads “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” and that Hal uses as an excuse to tell him to his face that he will cast him off, David Snelgrove throws Hal’s chilling words “I do, I will” away and we get no reaction from Blendick as Falstaff to see their effect.

What is worse, however, is Monette’s attempt to make the rebels equally comic. In his programme notes Monette calls Hotspur, Prince Hal’s main rival, “a “hothead and a bit of a meathead”. And that, unfortunately, is just what we get. Monette has Adam O’Byrne rush through Hotspur’s speeches in the upper register of his voice frequently breaking into comic falsetto at the height of anger. This approach turns a noble warrior, “A son who is the theme of honour’s tongue,” into a raving geek, more of a Sir Andrew Aguecheek than a serious rival. This ruins the structure of the whole play. Sons seem to have been born to the wrong fathers. King Henry states outright that he wishes Hotspur were his son rather than Hal.

Hotspur indeed deserves a father more like Henry than his own, who feigns illness so as not to have to go to battle. And Hal’s father- surrogate is clearly the aged Falstaff, who hopes to rise by association with the heir to the throne. Henry and Hal may finally comes to terms by the end, but that reconciliation is balanced with the tragedy that awaits Hotspur in Part 1 and Falstaff in Part 2. To have Hotspur played as a fool ruins both the parallelism between him and Hal and the pathos that should attend his death and Hal’s meditation on it.

In this large cast there are only a handful of passable performances. Blendick, of course, can always be depended on as a good Falstaff, even under poor direction, but there is noticeable less detail to his characterization here than there was under Bernard Hopkins in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in 1990. Scott Wentworth, who directed both parts of “Henry IV in 2001, recites his lines gravely but never seems fully engaged with the role. Domini Blythe is a pleasant Mistress Quickly but seems far too refined for the low- class establishment where she is employed. The one actor other than Blendick who truly commands the stage is Raymond O’Neill as the Welsh rebel and wizard Owen Glendower. He seems so imbued with real power rather than the usual hot air, that, for a change Hotspur’s jokes about his mystical origins fall flat.

As for the rest of the performances, I can honestly say that I have seen school plays better acted. As Prince Hal, David Snelgrove says all his lines but says them all exactly the same way as if he had no idea what they meant. Lawrence Haegert as Hal’s friend Poins does just the same. Adam O’Byrne’s Hotspur is so embarrassingly bad I at first thought it was the actor’s fault. However, after seeing him give such an assured and nuanced performance as Charles Courtly in “London Assurance” under Brian Bedford, it became clear that Monette’s faulty directly was to blame. Roger Shank’s Scottish accent as the fierce Earl of Douglas was so overdone it was unintentionally comic. Jennifer Mawhinney as Lady Percy and Laura Condlln as Lady Mortimer did nothing with their roles. And the fine comedy Barry MacGregor, Tim MacDonald and Keith Dinicol are capable of goes completely untapped.

Monette says in his director’s notes: “I’ve seen ‘Henry IV’ played very darkly and cynically. But by doing this, you make the implicit in the play explicit: then there’s no depth, no subtext”. You would think a director of Monette’s experience would not allow a statement of such folly to appear in print. Monette seems to think that by dealing only with the surface of a play the depth will come out on its own. Sad to say, but that never happens. Only if the depths of the play are clear in every moment do we get the interplay of surface and depth that gives a work its richness. Monette’s stated philosophy leads only to superficiality. And this emotionally and intellectually impoverished “Henry IV” is its result.

©Christopher Hoile
Editor's note: See Mr Hoile's review of the 2001 production here

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Duchess of Malfi

by John Webster, directed by Peter Hinton
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
June 2-September 23, 2006

Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Oh Direful Misprision!”

The Stratford Festival’s current production of “The Duchess of Malfi” is one of the most egregious examples I’ve ever seen of a directorial “concept” so ruthlessly applied that it destroys the play it is meant to interpret. Director Peter Hinton created a wonderful version of Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods” last year, but this year his unrelenting insistence on the darkness of John Webster’s great Jacobean tragedy makes the play often literally unwatchable.

John Webster (1578-1634?) is one of Shakespeare’s greatest contemporaries whose existential vision and brilliant, complex poetry only began to be appreciated in the 20th century, most notably by T.S. Eliot. “The Duchess of Malfi” deserves to be set alongside “King Lear” as a play articulating one of the bleakest world views of the Jacobean period, and, as such, a world view not unlike our own.

In the play the nameless, widowed Duchess of Malfi (a contemporary misunderstanding of the Italian “Amalfi”) is threatened by her two brothers Ferdinand and the nameless Cardinal with punishment should she remarry. The motive for the mentally unstable Ferdinand seems to be his unacknowledged incestuous desire for the Duchess, who is also
his twin, that gradually destroys what little hold he has on reason.
The motive for the Cardinal is nominally notion that a second marriage for a widow is licentious, a fairly hypocritical view since his own mistress is another man’s wife. In reality, it is more likely he fears loss of control over his sister’s property. Whether out of love or recklessly to spite her brothers, the Duchess secretly marries her steward Antonio and has three children by him. Ferdinand hires the known villain Bosola to spy on the Duchess and eventually to oversee her capture, imprisonment, torture and death. The Duchess’s stoic fortitude in suffering so impresses Bosola with the injustice of her treatment, however, that he vows to avenge her death.

This is a dark, nightmarish tale involving torture, madness, lycanthropy and severed body parts. There is no “providence that shapes our ends” as suggested in “Hamlet” but rather an uncaring and even malevolent world order where even attempts to do good can cause evil and whose nature is epitomized by one of the greatest symbols in 17th-century drama, the Cardinal’s poisoned Bible.

To create this world on stage Hinton has had lighting designer Bonnie Beecher keep the lighting levels as low as possible. Scenes are often lit by only a few squares of brilliant light that cast everyone outside them into shadow. Several scenes are lit solely by pierced lanterns that cast beautiful flickering patterns but make it impossible to see anything on stage. As if this were not enough, some scene are in fact played out in total darkness. There were conventions for suggesting nighttime in the 17th century but total blackouts were not among them.

To add to the visual difficulties, Hinton has had designer Carolyn M.
Smith make all the costumes, except for the Cardinal’s, of exactly the same black linen. Actors are frequently covered from just below the jaw to foot in black. Add to this pancake makeup with the upper and lower eyelids completely blacked to make the actors look like live corpses plus extravagant hairstyles, some as for Ferdinand and Julia rising straight up a foot or more, and the faces of the actors even when there is light are often cast in shadow.

And then, just to make the experience more unpleasant, Hinton has had Peter Hannan compose an almost continuous soundscape of New Agey Renaissance music played at so loud a volume that it obscures the actors’ words. Thus, in imposing his vision of the play, Hinton has created a theatrical experience where we can neither see nor hear the actors properly. It’s a ridiculous spectacle of directorial monomania.

Hinton has focussed so much attention on how the play should look and sound that he seems to have given none to how the actors should interpret the text or their characters. Lucy Peacock might make a good Duchess but she is so unalterably affected and haughty from first to last that we feel nothing for her or her sufferings. Shane Carty may have a resonant voice but he is so insipid as Antonio it is impossible to understand why the Duchess would risk her life my allying herself to him.

Paul Essiembre has the plum role of Ferdinand, but rather than showing how the Duchess’s twin gradually descends into madness during the play, Hinton has Essiembre play Ferdinand as fully mad right from the start, roaring and snarling out his words with such vehemence they are incomprehensible. Hinton takes Ferdinand’s lycanthropy literally instead of metaphorically and so has him howl like a dog, crawl on all fours and growl. In this way such key moments as Ferdinand’s contemplation of his dead sister-- “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle”--are simply thrown away. As the Cardinal, the Duchess’s seemingly more rational brother, Peter Donaldson never summons up the icy menace that should fill us with fear. Scott Wentworth could make a fine Bosola and shows well how this hired villain begins to abhor his task and to admire the Duchess’s strength of spirit. The main problem, as with most of the actors, is that he races through his lines as if under some time constraint, though if staying under three hours were a problem, why does Hinton so unnecessarily interpolate bedlam scenes from another play, Dekker’s “The Honest Whore”, which do nothing to move the action forward?

Among the women, Laura Condlln as the Duchess’s maid Cariola speaks in a flat tone and fails to capture mixture of the horror and farce in Cariola’s ignoble death. Karen Robinson plays Julia, the Cardinal’s mistress, as if she were a character in some sort of urbane comedy instead of in a Jacobean tragedy.

Stratford’s only previous production of “The Duchess of Malfi” in
1971 was one of the company’s greatest critical and popular successes. People old enough to have seen it still rave about Jean Gascon’s direction, Desmond Heeley’s fantastic design, Pat Galloway as the Duchess, Rowland Hewgill as Ferdinand, Barry MacGregor as
Antonio, William Needles as the Cardinal and Powys Thomas as Bosola.
After so long a wait for a second production of this masterpiece, it
is frustrating beyond belief to see it ruined by directorial folly.
Hinton may have wanted to create a nightmare and his has. It is a production so misguided, so literally unwatchable and inaudible and therefore so tedious, you can’t wait for it to end.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Much Ado About Nothing

by William Shakespeare, directed by Stephen Ouimette
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
June 3-October 22, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

See Mary Alderson's review, below

Neighbours, You Are Tedious

 “Much Ado About Nothing” now playing at the Stratford Festival is its first since Richard Monette’s acclaimed “geriatric” “Much Ado” of 1998 starring Martha Henry and Brian Bedford as the sparring couple Beatrice and Benedick.  The current production pales by comparison in every way seeming tired and devoid of energy even on opening night.  One might think that the problem lies behind the scenes.  Stephen Ouimette withdrew as director for health reasons at the time of its first dress rehearsal, whereupon former NAC Artistic Director Marti Maraden took on the thankless task of bringing it to opening.  However, as it turns out, the problems with the play have far less to do with direction than with casting.

