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| Rosmersholm | The Invisible Man | The Liar | Love Among the Russians | Ghosts |
The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead
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Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2006

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

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The Invisible Man

written by Michael O’Brien, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre,
Niagara-on-the-Lake May 27-October 29, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
James Wegg's review follows.

"Hard to See"

The Shaw Festival’s current world premiere production of “The Invisible Man” is one of those projects whose point, like the play’s title character, is hard to see. H.G. Wells’s original short novel of 1897 is a classic. James Whale’s 1933 film based on it is also a classic. Both can be experienced in less time, with less expense and with greater pleasure than Michael O’Brien’s lumbering, revisionist stage adaptation. O’Brien’s purpose is confused. If his goal is to adapt the novel for the stage, then why is at least half of it
occupied with characters and events that do not appear in the novel?
Instead of “Adapted from the novel by H. G. Wells”, the programme should more accurately read “Variations on themes suggested by the novel of H. G. Wells”. Besides that, the action is too unclear to appeal to children and too dull to appeal to adults.

O’Brien uses only the bare bones of Wells’s novel. A mysterious
bandaged man takes lodgings above a tavern in the village of Iping.
He arouses increasing suspicion among the villagers until they discover his secret--that he had made himself invisible--and they hound him out of town. As he travels through the country James Griffin, the Invisible Man, makes use of a tramp named Thomas Marvel, who eventually betrays him. Griffin escapes and accidentally finds the home of a former schoolmate David Kemp. Kemp, however, secretly alerts the police and the chase continues until the increasing deranged Griffin is caught.

This being a kind of “Boy’s Own” adventure tale, what is missing are any important female characters. To remedy this perceived flaw, O’Brien does away with the tavern owner Mr. Hall to have Mrs. Hall run it on her own. He makes Millie, Mrs. Hall’s “lymphatic” maid whom Wells mentions a few times in passing, into a major character
and attributes her general slowness to react to a slowness of mind.
O’Brien’s most significant change is to provide Griffin with a love interest. It’s true that R. C. Sheriff in his screen adaptation for James Whale also did so in the person of the invented Dr. Cranley’s daughter Flora. But O’Brien goes far beyond this. He gives Wells’s bachelor Dr. Kemp a wife, Catherine, who not only was at medical school with Kemp and Griffin but presented a brilliant paper on which Griffin’s further research in invisibility is based. Griffin was in love with her but she chose to marry Kemp, leaving Griffin bitter and jealous and outraged that Catherine should throw away her promising medical career. Lovers of politically correct rewrites, if no one else, should be delighted. Not only that, but Catherine foregoes Victorian notions of confinement during pregnancy to take an active part in capturing Griffin.

As if making an invented character the second most important one in the play were not enough, O’Brien also radically changes the ending and Griffin’s personality. In his author’s note, O’Brien says he does like the way Griffin is portrayed in the novel or in Whale’s film. Rather than having a bad man become worse as in Wells or present him as a good man whose derangement is a side-effect of his invisibility potion as in the film, O’Brien wants to show a good man driven to desperation, based supposedly on Wells’s own life. If this is so, why not then ditch the “Invisible Man” pretense and write a play just about Wells’s life?

Not only is the plot askew but so is the design. Judith Bowden lines the front of the Royal George stage with footlights and makes much use of old-fashioned painted drops and sets as if director Neil Munro were going to present the play as a 19th-century melodrama. Yet, the modernized plot hardly chimes with a period presentation. While Bowden’s period costumes are attractive, her sets are not. The two- storey set dominating the first act shows a cozy pub below and Griffin’s room above, but it occupies only the stage left half of the stage with stage right totally empty. To go to Griffin’s room, actors have to step off the set’s base to the stage floor and then step up to enter the staircase leading to his room. After a while we have to wonder where the two missing walls of the pub are since people walk through them so often. Griffin’s room above is too high. The magic effects to show Griffin’s invisibility often take place in the very back of the room so if you’re sitting in the front half of the auditorium you don’t see what’s happening and if you sit in the back half you’re too far away.