 
The kernel of the play is the battle of wits between Beatrice and Benedick, who cannot refrain from trading insults whenever they are together.  The couples’ friends realize that this too-much-protested enmity may in fact result from a mutual attraction that the pride of neither can acknowledge.  The more the couples’ seeming aversion is clear the funnier its later overthrow.
 
As Beatrice, Lucy Peacock does absolutely nothing to signal this change.  Her Beatrice speaks to Benedick in the same imperiously bantering manner at the start of the play as she does at the end.  She does show Beatrice’s surprise when she overhears that Benedick loves her and she does show Beatrice’s awkwardness in dealing with Benedick immediately afterwards.  But once those scenes are over she returns to her the way we first met her as if nothing had happened. 
 
This leaves the work to Peter Donaldson as Benedick.  In this he is very good.  He practically snarls out his insults to Beatrice when he first meets her giving the impression that the couple has a past history that has left him bitter.  For that reason his arguments for loving her after the orchard scene of Act 2, Scene 3, become wonderful examples of how flattery of self can lead people to reason themselves in to any position.  While “comparisons are odorous”, as the constable Dogberry says, it must be admitted that Donaldson is not as adept as was Bedford of getting as much out of every word and pause, but it is still a fine performance.
 
All is not well in the subplot either.  Adrienne Gould is delightful as the delicate, good-natured Hero, who quite realistically could faint when Claudio viciously calumniates her on her wedding day.  But the tepid Jeffrey Wetsch shows none of the hotheadedness that characterizes Claudio and would make his rapid jumping to conclusions believable.  He should be shattered by the news of Hero’s death, but all we get is blandness.
 
Among the nobles, Wayne Best seems to play the evil Don John in his sleep while Thom Marriott makes the lesser villain Borachio a far more interesting figure.  Ian Deakin is excellent as usual as the warm-hearted, quick-witted Friar Francis, who saves the day when all about him fly into distraction.  Shane Carty sonorous intones Don Pedro’s lines but does nothing to capture the character’s complex motivations.  The most embarrassing performance comes from Gary Reineke in the important role of Leonato, Hero’s father and Beatrice’s uncle.  With a laboured delivery, much slower than any of rest of the cast, he stumbles through his lines in a manner unacceptable at North America’s largest classical theatre festival.
 
The one actor who steals the show is Robert Persichini as the constable Dogberry.  His Dogberry’s very deliberate delivery, as if every word were carefully weighed for effect, made certain, for a change, that every one of the bumbling detective’s multiple malapropisms was clearly heard and all the funnier for seeming so carefully chosen.  What the directors had in mind by having Dogberry frequently hold hands with his “partner” Verges (played by Bernard Hopkins) is thankfully unclear. 
 
The prime virtue of this staging is that the beautiful Festival stage, minus its central pillar, is for a change left bare save for minimal props carried on and off to signify changes of scene.  In his programme note designer Michael Gianfrancesco states that he and Ouimette decided to keep the play’s setting in its original Messina but move it to the Edwardian period, specifically in the year 1910.  While this makes for a pretty design, all in creams, beiges and earth tones glowing under John Munro’s sunny lighting, it also doesn’t make much sense. 
 
The men in the play have just returned “from the wars”.  These ongoing wars surrounding the world of the play are important both as a correlative for the “merry war” between Beatrice and Benedick and as an explanation for Claudio’s behaviour, a soldier bred to a world of action and suspicion who has not yet adjusted to a world of peace and trust.  Gianfrancesco and the directors completely downplay these wars.  The soldiers are so tidy looking they might as well have come from a changing of the guard.  If Ouimette and Gianfrancesco wanted to make the production more interesting they should have chosen a time from 1911-12 during the Italo-Turkish War, when Italy made a failed attempt to seize Libya from the Ottoman Empire.  This might have lent an irony and much-needed edge to this distinctly unincisive, unimaginative production. 
  

©Christopher Hoile   

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Mary Alderson's review of Much Ado About Nothing:

A big to-do about Much Ado

The battle of the sexes is a popular theme in many of Shakespeare's comedies. In Much Ado About Nothing currently on stage at the Stratford Festival, characters Beatrice and Benedick are sparring partners, each trying to outdo the other with sharp barbs. This bickering must develop into love and romance as the story progresses, and it is important to have strong leads in the two roles who can demonstrate that evolution.

Lucy Peacock is excellent the aggressive Beatrice. Peacock is at her best when giving lines with a haughty head bob. Peter Donaldson, as Benedick, is also excellent when delivering the witty repartee. The couple played somewhat similar roles last year in Hello Dolly .

Despite Beatrice and Benedick's obvious desire to be constantly mocking each other, their friends decide that they should be a couple. The friends secretly plan to discuss how much Beatrice loves Benedick while Benedick is listening, and then do the same thing to Beatrice. Beatrice and Benedick become interested in each other because they believe the other is interested. Eventually, they do fall in love and decide to marry.

Donaldson does an excellent job of showing how his personality changes from arrogant rival to eventually falling in love. His angst over his realization that he now loves this woman whom he previously could not tolerate is delightful and provides much of the play's comedy. Peacock's transition, unfortunately, is not as evident, nor is it as entertaining.

In addition to the contrived courtship of Beatrice and Benedick, there is a subplot with a more serious side. Young Claudio (Jeffrey Wetsch) wants to marry Hero (Adrienne Gould). Their fascination with each other, and their youth make them an interesting contrast with the older Beatrice and Benedick.

Claudio is a follower of Don Pedro (Shane Carty) and becomes fascinated with Hero, when Don Pedro and his men are guests of Hero's father, Leonato (Gary Reineke). Don John (Wayne Best) Don Pedro's illegitimate brother, is jealous of this situation, and contrives a scheme to make Hero look like a woman with loose morals. Claudio falls for the deception, and then as their wedding ceremony gets underway, cruelly tells Hero he can't marry her. Fortunately, this deception is eventually uncovered and the situation rectified.

Stealing the show as the bumbling police officer is Robert Persichini as Constable Dogberry. His many malapropisms, delivered with great preciseness, create numerous laughs. Like a Shakespearean Inspector Clouseau, he blunders upon the solution to the mystery.

One has to suspend common sense temporarily when watching this play. The situations where one character overhears another's conversation are not very believable, but to enjoy the show, you must accept that they take place as written.

The costumes are interesting – the play is set in the early 1900's and the styles pre-World War I, as worn by the wealthy and fashionable, in soft hues of cream and beige. Dogberry's hastily assembled crew of night watchmen are rag-tag lot, but maintain the colour-theme of beige and grey.

Much Ado About Nothing is a charming comedy, and thanks to the performances of Peter Donaldson and Robert Persichini, it offers a very enjoyable evening. It is also a good reminder of Shakespeare's endurance as conflicts in relationships are just as relevant today.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at the Festival 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 commts and reviews are always welcome

South Pacific

by Rodgers & Hammerstein, directed by Michael Lichtefeld
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford June 3-October 28, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

For Mary Alderson's review - click here

“Some Enchanted Evening”

The Stratford Festival has mounted an enormously enjoyable production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific”. The musical was expressly written to highlight the talents of opera singer Ezio Pinza and Broadway star Mary Martin. As a result the show is very much like a hybrid of operetta and musical. Before teaming up with Rodgers, Hammerstein had, after all, written the librettos for adventure operettas by Sigmund Romberg like “The Desert Song” (1926) and “The New Moon” (1928) and the story of two Westerners finding love in an exotic location is not unlike the Franz Lehár’s “The Land of Smiles” (1923), which premiered in New York in 1943, only three years before “South Pacific”. Though pressured to soften the musical’s stance against racial intolerance, the creators refused and the show went on to become one of the few musicals to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Director and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld gives the show and unashamedly old-fashioned production that emphasizes the theatricality of the presentation without compromising the vitality of the performances. Douglas Paraschuk’s set features an obviously two-dimensional volcanic island (“Bali Ha’i” of the song) in the distance and conjures up the various tropical settings via the old wing-and-shutter system where gorgeously painted panels are pulled or pushed into position often revealing new settings behind them, all atmospherically lit by Kevin Fraser. Similarly, the gauzy curtain that sometimes covers the stage opening is personally pulled open or closed by a Polynesian dancer (Ayanna Sealey) as if welcoming us not just to the exotic world of the show but also to the delightful artifice of the theatre. The wit of costume designer David Boechler really shines in the company’s second act Thanksgiving show when he imagines just what kind of homemade costumes troops might construct from the few materials at hand. Look out for the elegant headpiece made from a bedpan.

The performances are excellent across the board. For some, Cynthia Dale’s perpetual “ain’t I cute” performance style may annoy, but for the Mary Martin role of Ensign Nellie Forbush, a self-confessed “hick from the sticks”, it is somehow appropriate. She gives spirited renditions of such hits as “A Cockeyed Optimist” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and brings a real sense of joy to “I’m in Love with a Wonderful Guy”. Well-known Canadian baritone Theodore Baerg is well cast in the Ezio Pinza role of the French planter Emile de Becque, the older, sophisticated “wonderful guy” Nellie falls for and who loves Nellie. Baerg’s marvelously rich voice brings out the beauty in such standards as “Some Enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine”. Baerg is also a fine actor imbuing de Becque with a sense of loneliness suffering for lack of a sunny, a vivacious girl like Nellie.

In the subplot Laird Mackintosh is the handsome Lt. Joseph Cable, who falls in love with the native girl Liat on a steamy night on Bali Ha’i. Mackintosh has brought his sometimes noisy tenor under more control this year and gives a touching performance of “Younger Than Springtime”. Even more noteworthy is the mixture of anger and shame he brings to the show’s strong antiracist song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” that caused such controversy when the show first toured the American South. Luckily, despite the pressure, Rodgers and Hammerstein refused to cut it either from the stage show or from the 1958 film version. Nicolette Liwanag is a lovely, sensitive Liat.