I saw the show more than two months after it officially opened and Marshall Magoon’s magic effects were still only creakily integrated into the show. The best of these is near the end when the Invisible
Man threatens Kemp with a knife that seems to float in mid-air.
Otherwise, the more effective portrayals of the character are purely theatrical. The vision of a man-shaped void making its way slowly through the mist is haunting, and Griffin’s attacks are best shown through the cast’s great talent at mime. Allan Cole’s music is good at suggesting the rustic feel of English village life but less impressive at creating suspense. Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, however, is key in generating what little aura of gloom and the supernatural there is in the production.

With such flaws the show would be hard to take if the acting were also poor. Fortunately, it is not. As the title character, Peter Krantz necessarily must act primarily through his voice alone. It is miked and it’s too bad it could not be made to appear to come from the stage rather than the speakers on either side of the stage. Yet, Krantz’s voice is rich and he conjures up through intonation a sense
of Griffin’s misery and delusion greater than any lines he’s given.
Though they are stuck playing personifications of goodness and heroism, Jeff Meadows and Jenny L. Wright do what they can to make David and Catherine Kemp seem like real people with Wright giving Catherine a particularly attractive personality.

If there is one plus to O’Brien’s adaptation, it is that he has restored a character central to Wells’s novel but omitted in Whale’s film--and that is the tramp Mr. Thomas Marvel. The fact that Griffin realizes that he needs a visible confederate to help him carry out his plans already shows up the flaws in Griffin’s notion that invisibility grants any useful power. The scenes with Neil Barclay as Marvel are the best and most amusing in the play with Barclay depicting a man so inebriated that he can move with bizarre ease from thinking he hears voices to believing they emanate from a man he cannot see. Barclay’s ability at mime is so good that we “see”
exactly where the Invisible Man is better with him than with anyone else.

As regulars at the Coach and Horses, Michael Querin (Gould), Anthony Bekenn (Fearenside), Guy Bannerman (Henfry), Douglas E. Hughes
(Huxter) are pretty much interchangeable as the local yokels.
Notable cameos includes Al Kozlik as the initially skeptical Dr.
Cuss, David Leyshon as the vicar and science-enthusiast Mr. Bunting, Cameron MacDuffee as the comically unheroic Constable Jaffers, Bernard Behrens as the crotchety Mariner and David Schurmann as the clear-thing Colonel Adye. Among the women Wendy Thatcher gives the publican Mrs. Hall a quirky mixture of the comic and sensible that is a constant pleasure. Trish Lindstrom gives a fine portrait of the slightly dim Millie, who does finally prove that she may be slow but is not stupid.

With such a range of characters so well played it’s a pity that the play itself is so poor. Director Neil Munro and Artistic Director ought to have seen that when they read the script, so it is surprising they decided to lavish so much time, effort and expense on it to predictably so little purpose. O’Brien’s adaptation is entertaining enough that it is not the crushing bore that “Lord of the Flies” was in 2000 or “Rashomon” in 1996. Nevertheless, it is an adaptation so deliberately perverse and so unsure of its target audience that anyone who sees it will likely feel the need immediately to read Wells’s novel to find out the real story.

©Christopher Hoile


Here's S. James Wegg's review:

Out of sight into mind

Conjurors of all persuasions—be you witches, illusionists, clergy or politicians—must find their way to the Shaw Festival to savour, surrender and salivate over playwright Michael O'Brien's theatrical resurrection of H.G. Well's timeless and forever-troubling treatise on how not to be seen.  The Invisible Man (disappearing on the stage of the Royal George Theatre until October 29) provides truly marvellous stagecraft and storytelling that go far beyond merely good theatre:  the production succeeds at nearly every level and easily outdoes the colossal failure of the most recent Wells adaptation (Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds ) that not even underwear-boy Scientology-“R”-Us Tom Cruise could morph into Mission Possible I .

O'Brien's following this season's mantra:  above all else, humour.  He's focussed on the lighter side of James Griffin (masterfully rendered by Peter Krantz), the bandaged, false-nosed “stranger” whose scientific acumen ensures there's nothing to reveal when the wraps come off.  To keep the funny-bone engaged, Neil Barclay gets deep into the skin of the occasionally abandoned tramp role of Mr. Thomas Marvel (missing-in-action in the classic 1933 film) and a covey of Keystone cops (most of whose blues match) led by Colonel Adye (David Schurmann) whose constant cigar and easy-going demeanour merely await “but just one more question” to stumble into a Columbo episode (where Peter Falk's “smoke and mirrors” ruled the airwaves of mystery for years).