As for the show’s comic characters, Bruce Dow shines as Luther Billis, the man always looking for a way to make a buck, and is a real hoot in the finale the troops’ Thanksgiving show. As Bloody Mary, his Tonkinese rival in local commerce, Grace Chan gives a winning performance. She might not get as much a sense of mystery out of the seductive song “Bali Ha’i” as she should but she brings a warm jollity to “Happy Talk”.

Brian McKay as the gruff Captain George Brackett), and Phillip Hughes as the by-the-book Cmdr. William Harbison seem to have stepped directly out of any number of World War II film comedies. Armon Ghaeinizadeh and Jaelyn Lance as de Becque’s two children from his first marriage are suitably adorable and sing “Dites-moi” in perfect French.

As choreographer Lichtefeld brings invention and energy to every scene. There is athleticism and beefcake galore for the male chorus in “Bloody Mary” and a clever tap-dance (or is it splash-dance?) scene for the showering female chorus in “I’m Gonna Wash The Man Right Outa My Hair”. But most inventive are a series of hilarious visual dance illusions Lichtefeld unveils at the big Thanksgiving show in Act 2.

Loveable as those orphans and pickpockets are in “Oliver!”, “South Pacific” has a better design, wittier choreography and, since the orchestra is playing in a real pit, better sound. Of the two musicals Stratford has on offer this summer, this is the one where everything seems to go right.

©Christopher Hoile

Mary Alderson, Guest Reviewer for Stage Door, says ...

Musical highlights love, war & racism

Some might try to dismiss South Pacific as another light Rogers & Hammerstien musical, but there is much going on here –the plot covers some very difficult subject matter – lost love, war and the issue of racism.

The Avon Theatre’s production of South Pacific is excellent with fascinating attention to detail. War planes drone over head, American characters speak with many different accents from many different states, and a beautiful set takes us away to a Polynesian paradise. The story, set in World War II, shows what happens when young sailors and nurses are whisked away to different world in a potentially tense situation.

The main character, Nellie, falls in love, but then tries to reject her suitor, only because he has two children who were mothered by a now dead Polynesian woman. Nellie’s racial prejudice won’t allow her to love this man. In a subplot, a young American seaman falls in love with a Polynesian girl, but flatly rejects the suggestion of marriage based on her race.

Cynthia Dale has the opportunity to show off her quirky flair for comedy in the role of Nellie Forbush, a self-described “hick” from Little Rock, Arkansas. Dale shines in this role, probably better suited to her than some of the others she’s had in Stratford. If you haven’t seen Dale in a Stratford musical, then possibly you’ll remember her as the arrogant Olivia in CBC-TV’s Street Legal. As well as some comedic moments, Dale endears the audience with her singing and dancing.

Theoedore Baerg as Emile de Becque is the other audience favourite. His rich voice seems able to hit any note on the scale, and his rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” was a highlight.

Brian McKay is excellent as Captain George Brackett, easily sustaining a slight American twang. . He is well known locally for his work at Huron Country Playhouse and for his role as the drunk in Confessions of a Dirty Blonde at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia.

Luther Billis (Bruce Dow) and Bloody Mary (Grace Chan) provide the comic relief and both are very entertaining.

There are two dance numbers that really stand out in this production: In There is Nothing like a Dame, the company of young sailors sing and dance their way around a real Jeep on stage. Later, the nurses head for the showers in I’m gonna Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair where they tap dance in the shallow pool that forms on the shower floor, making a delightful spray.

The Thanksgiving Follies are great fun, showing some fine acrobatic talent in a variety show, to help the Americans pass the time while waiting for the war action to begin.

This Broadway classic, first staged in 1949, continues to offer great music, a fascinating love story, and intrigue, all in an exotic setting. The good news is, we don’t have to travel to New York to see a first-rate production – it’s close by in our very own Stratford. Tickets are selling out quickly for this popular show.

South Pacific continues in repertoire at the Avon Theatre, Stratford until October 28. 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

Oliver!

by Lionel Bart, directed by Donna Feore
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford May 30-October 29, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

[See Mary Alderson's review here below]

“More Imagination, Please”

The musical on Stratford’s Festival stage this year is the British musical “Oliver!” by Lionel Bart from 1960 based on Charles Dickens’s
1839 novel “Oliver Twist”. Musically, it’s one of the strongest productions ever on this stage with everyone, both children and adults, sporting superb singing voices. It’s a pity, then, that problems with direction and design should prevent the show from being the complete success it could have been.

Director and choreographer Donna Feore has been an associate or assistant director or choreographer of many shows at Stratford in the past, but this is her first turn in the main seat in charge of directing on one of the most difficult stages in Canada. In the past, directors inexperienced with the Festival’s thrust stage try to pretend it’s really just a proscenium stage with a rather large apron. This was evident just last year in Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s direction of “The Lark”. What Feore has done is rather more curious. Designer Santo Loquasto has built large square floor to cover the Festival’s stage with one corner projecting exactly to the centre of the auditorium up Aisle 5. Feore has directed and choreographed the show as if there were a proscenium rising over the house right side of that square. The result is that those seated in either direction off Aisle 7 will feel that they are looking at the action head-on. That also means that anyone seated in house left will feel they are looking at the action from the side--and that is half of the auditorium. I was seated just off Aisle 3 in what would normally be counted a perfectly good seat, but I and those around me whom I asked felt that we were watching the show from the wings.

Because of how Feore has so oddly skewed the action, my advice is that if you really what to enjoy the show is to ensure that your seats are on the house right side of the auditorium.

Once a well-drawn banner depicting Victorian London flies up it reveals Santo Loquasto singularly unattractive set. He has built a bridge articulated at the apex of the stage’s balcony that swing into the house right area of the stage to signify the entrance to Fagin’s lair. First, such a bridge is unnecessary in a theatre that already has steps leading up to a balcony and down again. Second, the bridge looks so rickety that you are afraid when anyone, especially the children have to use it since it shakes so much. The structure must, of course, actually be safe, but an audience should never have to worry about the physical safety of the performers. Third, the bridge is not even used effectively. The square floor Loquasto added was to increase the area for dancing, but the supports needed for this unnecessary bridge especially when it is swung open create impediments. Beside this, when, at the end, the bridge is supposed to represent a bridge over the Thames, Feore has the actors look up at it from either side, not as if they are on the banks of the river but, apparently, in the river itself!

As for Loquasto’s costumes, they are a mishmash of several periods. Mr. Bumble and Widow Corney seem to have walked in from the previous century. The orphans’ clothing and that of other poor people at least shows signs of wear but all seem to have arrived fresh cleaned from the laundry. It makes sense to make Nancy stand out, but why give her a dress from the 1950s that flies out waist-high when she twirls as no Victorian dress ever would? And why dress her companion ladies of the night as can-can dancers, a style that is both French and became popular 50 years after the period of the novel?

These peculiarities of design and direction are a pity because otherwise the musical is so well sung. Little Tyler Pearse is an ideal, cherubic Oliver with a fine strong voice for a ten-year-old and gives lovely performances of “Where Is Love?” and “Who Will Buy?” Tthe young Scott Beaudin as Jack Dawkins, known as the “Artful Dodger” is also excellent and exudes charm and commanding presence on stage.

As for the adults, while Bart plays up the malice of the characters Bill Sikes, Mr. Sowerberry and Noah Claypole, he whitewashes the character of Fagin. In part this is because Bart has eliminated the plot involving Monks, Oliver’s half-brother, who schemes with Fagin to kidnap and kill Oliver to gain his inheritance. Bart also glosses over Fagin’s habit of beating the boys who work for him. What’s left of Fagin in the musical is a kind of eccentric old man who acts as a surrogate father-figure for the boys he trains. Colm Feore fills this benign role admirably and despite his fame never steals focus from the boys on stage. Fagin is supposed to be Jewish, but Feore gives no hint of that in his characterization. He makes “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and especially “Reviewing the Situation” into the comic highlights of the show.

In contrast, Bart has made Bill Sikes absorb all the villainy of both Fagin and the missing Monks. Brad Rudy makes the character truly frightening and it’s pleasure to see him get the chance finally to command the stage in a major role. Bruce Dow communicates a nice combination of menace and comedy as the beadle Mr. Bumble. Brian McKay is appropriately lugubrious as the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry and Kyle Blair, who far has played “nice guys” at Stratford, proves he can also irascible bully Noah Claypole to great effect. Stephen Russell as Mr. Browlow and Grance Chan as Mrs. Bedwin provides welcome voices of calm and compassion as people take Oliver in to care for him.

Fine as these performances may be, it is really Blythe Wilson’s fantastic performance as Nancy who gives the show its energy. As a prostitute in love with Bill Sikes, a man who beats her, who decides to do a good deed once in her life, Nancy is the show’s most complex character and Wilson fully captures this complexity. Wilson’s pain- filled, full-voiced rendition of “As Long as He Needs Me” literally stopped the show as Wilson was greeted with a roof-raising torrent of applause and bravos. Wilson is the real thing--a singer with charisma and a powerful voice who can wrap up an entire audience in the emotion of a song.

Mary Ellen Mahoney as the Widow Corney is a fitting comic companion to Bruce Dow’s Mr. Bumble. Barbara Fulton (Mrs. Sowerberry), Dayna Tekatch (Charlotte) and Christina Gordon (Old Lady) all give fine performances in these roles. But their best moment comes when they become, respectively, a Milkmaid, a Rose Seller and a Strawberry Seller and are joined by Donnie Macphee as a Knife Seller and Barrie Wood as a Long Song Seller in the beautiful quintet of voices Oliver hears from his window that slowly segues into Oliver’s joyful song “Who Will Buy?”

Judging “Oliver!” from the point of view of such performances, this is vocally perhaps the strongest musical Stratford has ever presented on the Festival stage. There is no weak link in the cast. Donna Feore’s direction remains at best efficient and her choreography is surprisingly mundane. If her imagination had risen to the level of the performances, this show would be a major triumph.

©Christopher Hoile



Mary Alderson's review of Oliver! :

Please Sir, I want some more!

Stratford Festival’s Oliver! will leave you wanting more – especially after the lengthy reprise at the end of the show. Patrons head out of the theatre humming all the favourite tunes: “Food Glorious Food”, “Consider Yourself At Home”, “It’s a Fine Life”, “Be Back Soon”, and “I’d Do Anything For You”. Director/Choreographer Donna Feore does an excellent job of making sure the audience leaves happy, after what can be a depressing story.

Her husband, Stratford veteran Colm Feore commands the stage as the villain Fagin. He strikes just the right balance – nasty enough to scare small children, but we also see a glimpse of his human, caring side.

The musical, Oliver!, is Lionel Bart’s take on Charles Dickens’ story Oliver Twist. This 1840s classic tells the tale of an 11-year-old boy named Oliver, who lives in an orphan’s workhouse, and because he asks for more gruel for lunch, is sold to an undertaker. He escapes and joins a band of pickpockets headed by Fagin. Eventually, by luck he is reunited with his wealthy grandfather, but sadly, his protector, Nancy, is murdered in the meantime.

With a wonderful clear voice and darling looks, Tyler Pearse, a 10-year-old from Mississauga in his first acting job, is perfect as little Oliver. His rendition of “Where is Love?” will bring a lump to your throat.

The audience gave long and loud applause to Blythe Wilson as Nancy, when she belted out “As Long as He Needs Me”. Brian McKay has fun with a couple of roles – the drunken, hen-pecked undertaker and the quack doctor – both suit his quirky comic style. McKay is well known as the former artistic director of Huron Country Playhouse and for various roles at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia. Londoner Kyle Blair is excellent as the nasty Noah Claypole and also plays other characters. Bruce Dow as Mr. Bumble provides many laughs as he courts the Widow Corney (Mary Ellen Mahoney). Dow was excellent last year as the Baker in Into the Woods, and will be remembered as Schippel, the Plumber at the Grand Theatre.

Everyone loves to hate Brad Rudy as the murderous Bill Sikes. When he came out for his final bow, he was loudly booed by the entire audience – he smiled and waved in response, enjoying every “boo”. Certainly he portrayed the anger of the menacing character very well.

The company provided some very good dancing, particularly in “Consider Yourself”, but not quite the calibre of last year’s Hello Dolly when the waiters danced so superbly. The group’s presentation of the haunting “Who Will Buy?” was excellent.

The workhouse orphans, who doubled as Fagin’s thieves, were amazing for a very young group. Their rousing rendition of “Food, Glorious Food” got the audience’s attention immediately. The only disappointment was The Artful Dodger – he was just not old enough to be a convincing leader or clever swindler, and was unable to sustain the Cockney accent, causing some of the rhyming slang in his lines to fall flat.

Overall, the great ‘show tunes’ in this musical favourite make it a very entertaining night out, and you’re guaranteed to go home singing.

Oliver! continues at the Festival Theatre, Stratford until October 29. 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

The Magic Fire

written by Lillian Groag, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
June 24-October 8, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
(James Wegg's review follows)

"A Magical Evening"

In each of her four years as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, Jackie Maxwell has programmed at least one work by a female playwright. The result has been some remarkable discoveries. This year’s choice, “The Magic Fire” by American playwright Lillian Groag in its Canadian premiere, is no exception. First staged by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1997, “The Magic Fire” is a wonderfully warm autobiographical play about a young woman’s memories of growing up in an opera-loving family of European immigrants in Argentina. Amusing, touching, intellectually stimulating, the play highlights one of the Shaw Festival’s greatest strengths--ensemble acting of the very highest calibre.

The show is conceived as a memory play in which a stand-in for the playwright named Lise Berg, now an American citizen, narrates and comments on events from May through July in 1952 when she was a schoolgirl in Buenos Aires. She grows up in a family that embodies the two types of immigrants who came to Argentina. Her mother’s side, the Guarneris, left Italy voluntarily to seek a better life in the New World. Her father side, the Bergs, left Vienna more recently to avoid persecution under the Nazis. Both middle-class families revere the arts, but what unites them above all is their love of opera.

For the young Lise the central event of this period is the party for her seventh birthday on June 24. For Lise Berg’s family the central event is the disappearance of their maid’s brother after a unsanctioned strike and his brief hide-out in the family home during Lise’s birthday party. For Argentina the central event the death after a long illness of Eva Perón in July 26 that plunged the country into mourning and deprived Juan Perón of the revered symbol who protected him from criticism.

Though the interaction of the older Lise and the young Lise, Groag explores the question of the accuracy and inaccuracy of memory. The older Lise constantly asks why the younger Lise was so unaware of the political events going on around her. This personal situation mirrors that of the Berg-Guarneri family in general who has insulated itself from the politics of the new world where they live by constantly focussing on the art of the old world where the came from. The play’s title refers to conclusion of Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre” when Wotan, outraged at his daughter Brünnhilde’s disobedience, divests her of her immortality and places her in an enchanted sleep on a mountain top to become the bride of whatever man awakens her. His one concession to Brünnhilde’s pride is that he surround her with a ring of magic fire to frighten all but the most heroic of men from approaching her. The older Lise states explicitly that her family, especially her father, surrounded her with a kind of “magic fire” of protection so that she would never know what was happening in the world outside the family. At the same time it is clear that the Berg-Guarneris have both consciously and unconsciously surrounded themselves with a “magic fire” of art to fend off the unpleasant realities of the world where they live and in so doing have through nostalgia, much criticized by the older Lise, idealized the old world they came from so much that they have forgotten what it was really like. At the same time it could be said that the cult of Evita was a kind of “magic fire” that Argentineans used to protect themselves from recognizing the fascist side of Peronism.

The play has a strong relation to Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” not merely because of its use of a large ensemble but in its depiction of a group of people unable or unwilling to acknowledge the profound changes happening in the world they live in. Groag update’s Chekhov’s method through metatheatrical techniques such using as the older Lise as narrator and by having her occasionally intervene in the scenes she conjures up on stage. This combined with the panoply of allusions to opera, literature and art and the questions raised about the nature of memory and the role of art in relation to politics make “The Magic Fire” an extraordinarily rich, stimulating play.

Groag communicates all these themes through the wonderful assortment of memorable, complex characters who make up Lise’s world. Under Jackie Maxwell’s meticulous direction the cast brings these figure so much to life we think of them more as people we’ve known that as characters in a play. The birthday party scene alone with its overlapping conversations among the family over a multicourse dinner, its ever-shifting focus and its interplay between onstage and offstage action is itself masterpiece of minutely choreographed direction of breathtaking naturalism.

Tara Rosling as the older Lise is our intelligent, equivocal guide who is often surprised herself at the world she conjures up on stage, a world that eventually takes on a life of its own and reveals things to her she didn’t quite know were there. The remarkably talented young actor Lila Bata-Walsh plays her younger mischievous self. Ric Reid gives a powerful performance as Lise’s Viennese father Otto, who doesn’t want to admit to himself that he has fled persecution in Europe only to find himself in the midst of it again in the New World. His morals are tested when he discovers it is only because a family friend in the government grants the family special treatment that the family has been spared greater difficulties. Sharry Flett is equally powerful as Lise’s Italian mother Amalia, who forcibly denies her own awareness of the troubles outside to keep up the pretense that the family’s life in Buenos Aires is “happy”.

Jennifer Phipps frequently steals the show as Amalia’s eternally complaintive grandmother who continually insists her husband “kidnappèd” her from Italy to Argentina. Michael Ball plays her son, Amalia’s father, as a quick-tempered man always ready to defend Italy against attacks from his Viennese in-laws. As Amalia’s sister Elena, an unemployed actress, Goldie Semple displays a vitriolic wit born of personal disappoint frequently directed at the young Lise as if Elena hated the fact that the young girl still had her bright future before her. Playing Amalia’s Aunt Paula, Donna Belleville is hilarious as a woman whose thwarted career has mentally unhinged her and led to a morbid fascination with all aspects of suicide. In contrast Patricia Hamilton as Otto’s Aunt Clara visiting from Paris can barely hide her repugnance for the emotionalism of the Italian side of the family.

Only three characters not related to the Bergs or Guarneris. Waneta Storms plays the family’s maid with oddly little display of worry about her brother’s disappearance one would think was eating away at her. Jay Turvey forcefully plays an editor and friend of Elena’s who is most disturbed by the family’s self-willed ignorance about untoward changes in the country’s politics. Dan Chameroy, in an excellent performance against type, plays General Henri Fontannes, the family’s scintillating friend and protector and best buddy to Lise, whose darker side the older Lise and her father must come to acknowledge.

Sue LePage beautifully captures in her set and period costumes the faded aura of what for most of us is an exotic time and place. In this she is immensely aided by John Gzowski’s sound design, so central to a play where music is of such vital importance. Louise Guinand bathes the action of this memory play in an appropriately soft glow.

In her author’s note Groag says that she conceived of the play as “a novel directly for the stage”. Actively setting herself against the minimalism of so much contemporary theatre, Groag has filled “The Magic Fire” to overflowing with characters, detail and allusion. If this is Groag’s “novel”, it the kind that is so vivid and so fully involving that, having reached the last page, one would gladly turn back to page one to experience it all over again.

©Christopher Hoile

Here's James Wegg's review of The Magic Fire:

The art of immigrating

Moving house is always fraught with stress.  Memories must be packed up with the dishes and carted along with the impossibly heavy sofa bed.  Across-town treks (except when moving up) are more nuisance than rebirth while inter-city or provincial relocation allows mere acquaintances to slip away and test the bond of so-called friendships.  Most certainly the Mother of Them All is the forced ideological upheaval that drives families from their traditional homeland to the brave new world of, say, Argentina.  Like the United States, a land of hope, apparent freedom and unbridled entrepreneurship.  But what if the new-found land is no better than the abandoned soil?  Does one weep or burst into a Broadway song?   Neither!  Not when the “thud-less” waltzes of Johann Strauss and soaring arias of Giuseppe Verdi waft out of the Victorola and into the hearts and feet of the Viennese and Italian newcomers that populate Lillian Groag's 1952 world in her family-rich memoir, The Magic Fire .