Happily, it falls to director Neil Munro to levitate the script from parchment to the boards and the Shaw's most creative director has more than, er, risen to the task.  To be sure, Munro's been aided and abetted by a top-notch crew of dark-side confederates.  Judith Bowden's “Upstairs Downstairs” recreation of rural Iping (neighbourhood pub and Doctor's house) in 1897 is a functional gem (right down to the splendid detail of the paint gun—a gag in its own right that is marshalled with hilarious dignity by Anthony Bekenn's ever-prepared Fearenside).

Lighting designer Kevin Lamotte, in a devilish compact with master sorcerers Rob Brophy, Katy Berggren, literal “movers and shakers” Paul and Lain Bogle (all dressed up via Denis Pizzacalla), convincingly manage Griffin's missing body parts, bare-assed assaults and gruesome swan song with style and aplomb that brings cheers from the bleachers and evokes memories past of midway sleights-of-hand.  Who could ask for anything more?  Duh!  The music!  Allen Cole's score, replete with organ grinder zest, a capella sanctity and bone-echoing mallets adds another lead to the cast.

The action is efficiency itself.  With scrims flying up and down, the constabulary (notably Cameron MacDuffee, and Jeff Irving) and the patrons of The Jolly Cricketers (including stoic Guy Bannerman, startled Micheal Querin, and nautically-steadfast Bernard Behrens) hoisting and manoeuvring the rolling-stock sets and props with the same gusto as their rubber batons and pints, the entire production zips along with the animated pace of Fantasia .

But beyond the visual feast smoulders the story's subtext of selfishly-employed scientific invention, “you can never go back” relationships, and the unstoppable ability of society to create its own calamities by espousing tolerance for all while still practicing the black art of exclusion.

Once invisible, Griffin doesn't dash off to the bordello for copious amounts of free sex, but stalks his one-time sweetheart Catherine Kemp (Jenny L. Wright, whose histrionics belie their source and peg the decibel metre too frequently) then plots the disposal of her husband David (a first-rate depiction by Jeff Meadows).  But with the drama thus in play, both writer and director choose to plumb the yuks instead of the depths.  With more shifts than an incumbent the week before election, the closing scenes can't decide where to focus so fire off in all directions even as the hunt-and-chase unfolds.

Tellingly, Griffin—when on stage but totally invisible—is mic'd from afar:  Too at odds with the conceit of “Where is he now?” when his voice is locked into the confines of an unmoving sound system—more magic, please!

The tragedy of getting what you wish for (simply by drinking copious amounts of flat Cranberry Cocktail, it seems) then being more miserable than before gets a nod but not the attention Wells tried to depict in his always straightforward prose:  “I told no living soul, because I meant to flash my work upon the world with crushing effect,—to become famous at a blow,” says Jack Griffin in the novel.  What raw ambition—even in its understatement.

Now, from American Idol (where pitch and diction never count) to the media-perceived laboratory of horrors somewhere in Iran, the notion of power-at-any-cost is equally apt today.  More's the pity that, in O'Brien's hands, the infamous last words of The Invisible Man speak less of life and secrets lost than sequel in the offing.

 

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Rosmersholm

written by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre,
Niagara-on-the-Lake July 15-October 7, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
(James Wegg's review follows)

"A Glimpse into the Abyss"

To many critics’ minds, “Rosmersholm” (1886) vies with its immediate predecessor “The Wild Duck” (1884) as Ibsen’s greatest play. Yet, “Rosmersholm” is much less frequently produced. In fact, the current production at the Shaw Festival is one of the few professional productions of the play in Canada since the Shaw’s last production of it in 1974. Fans of Ibsen will not want to miss the current production, but to enjoy it they will have to try so disregard the many annoyances of director Neil Munro’s updated adaptation to see the source that underlies it.