Led by Jackie Maxwell's understanding direction, framed by Sue Lepage's marvellously-detailed living-room set, all awash, like a fine Pinot Grigio, with Louise Guinand's stellar lighting plot, the probing examination of how totalitarian regimes take root and selectively flourish rings with much mirth and truth, only marred by the playwright's annoying penchant for cliché.

Narrator/confessor Lise Berg (Tara Rosling, convincingly under the skin) keeps a watchful eye and unabashed mouth on the comings and goings of the two unlikely tribes that share the same postal code as General Henri Fontannes (Dan Chameroy, resplendent in his late-act finery if too amiable by half for a state murderer).  Jewel of the show is Young Lise (Lila Bata-Walsh) whose acid tongue and incessant questions (“What's a foreskin?”) are the perfect metaphor for youthful naïveté and whose only false note (amidst the copious amounts of Flying Dutchman motifs and operatic interventions) is the decades-too-early “fine” in response to an edict from familial authority.

The rest of the Lise's clan gel nicely in their common heritage:  Sharry Flett the perfect “smooth things over” mother, Ric Reid the brooding opera devotee and father who must come to terms with his inadvertent betrayal of the maid's (Waneta Storms) brother and “special” treatment from “Uncle” Henri (the corpses of progress pile up to the point that the family must move again), and Patricia Hamilton—worldly great aunt whose solution to everything is the next steamer to Paris.

Not coincidentally, the surname Berg is the same as one of Vienna's most creative and forward-looking composers:  Alban Berg, whose violin concerto and its homage to a too-soon-dead child (Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, “To the memory of an angel”) fits the play's theme like a glove.  Not to be outdone, the Italian brood's called Guarneri:  not quite as remarkable as Stradivarius but well-enough known to carry the torch for some of the planet's finest musical craftsman.

Papa is served up with passion and argumentative brilliance (the pedigree of tenors and that “Greek soprano” a constant pleasure) but a semi-believable accent by Michael Ball (a recurring problem in this tale of other nationalities—where the radio announcer sounds more CBC than the propaganda-on-the-air People's network).  His daughters give the script much of its punch:  Elena (Goldie Semple) the sharp-tongued actor (“Chekhov knew everything” indeed!) brilliantly foiled by Paula (rendered oh-so-broadly by Donna Belleville) who regales young Lise with all manner of imagined and real-life atrocities that have the adults shuddering (yet the half-serious offering of hemlock at tea time is a small stroke of brilliance that links wonderfully to the pages-earlier Alice's Adventures in Wonderland reference).  The clear audience favourite is the irascible matriarch, Nonna (Jennifer Phipps in top form).  From her mouth spews a litany of invective—matched with the gift of selective hearing—that most only dream of saying.

With literary and musical references as thick as mosquitoes in Winnipeg (but please, no matter how “cute,” scrap the threadbare Für Elise for the overlong piano lesson and perhaps something less German and more Viennese than Der Rosenkavalier for the last waltz) it falls to the native-born Argentineans to drive Groag's points home.

Henri's long-ago school chum, Alberto Barcos (Jay Turvey, oozing with style and irony in every line) is the fearless editor who doesn't hesitate to criticize the Peronistas.  Early on, his powerful bud outs him as a homosexual but the implications of that fact are never explored, making the inclusion seem more like “well, duh, and of course he's gay” than a plot point of value.

Admittedly, Groag likes a “big play.”  And she's got one.  There's certainly something for everyone but also a feeling that, like Berg's marvellous if dense 12-tone technique, there are so many threads that the whole gets lost in the Tango.  But, no matter, a pearl of wisdom (soon after the table is set with panache and a saucy towel salute by the displaced gang) clarifies the entire proceedings:  “Art is life.  Nice is entertainment.”  Touché. JWR

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Heiress

written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, directed by Joseph Ziegler
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 5-October 7, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
James Wegg's review follows.

"Tara Rosling Triumphs in ‘The Heiress’"

“The Heiress”, now playing at the Shaw Festival, is a fine production in every way and features a superb performance in the title role by Tara Rosling. The play is one of the few adaptations of a novel so thoroughly dramatic that it has found a life of its own on the stage. The source, Henry James’s novel “Washington Square” (1880), provided the adaptors Ruth and Augustus Goetz with their single greatest success. Their 1947 adaptation captures the ambiguities of James’s tale and still packs a powerful emotional punch.

In the play as in the novel Catherine Sloper has been brought up by her father, a wealthy New York doctor, after her mother’s death in childbirth. Dr. Sloper has intended that Catherine should become a replacement for the wife Catherine “killed” as he thinks, but his constant reminders to Catherine of how she falls short of her mother in every way has brought about just the opposite. She is painfully shy, awkward and completely unworldly. When Morris Townsend, a distant relation of her cousin’s fiancé, meets her, he immediately falls in love with her and within two weeks proposes marriage, a marriage staunchly opposed by Dr. Sloper, who believes the penniless Townsend is simply after Catherine’s money.

Director Joseph Ziegler, who played Townsend himself in Toronto in 1986, moves the action along at a slow, inexorable pace that vitiates any whiff of melodrama and allows the tension to build naturally to the four devastating scene endings that punctuate the second act. He draws highly detailed performances from the whole cast, all marked with a sense of restraint that suits both mid-19th-century upper- class decorum and heightens the impression of ambiguity since what said is often no clear guide to what is felt or intended.

As Catherine, Tara Rosling gives a brilliant performance. For the first two thirds of the play she shows us a young woman who has been so oppressed by her father’s dominance and so worn down by his constant criticism that she can barely speak or act for fear of doing the wrong thing. Inevitably, this hesitancy leads her to do the
wrong thing all the time which only leads to further criticism.
Every aspect of Rosling’s Catherine shows the crippling effect of her upbringing--her haunted look, her minimal gestures, her wooden posture. Any natural reaction has been drummed out of her. Yet, under Townsend’s influence we see her gradually begin to bloom despite these constraints. When Catherine realizes she is unloved the pain Rosling communicates is almost unbearable. Her metamorphosis to poise, self-possession and cruelty by the end is remarkable. It’s marvelous to see a young actress cover such a wide dramatic arc with such supreme control.

The rest of the cast is also excellent. Mike Shara gives one of his best-ever performances as Townsend. He manages to keep us in doubt about Townsend’s true motives right until the end of the play. Does he love Catherine for herself or her money? Even when we suspect that Catherine’s money plays a large part in his attraction to her, Shara plays the character with such ardour and sincerity that we find it as hard as Catherine’s Aunt Penniman to believe that his motivation is solely mercenary.

Michael Ball is well cast as Catherine’s father. He shows his devotion to his patients that makes him a good doctor and the devotion to his dead wife’s memory that reveals an unquenchable inner pain. But once we realize that this latter devotion has turned his “care” for Catherine into disgust and hatred, we begin to wonder whether he or Townsend is the greater blight on her life.

Donna Belleville plays Catherine’s Aunt Penniman, the only one who
can freely communicate with Catherine, Dr. Sloper and Townsend.
Partially this is because they each regard her as innocuous, but Belleville reveals towards the end that even beneath Aunt Penniman’s smoothing tones and solicitude lie surprisingly harsh opinions.

As Mrs. Montgomery, Townsend’s sister, Catherine McGregor is able to assume a frankness of attitude that gives away nothing to Dr. Sloper but what he wants to believe. In smaller roles, Nora McLellan as Aunt Penniman’s sister, Jessica Lowry as her daughter and Henry Judge as her fiancé bring with them the fresh air of normality and a human naturalness so lacking in the Sloper household.

Christina Poddubiuk has created one of those realistic sets so beautifully proportioned and well appointed one wishes one could just move in. Her costumes accurately reflect mid-19th-century American fashion while also being true to the characters. Catherine is dressed primarily in an indefinable mauve-grey and Townsend cuts a handsome figure without looking flashy. Louise Guinand cast an ominously cold light over all the scenes.

With its beautiful physical production, its highly detailed acting and its brilliant central performance, “The Heiress” is one of the must-sees of this year’s Shaw Festival.

©Christopher Hoile


Here's S. James Wegg's review of The Heiress:

Physician heel thyself

Henry James wrote many brilliant and successful novels ( The Portrait of a Lady , The Bostonians ) but couldn't find the magic when writing for the stage ( Guy Domville , a prime example of critical claim and box office flop).  Decades back, Ruth and Augustus Goetz sharpened their pencils and reworked James' Washington Square into The Heiress (much as composer Benjamin Britten transformed The Turn of the Screw into an opera, premièring in Venice in 1954).  It became the toast of the 1947-48 Broadway season.

Nearly six decades since Basil Rathbone created the role of Dr. Sloper, the Shaw Festival has launched its first production of this tale of family dysfunction and betrothal-by-inheritance.

The visual trappings are as good as it gets.  Christina Poddubiuk's rendering of the upper-class family parlour, with its pale green walls, period light fixtures and aptly austere portraits is at one with the comings and goings of the indefatigable Doctor (Michael Ball) and his two sisters Lavinia Penniman (Donna Belleville) and Elizabeth Almond (Norah McLellan).  But come for the drama stay for the gowns!  While the untrustworthy men bumble about in bland waistcoats, their women—most especially Dr. Sloper's Pygmalion-lite daughter and heir apparent, Catherine (Tara Rosling) swish about the set in reams of fabric:  blush-crimson red, Mourners-“R”-Us black (tastefully embellished with lace, of course) and a frothy French frock that belies the unanimously unloved creature within its seams.

The wee bits of solo piano music (yet the off-stage spinet sounds far too modern, staining the otherwise detail-rich façade)—notably Chopin's B Minor Prelude subtlety reinforce Catherine's shortcomings (her died-in-child-birth mother was an accomplished musician whose only offspring is denied harp lessons due to a bad ear) and the perpetual solitude shared by the older generation even as they know best.

As the curtain rises, life in Sloper Manor is revealed.  The good Doctor has just brought another life into the world and inadvertently reflects on his own:  “Such beautiful little creatures. … Why don't they grow up that way?,” he asks the perpetually congenial maid Maria (Krista Colosimo, in need of an ounce of relaxation and a half-cup of flow to more effectively contrast her mistress).  Widow Penniman slips in for the sherry hour; brother and sister bemoan their collective efforts in finding Catherine a suitable man—preferably someone “clever.”

From her first entrance, Rosling exudes the look of high society's unwanted belle (her radiant beauty is nicely foiled by a virgin-severe hair bun).  But the moment she speaks, the concern is switched from social shyness to cognitive impairment.  Director Joseph Ziegler lets his heroine declaim her lines a nickel short of impediment.  Later, when having it out with her cruel, unfeeling relatives or savouring a large piece of revenge biscuits herself, the change in delivery comes across more as a miracle that requires a trip to Church than the metamorphosis from despised misfit to last-laugh victor.  Similar to the variants between the script and the novel, this further major departure from the tone of the original only serves to diffuse James' message.

Newcomer to the Sloper Family Feud is Morris Townsend (Mike Shara) a very distant cousin of banker-to-be Arthur Townsend (the always affable Harry Judge) who has recently married Catherine's cousin Marian (Jessica Lowry).  Morris is just back from squandering a slight inheritance in Europe, even as his landlord-who-takes-no-rent sister, Mrs. Montgomery (Catherine McGregor), endeavours to raise five “pennies” on her own.  Still, Morris tutors his nephews and nieces “gratis,” in an attempt to earn his keep and their admiration.

Shara proves to be the sharpest knife in the drawer.  He brings just enough sincerity to his protestations of undying love to the “thirty-thousand-a-year” wallflower to raise a modicum of doubt (before his backgammon-brandy-inspired boldness with Lavinia on the eve of Dr. Sloper and Catherine's return from an enforced six-month “cooling off” sojourn to Europe) confirms that he is as base as all handsome fortune hunters.

The good Doctor not only arrives a day early, upsetting the elopement plan, but has the audacity to have, literally, caught his death of cold.  This predicament adds one failed joke (the stethoscope as a flute) but provides the metaphor of the play when the failing, lonely, wretched physician, holding the aforementioned new medical apparatus brought in duty free from Paris opines “It's for listening in hearts. … I wish I had it years ago.”

And so the grumpy old man soon expires to meet his Maker, unable to cure himself of his unconscionable brutality and loveless soul.  Sadly, Catherine has learned those lessons well and promises, for once, to rise above her father's degree of “excellence.” JWR

 

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Fanny Kemble

written and directed by Peter Hinton
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford August 13-September 23, 2006
review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Blythe Dominates ‘Kemble’"

The last time a play by Peter Hinton appeared at the Stratford Festival it was his massive, large-cast, three-part verse play “The Swanne” in 2002, 2003 and 2004. That play was an historical fantasy that explored the idea that the real heir to the British throne was not Victoria but an illegitimate black boy. Hinton’s latest play is “Fanny Kemble” about the famous 19th-century actress, writer and abolitionist. It is on a much smaller scale--a one-person show starring Domini Blythe--but it has much the same concerns as “The Swanne” with role, identity, servitude, history and destiny. It also has many of the same conceptual problems.

Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble (1809-1893) was born into a famous British acting family that included Sarah Siddons. She followed family expectations and entered the family profession despite having a far greater love for writing than acting. On tour in the United States, she met and married Pierce Butler, heir to a wealthy Philadelphia family. Two years later he inherited the family’s plantations in Georgia whereupon he became the second-largest slave- owner in the country. This horrified Kemble, an ardent abolitionist, whose best-known work is her “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-9”. Butler’s family forbade her from publishing it, but after the beginning of the American Civil war, she did publish it and it is credited with turning the tide of British sentiment against the South. In 1845 she left Butler and in 1848 he divorced her. She then returned to the stage supporting herself by lecturing and giving readings from Shakespeare.

Hinton’s play imagines Kemble not yet unpacked in a dressing room of
a theatre in Philadelphia about to deliver one of her readings.
Tamara Marie Kucheran has created an attractive set with the trunks opening to reveal miniature allegorical scenes. She gives Kemble two identical period gowns--black for Act 1, white for Act 2--reflecting Kemble’s practice of dressing to suit the matter of her reading, tragedy or comedy respectively. The back wall showing the negative of a portrait of Kemble as Juliet neatly combines this theme along with racial topics of the play. Robert Thomson’s lighting creates the gloomy atmosphere of the plantation scenes and spotlights key objects, such as Kemble’s wedding ring, throughout the action.

As the offstage voice of the stage manager repeatedly gives Kemble a five-minute warning to curtain time, the actress muses on her life and reflects on the question, “Who shall I enter as tonight?” which becomes a refrain throughout the play. The two hours it takes Kemble to rehearse her past for us thus represents the quick reflections of a few minutes before she leaves for the stage. As in his “Swanne”
trilogy the action proceeds associatively, not chronologically, beginning with Butler’s massive sale of his slaves to pay off his debts, and shuttles back and forth through time, among London, Philadelphia past and present and Georgia. As with “The Swanne”, Hinton does not take enough care in signalling the shifts of time and place so that Kemble’s fairly straightforward story becomes hopelessly confusing, with her various trips to the States hard to disentangle.

Hinton makes favours these associative links over a clear chronology because his is primarily interested in hammering home thematic points derived from Kemble’s life more than he is in helping know the character. He begins with Butler’s slave auction because that gives him his central image. Kemble claims that slave-owning takes a toll on both slave and master, that “the misery of the slave is equal to the moral abasement of the master,“ though, one should think, less physically painful for the master. Kemble herself feels like a slave in marriage where she is her husband’s chattel rather than his equal. When Kemble takes the stage she feels like she is standing on the block like a slave to be auctioned. Hinton parallels the loss of identity in acting with the loss of humanity in both slave and master.

Rather than being the intriguing life it should be, Fanny Kemble in Hinton’s play becomes more like a text for preaching. He has Kemble draw all the politically correct morals of her actions for us as if we the audience were too weak-minded to discover them ourselves and then iterates them as if we hadn’t got the point. With the confused timeline and the repetitive didacticism, Hinton manages to make the life of one of the most fascinating women of the 19th century into an exercise in pretense and tedium.

What gives the show life is the vivacious performance of Domini Blythe as Kemble. She plays at least a dozen characters black and white, male and female, and Fanny herself at several different ages, all clearly differentiated from each other. Most amusing is her portrayal of Kemble’s imperious, Lady Bracknell-like Aunt Siddons, who prefers to be called “the tragic muse Melpomene” even by her relations. Most moving is her portrayal of Kemble’s female friends among the slaves, Psyche, whom Kemble taught to read. Much of the Act 2 is taken up with Psyche’s telling the story of how she and a friend Jenny Hill planned to escape but how Psyche at the last minute lost her nerve leaving Jenny to keep running.

Since Kemble records her conversations with Psyche and other slaves in her journals, Hinton has Psyche bring up the problem we would now call “appropriation of voice”, a circumstance aggravated by the fact that Blythe actually does take on the voice to Psyche to tell her tale. For a playwright so scrupulously politically correct as Hinton, it is odd that Hinton never has Kemble give Psyche a reply to her accusation that she has infringed on her confidence. This gap among all the clichés retailed as insights (e.g., not everything is black and white but grey), leaves the audience feeling they haven’t really got to know this great woman from the past as much as the lessons Hinton wants us to derive from it.

Domini Blythe is a wonderful actor. When she meditatively delivers Portia’s speech about “the quality of mercy”, we recognize yet again her great ability to make Shakespeare language sound so natural, passionate and intelligible. Hinton’s tale of Kemble inevitably pales in constrast. Blythe is such a fine performer that she deserves to star in a work that more fully engages the audience and more fully showcases the full breadth of her talent.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Don Juan

written by Molière, directed by Lorraine Pintal
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford August 11-October 10, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Molière’s Anti-Comedy"

The Stratford Festival’s first-ever production of Molière’s “Don Juan”, a coproduction with Montreal’s Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, could have been a great success. Its design is superb and it has an excellent cast with Colm Feore in the title role. But director Lorraine Pintal’s vision of the play is unsteady and David Edney’s translation has some unfortunate lapses.

“Don Juan” is Molière’s most atypical play. First and most importantly, it is not a comedy. After all, this is a play where the title character not only dies but goes directly to hell. Unlike Molière’s tight-knit plays of the same period like “L’École des femmes’ (1662) or “Tartuffe” (1664), “Don Juan” (1665) is episodic and does not follow the unities of time, place or action demanded by French literary purists of the period. From Don Juan’s reputation we might assume that the play deals with the famous reprobate’s pursuit
of women. In fact, this activity is depicted in only in Act 2.
Otherwise, Molière is far more concerned to show us that his Don Juan flouts all social, religious and moral conventions in general.

The play was too unlike Molière’s other works and too far ahead of its time to be successful in Molière’s day. When the play first premiered in 1665, it so incensed the court’s religious faction that cuts were demanded after the first night. It ran for only 14 more performances and was not published or performed again during Molière’s lifetime. It was revived once in the 19th century but it was not until a famous revival by Louis Jouvet in 1947 that the play became recognized as the masterpiece it is.