“Rosmersholm” is one of Ibsen’s most enigmatic works. It is part of a series of plays following “An Enemy of the People” (1882) in which Ibsen turned from writing overtly political drama engaged with the here and now to the fully symbolic drama of his later years. The play begins as a political play. A small town in western Norway has
become bitterly divided into camps of liberals and conservatives.
The recent rise of liberal ideas has sparked a backlash led by archconservatives like the school headmaster Kroll. He comes to
enlist the aid of Johan Rosmer, a former clergyman, to his side.
Rosmer, however, under the influence of Rebecca West, a woman who nursed his ailing wife until his wife’s suicide, has not only renounced conservatism and embraced liberalism but now seeks a means beyond both to “emancipate” mankind. Unfortunately, the virulent political climate of the town means that all private behaviour has become politicized. Rosmer, scion of the greatest family of the town, can no longer remain aloof even if he wanted to. The fact that he lives in the same house with his late wife’s caregiver can now easily be used as fodder against the liberal cause. But when Rosmer asks Rebecca to marry him, she refuses. The dark secret that motivates that decision overwhelms both Rosmer and Rebecca and points to an abyss in the human soul that completely obliterates the importance of political quarrels. The play’s sudden shift to love tragedy forces the audience to rethink the action. By the play’s ending we know what has happened but precisely why remains an unsettling mystery.

Neil Munro’s adaptation of Charles Archer’s 1891 translation tries to make the play easier for the audience by updating it and de- Norwegianizing it. The action, instead of taking place “Rosmersholm, an old manor-house in the neighbourhood of a small town on a fjord in western Norway” in the 1880s, now takes place “at the House of
Rosmer, an old family seat, somewhere in Europe between the wars”.
Despite the title, “Rosmersholm” is awkwardly called “Rosmer House”
through Munro’s version. Rebecca comes from “up North”, not Finmark”. Philosopher Ulrik Brendel becomes Ulrich and the publisher
Peter Mortensgaard becomes Morten and somehow a “foreigner” besides.
In most translations, Rosmer and Rebecca refer to each other as Mr.
Rosmer and Miss West in public and Johan and Rebecca in private.
Munro tries to modernize their intimacy my having them call each other “Roz” and “Beck” in private, which remains annoyingly 21st- century and inappropriately cute for two characters about to be engulfed by tragedy.

Munro undermines the point of universalizing the play’s location by making the politics of the play too specific. In Ibsen the clash is a very general one between liberals and conservatives. In Munro’s version we hear of communists and the “Christian Right” and Munro goes beyond Ibsen to turn the reactionary Kroll into a proto-fascist by making him both anti-Semitic and xenophobic. The language Munro uses bears every resemblance to political cant in the 2000s but not to the 1920s or ‘30s, much less to the original play.

The most inexcusable change Munro makes is in Ibsen’s imagery. First he has done away with the symbolic white shawl-cum-shroud that Rebecca is supposed to be working on throughout the play and that links her to the weaving Fates of both Greek and Norse myth. Worse, he has expunged Ibsen’s White Horses of Rosmersholm. In the original phantom white horses appear near the manor signalling that a death at Rosmersholm is immanent. In fact, the original title of the play was “White Horses”. For unknown reasons, Munro changes this dynamic image to the much weaker one of “white mist”. The White Horses clearly relate to Ibsen’s theme of an unknowable, unstoppable force that comes from the past to trample down the present. A sedentary “white mist” simply does not have this connotation.

At least, Munro closely follows the Ibsen’s plot and the way the dialogue plays out. He adds an unnecessary first scene in which the housekeeper Mrs. Helseth breaks a figurine of Napoleon and he stops the dialogue several pages before Ibsen does. This last, however, is a brilliant choice. After Rosmer demands proof of Rebecca’s love, they enact in silence the realization the effect of Rosmer’s demand on both of them and the sacrifice it entails. This ending captures the poignancy of a feeling that overwhelms speech words that Ibsen’s original conclusion with Mrs. Helseth’s narrative of events does not.

Even if it is hard to see past the quirks of Munro’s adaptation,
there is no doubt that this is a gripping, well-acted production.
Patrick Galligan gives one of his best-ever performances as Rosmer portraying an idealist out of touch both with the darkness of everyday reality and of the human heart. Galligan plays the essentially weak Rosmer with such sympathy that it is painful to see his illusions so thoroughly shattered when we know he has no reserves to withstand the blows.