The words “Molière” and “comedy” are so linked in the public’s mind
that directors must be tempted to force the play into that mold.
That temptation should be resisted. After all, just because Eugene O’Neill’s best-known plays are tragedies doesn’t mean that his comedy “Ah, Wilderness!” should be directed as one. Director Lorraine Pintal seems to recognize this to some degree since she allows so many of the play’s scenes to be played absolutely straight. These scenes--like Don Juan’s interactions with Dona Elvira, with her honorable brother Don Carlos, with his own father Don Louis or in his
temptation of a mendicant--are the most effective in the play.
Unfortunately, Pintal still falls prey to the notion that a play by Molière must be made to be funny whether it actually is or not. To this end she prefaces the action with about twenty minutes of commedia dell’arte lazzi unrelated to the play in which nine successive actors nonchalantly stroll out on stage only to be transfixed when they realize an audience is watching them. The joke, of course, makes no sense. Why should commedia actors on stage be surprised there is an audience? Besides that, after the same thing happens twice, the repetition becomes tedious. It would have better to cut the whole sequence, have Benoît Brière as Sganarelle simply make his comic anti-cellphone announcement and start the show.

As it happens, the least successful scenes in the play are the ones Pintal tries hardest to make funny. These occur in Act 2 when Don Juan and suite are saved from drowning by a peasant lad and Juan immediately begins the seduction of two peasant lasses. It does not help matters at all that Canadian translator David Edney has given these Sicilian peasants Newfoundland accents. That may have worked when his translation premiered in Saskatoon in 1991, but it not only makes the peasants hard to understand but also, given mainland Canadian prejudices, makes them sound like idiots. (As a side note, I can see why Stratford would choose a Canadian translation, but in the past it has chosen American Richard Wilbur’s translations of Molière’s verse plays because they are considered the finest. Why not seek out the best translation of this play like that of American Stephen Wadsworth based on the 1683 Amsterdam edition, thought to be the closest to Molière’s original text, which has won acclaim wherever it has been performed?) To make matters worse, Pintal has directed the three peasants to shout all their lines, as if louder were funnier, with the result that the work’s most important discussion of the theme of love is totally lost.

Pintal’s view of Sganarelle, Don Juan’s chief servant, is another source of irritation. Sganarelle is not the wily Plautine servant of Molière’s other plays. Rather he is much like Cervantes’ Sancho Panza is to Don Quixote, the servant who continually tries to point our the realities of the world to his obsessed, deluded master. The irony in “Don Juan”, of course, is that the master is deluded not by idealism but profound cynicism. Sganarell’s pleas with his master to change his ways are earnest and even despairing but seldom comic in themselves. Pintal, however, has Benoît Brière play all Sganarelle’s lines as comic no matter what their meaning so that Brière’s attempt often backfire since his delivery too often contradicts the sense of what he says. If that were not enough, Pintal has Brière “heighten”
the comedy by acting out the meaning of every line with hand gestures after he says it thus basically doubling the time it takes him to say anything. Pintal’s pace is already so wearyingly slow that the evening takes nearly three hours when most productions of this rather short play take only two.

The production itself is exquisite. In its highly dramatic effects it is much more akin to what we are used to in modern productions of opera than theatre. Danièle Lévesque’s stark white set consists of layers of painted and unpainted scrims rather handily suggesting the layers of Don Juan’s world that Molière pierces through in the course of the action. Having two people wave a gauzy white curtain is an elegant way to suggest the seaside scene of Act 2. François St- Aubin’s costumes, that cross the modern with the 17th-century, are sumptuously beautiful. Don Juan has a new outfit on every appearance to match the Don’s notion that every seduction is a new. The one oddity is that Sganarelle is attired so much more poorly than the Don’s domestic lackeys. Why, exactly, would a fashion-conscious person like Don Juan want to be seen in the company of someone who looks like a tramp? Axel Morgenthaler’s lighting design follows current European practice of lighting scenes to heighten their dramatic impact rather than to recreate naturalistic effects. He creates a fairy-tale-like haze in the forest scenes of Act 3 and a definite aura of unease in the scenes involving the Commander’s statue. Robert Normandeau’s music is most effective when it imitates the eeriness and grandeur of Arvo Pärt, less so when it imitates standard suspense music.

The production has an excellent cast. Colm Feore is an almost ideal Don Juan. His “lean and hungry look”, to borrow from Shakespeare, eminently suits Molière’s middle-aged libertine and he looks stunning in St-Aubin’s sensual series of costumes. His Don Juan seems the ultimate narcissist. His interest in women is solely in conquest, in proof of his power over them. Don Carlos, Elvira’s brother who refuses to fight the man who saved his life, seems to be the only man who impresses him because his man-made morality requires no divine sanction. Feore glides through the action in an unchanging pose of hauteur combined with world-weariness. If there is a flaw in his performance it is that he gives us little sense why he puts up with the lectures and pleading of Sganarelle. Feore’s Don Juan seems to hold him in utter contempt, but more logically we should sense that he is at least amused or intrigued by the personality of a humble man
who so fervently tries to convert him to conventional morality.
Otherwise, why keep such a nuisance about him?

Veteran Quebecois performer Brière is clearly a fine actor. It is a pity that Pintal’s interpretation thrusts him into a situation where he comes off so badly. It is easy to imagine Brière speaking so many of Sganarelle’s lines with a different intonation that would bring out their pathos in contrast to the Don’s cold cynicism rather than having him throw them all away in vain attempts at comedy. This is particularly true of what should be Sganarelle’s impassioned plea to the Don in Act 3 to appreciate the wonders of the everyday world:“Pouvez-vous voir toutes les inventions dont la machine de l'homme est composée, sans admirer de quelle façon cela est agencé l'un dans l'autre?” Yet, the clowning Pintal forces on Brière distracts us from the beauty of Sganarelle’s words.

The actors allowed to play their roles straight do fine work. Sara Topham makes a fervent Dona Elvira in Acts 1 and 5, particularly impressive in the latter, despite a bizarre black-and-red costume, in convincing us she has conquered earthly passion. Paul Essiembre cuts a noble figure as Elvira’s brother Don Carlos who argues for honorable behaviour against his hot-headed brother Don Alonso played by Stephen Gartner. Nicolas Van Burek is overemphatic as Elvira’s valet Gusman but has an excellent scene in Act 3 as a poor man, whom Don Juan maliciously tries to tempt to swear to earn his alms. Famed Quebecois actor Jean-Louis Roux as the Don’s father Don Louis offers a forceful condemnation of his son as if every fibre of his being were outraged that such an abomination could be his own flesh and blood. David Francis, in one of the few deliberately comic roles as the Don’s chief creditor Mr. Domingo, is very funny as a man easily blinded with flattery. Christopher Plummer appearing via video as the statue of the dead Commander makes his few line absolutely chilling.

Gareth Potter as the peasant Pierrot is talented enough to make his character’s innocence and sincerity shine through the foolish accent and direction imposed on him, whereas these tend to hobble both Martha Farrell and Sophie Goulet as the peasant girls Charlotte and Mathurine. Pintal draws out the closing scene by having a Ghost, danced by Michelle Galati and choreographed by Donna Feore, flirt with Don Juan before leading him to hell, thus reinforcing one of the play’s theme as if, after two hours, we were too dull to get it.

It’s a pity that so rare and important a Molière should receive so flawed a production when the cast and design are so fine. Yet any work can be undermined by uninsightful direction and a poor translation. Those who wish to see the play in the original French have the opportunity at performances on October 12, 14, 17, 19 and 20. Bonne chance!

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Twelfth Night

written by William Shakespeare, directed by Leon Rubin
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford August 10-October 28, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
Mary Alderson's review follows.
James Wegg's review follows, also!

"Shakespeare Mulligatawny"

This season “Twelfth Night” with ten productions becomes the most produced play at the Stratford Festival. It seems, though, that directors at Stratford have run out of things to say about the play. For anyone who has come to think that Stratford no longer knows how to do Shakespeare, this “Twelfth Night” only provides more fuel for the fire. Nonsensical design, poor direction and weak acting have undermined the other three Shakespeares on offer this year. “Twelfth Night” provides more of the same.

As everyone knows at the beginning of “Twelfth Night” the shipwrecked Viola finds stranded in Illyria. Historically, Illyria was an ancient Balkan country roughly where Albania is now that eventually became part of the Roman Empire. To Shakespeare, it simply means somewhere far away. Director Leon Rubin has decided that Illyria is India during the Raj. There is nothing inherently wrong with this except that Rubin makes absolutely no use of this setting to
interpret the play. Orsino is Indian and Olivia is British.


Throughout the play she seems to go native, progressing from Victorian dress to saris. This might make sense if she were in love with Orsino, but she is not. She loves Cesario, who is a foreigner. The trouble is that “Illyria” is a value-neutral place elsewhere, whereas the 19th-century India is not. Rubin shows us no tensions between the Indians and their foreign rulers or any political aspects of what the Raj means. By stooping to have Feste become a snake- charmer he shows that this setting does not “re-imagine Shakespeare in a more global and cultural context” as he claims in his Director’s Note, but merely trades on Western clichés about foreign country.


The lively dance that concludes the play has more to do with modern Bollywood than the 19th century.

The acting is depressingly uneven and breaks down into a competition between Stratford’s veteran actors and its newcomers. Brian Bedford is, of course, a wonderful Malvolio. He is one of the masters on this continent of speaking Shakespeare, knowing how to make his language seem perfectly clear and how to heighten his humour through emphasis and significant pauses. As is his wont he plays he big scenes directly to the audience and anyone who saw his Malvolio at Stratford in 1980 will have seen essentially the same performance he gives now. Yet, it is doubtful anyone has penetrated given so rich a performance in the role or makes us feel so clearly that Malvolio has been wronged at the end.

As Olivia, Seana McKenna gives a highly nuanced performance as the bereaved being drawn against her will into love and Diane D’Aquila gives us one of the liveliest and most intelligent Marias of recent years. Both actors are also expert at speaking Shakespeare and finding the humour inherent in both character and text.

Sadly, these abilities are true of no one else in the production.
The worst offender is Andrew Massingham as Feste. Though made up as an Indian clown, Massingham speaks in a mumbling Canadian accent so that much of what he says is totally unclear and the humour lost. As the main singer in the play, Massingham is completely miscast. His voice is weak and he can’t carry a tune thus turning otherwise lovely songs like “When That I Was” into painful experiences. Whatever unknown dialect he puts on a Sir Topas renders him unintelligible.

Sanjay Talwar, who has given so many fine performances elsewhere, proves a disappointment as Orsino. Compared to the other principals, he doesn’t project sufficiently in the Festival Theatre and simply can’t be heard properly. This naturally prevents his making a strong impression, but even his gestural language seems uncharacteristically stagy. Dana Green has recently given some fine performances but here is her Viola is all one note of pluckiness. She is good at playing the boy Cesario, but never with either Orsino or Olivia does she suggest that she is a servant. She delivers her famous Act 2 soliloquy as if it were all a joke rather than a serious problem to have the woman she is wooing for her master fall in love with her.

Thom Marriott ought to make a good Sir Toby Belch, but his level of drunkenness varies so much from moment to moment you give up trying to find any coherence in his character. Don Carrier would make a good Sir Andrew Aguecheek except that Rubin has turned him into a Scotsman and saddled him with an impenetrable Scots accent. What is surprising is that Rubin seems not to recognize that with Massingham’s mumbling, Marriott’s drunken rambling and Carrier’s accent the comic effect of Shakespeare language is seriously compromised.

Among minor characters Roy Lewis (Antonio), Shaun McComb (Sebastian), Jon de Leon (Curio), Sean Baek (Valentine) all display imprecise diction and inaccurate pointing of the text. It’s lucky that Robert King is cast as Fabian to give us at least one source of clearly understandable commentary during Malvolio’s famous letter scene.

Despite the fact that the Raj setting is used to no purpose, it must be admitted that John Pennoyer’s set and costumes, especially those imitating Indian dress, are highly attractive. Robert Thomson uses light to help differentiate the realms of Orsino, Sir Toby and Olivia, but his most dramatic effect is in creating the “dark room” where the supposedly mad Malvolio is held. Michael Vieira tries to give the music to Shakespeare’s famous songs an Indian flavour, but the result is songs that are even more difficult for a non-singer like Massingham to sing.

The clash of acting styles, the variety of accents and large number of poorly delivered speeches are hallmarks of a play that is under- rehearsed, carelessly directed or both. If the Stratford Festival wants to regain its fame as a forum for fine productions of Shakespeare, it cannot continue to place such ill-conceived, indifferently performed productions like this “Twelfth Night” or this season’s “Coriolanus”, “Much Ado About Nothing” or “Henry IV, Part 1”
before the public or its reputation will slip even further.

©Christopher Hoile

 

Here's Mary Alderson's take on Twelfth Night:

What You Will is what you get

Apparently someone in Shakespeare's time considered Twelfth Night a Christmas show – although there is no obvious reason why. But that's how the name Twelfth Night came to be. It was traditionally shown on the twelfth day of Christmas, which was a time of festivity. Shakespeare had originally called this play “What You Will” a clever pun on his name, and a more apt title, when you consider that “having your will” with someone had bawdy implications.

The current production of Twelfth Night playing at the Stratford Festival bears no resemblance to Christmas, but it has some surprises that are a delightful gift, and it ends in celebration.

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's later romantic comedies. It is traditional Shakespearean style, much of it written in rhyme. There are frequent soliloquies where the character stands at centre stage and talks directly to the audience, explaining his/her innermost thoughts and feelings.

Like several of Shakespeare's comedies, the plot centres on a girl dressed as a boy. The confusion we see today on the stage, must have been compounded in Elizabethan times when women weren't allowed to act, so boys would be playing the female roles. In this case, a young man would be playing a woman, pretending to be a boy.

Viola is shipwrecked and ends up on an exotic island. She assumes her twin brother Sebastian has died at sea. She dresses as a boy so that she will be safe in this strange country, and goes to work as an aid to the Prince. Of course, she falls in love with him, but he doesn't know she's a woman. He's in love with the countess Olivia, and asks Viola to deliver his love to Olivia on his behalf. Olivia falls in love with the young messenger. In a subplot, Olivia's uncle, Sir Toby Belch and his freeloader friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek, along with Olivia's maid Maria, play a nasty trick on the annoying, self-righteous steward, Malvolio.

The set is the first interesting surprise. The stage is decorated like exotic India, with a golden turret and drapes revealing monkeys and birds in gilded cages. The play is moved from Elizabethan times to India in the 1800's, under England's colonial rule. The two worlds contrast effectively – Orsinio is an Indian Prince with servants in turbans and saris, while Olivia is a British countess, with her steward Malvolio in knickers and silk stockings.

The next delight is seeing Tony award winner and Stratford favourite Brian Bedford playing the dour Malvolio. Bedford is hilarious as the nasty steward, who is taken in by a fake love-note, and gets fooled into doing some ridiculous things.

Also delightful is Dana Green as Viola, who in turn pretends to be the young man Cesario. Green, with her hair hidden in a turban and her arms folded across her chest, could actually make you think she was a boy.

Thom Marriott as the drunken Sir Toby Belch and Don Carrier as the not-so-bright Sir Andrew Aguecheek make an excellent comedic team. Sir Andrew is a Scotsman, complete with kilt and plaid boxer shorts that add to the hilarity.

Diane D'Aquila is good as the maidservant Maria. She behaves herself in her mistress's presence, but shows her naughty side when having fun with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew. D'Aquila's contagious laughter shows Maria's jovial, fun-loving character.

Less enchanting is Seana McKenna's interpretation of Olivia. Her sudden love for Viola/Cesario isn't believable, and even when Sebastian shows up, there doesn't seem to be any special chemistry between them. One wonders what would interest a young man in this mature woman.

Shakespeare's superior ability as a wordsmith is most evident in the character Feste, the fool, played by Andrew Massingham. Puns and double entendres fill his lines, cleverly delivered by Massingham.

The final delight of the evening is the dance, when the three couples ultimately get together. While it starts out as an eastern dance in keeping with the Indian setting, it evolves into other dance moves – very festive and lots of fun.

Twelfth Night continues at the Festival Theatre, Stratford until October 28. 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.


And here's S. James Wegg's take on Twelfth Night:

Much truth below the surface

Troth sir, I can yield you none without words, and words are grown so false I am loath to prove reason with them.

- Feste, Act 2, Scene 5

Truly, a fine madness has descended on Brampton and human beings of all persuasions (denialists, revisionists, outright liars and those who engage in the fine art of willful blindness) must venture forth to the A.C.T. Production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night or What You Will .  For there, occasionally competing with urban cacophony, the ear, eye and soul will be rewarded with timeless humour, subtle updates and an uproarious evening as the worst of human nature—generously sugar-coated with all manner of mirth, cross-dressing and buffoonery—is subtly brought to light for those who care to face la verité .  For the rest, it's an evening of silliness and yuks.

Though a large cast and crew are required to put the show on the boards in front of Brampton's seat of government, the success of the night sits squarely on the shoulders of Peter Van Wart's superb depiction of the hapless steward, Malvolio, and director Rod Ceballos' brilliantly balanced mix of bawdy, physical humour and the crushing cruelty meted on the weak by drunken, lecherous bullies.

Plays don't get more universal than that.

Van Wart puts his impressive range of emotions, delivery and body language through the mill.  Subservient and loyal in the early going, hopelessly shackled with love for his mistress, Olivia (Claire Reid, marvellously innocent but lacking the hint of savvy-below-the-surface) then viciously duped.  Noble drunkards Sir Toby Belch (Adrian Churchill cobbles together a convincing boozer—think Tevye with an addiction to five-star sherry), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Andrew Clegg, whose primal screams get one chorus too many, yet the “Rocky” fight sequence rekindles the funny bone long after the fact) and the conniving forger Maria (Lynne Griffin, who makes the stage grin with every entrance).

Fooled into sporting “yellow stockings … and cross-gartered” (wondrously rendered by costumer Alex Amini in his homage to Payne Stewart) the lovesick Malvolio makes a complete ass of himself even as he thrusts his “greatness” unabashedly towards his aghast intended.

Ceballos lets his able troupe rev up the laughs:  each scene is broader than the last.  Lurking in the narrative weeds are identical twins in their grey flannel suits.  Viola (Katherine McLeod, whose thoughtful looks speak volumes) disguises as a man and becomes the go-between for her master, Orsino (ever-steady Trevor Martin) and his uncooperative infatuation, also Olivia.  Viola's brother, Sebastian (Colin Edwards) seems blissfully unaware of the depths (or nature) of love emanating from his rescuer Antonio (spot-on angst from Tim MacLean).  He happily submits to Olivia's advances, she, no doubt, more than relieved to ferret what awaits her in the identical sibling's trousers on their wedding night (you have to be there!).

Gluing the deceits of the privileged class together is the buck-begging fool (er, Yankee, that is—this production is chock-a-block full of “gangstahs,” fedoras and even a Southern fundamentalist preacher) Feste.  Terry Wells slips out his lines with panache, but, despite the enthusiastic cajoling of Mike Gauthier's stylish guitar accompaniments, can't find a tune to save his life.  More fool we.

The crucial late-act return of Malvolio is a tricky bit of business.  Here's where the director and cast combine to ignite an emotional payoff that tragically morphs the fun-loving party animals into heartless oppressors that provide the world with much of its real-time grief every day.  Van Wart's bedraggled entry, his garish stockings soiled and dishevelled from being locked up in a dank dungeon, elicits a few chuckles in the expectation by some that there is more humiliation to come.  But the laughing stock's visage—spectacularly pathetic—soon stifles the guffaws from audience and fellow actors alike.  By playing much of the preceding scenes large and loud, Ceballos, most certainly aided and abetted by the Bard's subtext-rich lines, gambles that his charges can turn the tide from tears-in-your eyes funny, to guilt-in-your hearts truth.  He succeeds.

The proof is in Malvolio's exit and last-gasp vow for revenge “on the whole pack of you.”  As the planet knows only too well, getting even for insults real or imagined continues to be the bane of human existence.  The sequel plays daily to packed battlefields everywhere.

 

 

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