Waneta Storms is an atypical choice for Rebecca. Rather than having a naturally forceful actress play at humbleness until she can come into her own in the second half of the play, Munro has chosen Storms, who naturally communicates the kind of humbleness and calm Rebecca says she has reached by living with Rosmer. Storms rises to the challenge of her disastrous encounter with Kroll, but her portrayal of Rebecca has been so sympathetic that her dark secret when revealed sounds too unlike her to be believable. For this confession to have its full effect we need to have seen greater evidence of an iron will underlying Rebecca’s calm demeanour.

Peter Hutt makes an excellent Kroll. He manages to create a more rounded figure that the rabid neocon Munro’s adaptation has made of him. He suggests that Kroll is so vindictive toward Rebecca because he is still infatuated with her and can deal with his feelings only by destroying her. His Kroll is both comic in the certainty of his regressive ideas and dangerous in his ruthlessness.

In smaller roles, Peter Millard plays Ulrich Brendel, Rosmer’s mentor, as a man who once may have been charismatic thinker but whose disdain for everything else in the world has started to include himself. As Rosmer’s housekeeper Mrs. Helseth, Patricia Hamilton provides a much-needed earthy presence in a house dominated by ideas. Munro unnecessarily gives her a dead spouse to quote rather than having her words be her own, but her compromised way of maintaining propriety while spreading gossip still shines as a comic reflection of the central plot. Douglas E. Hughes has a fine turn as Peter Morten, significantly appearing much more level-headed and either Kroll or Rosmer has made him out to be.

Peter Hartwell’s set aptly reflects the themes of Rosmersholm with four dark wooden love-seats shaped rather like Art Deco pews. He has followed Munro in updating the costumes to the interwar period all in browns and blacks giving the stage picture the gloomy look of a sepia print. To represent the presence of centuries of dead ancestors, empty picture frames hang from the ceiling on the three sides of the Court House stage. The window Ibsen specifies for the back of the set has been replaced with a screen where Simon Clemo’s video projections glow. Before each act we see an external view of the manor, but once the action begins the picture changes to portraits of stern men in 19th-century garb. Clemo has created a beautiful montage to suggest what happens after Rosmer and Rebecca’s exit in Munro’s highly effective silent ending. Kevin Lamotte’s sepulchral lighting conjures up a world where little light of any kind, spiritual or natural, has ever entered.

The opportunities for seeing this great play in a production of this
calibre are so few that anyone interested should not miss it.
Munro’s adaptation will grate and one will wish he had left the master playwright’s imagery intact. Nevertheless, the disturbing essentials of the play come through and you may find yourself haunted for days by Rosmer and Rebecca’s profoundly unsettling glimpse into an existential abyss.

©Christopher Hoile

Here's James Wegg's review:

What price freedom?

The power of the media to shape opinion and occasionally re-write history is well known.  Accordingly, those interested in the real story often seek out the points of view from a number of publications before coming to their own conclusions.  In Ibsen's Rosmersholm , there are two warring political newspapers (one, unbeknownst to the playwright, even champions the cause of “free trade”) that are at loggerheads with each other over the notion and value of emancipation and free thinking for everyone.  The editor of The Lighthouse (curiously renamed The Beacon in this Shaw Festival production) sums up the “art” of reporting succinctly:  “I'll put in everything that the people need to know.”

Not to be outdone, Neil Munro (who also directs) has adapted the original for today's classics-lite audience and delivered a show that is more at home with supermarket tabloids than hard-hitting journals that dig for the facts.

Notable in Peter Hartwell's set is the gallery of empty picture frames that watch over the proceedings like a dysfunctional family mobile, a wonderful metaphor on many counts—particularly the end of the family line.

As the play opens, ex-Parson (Ibsen's “Rector”) John Rosmer (Patrick Galligan) has lost his faith and his barren wife because of his desire to “ennoble” himself and inspire his countrymen to shuck off the chains of class-based tyranny.  In the family library, he's found the evidence of his forefathers' greed and corruption (the crimes of which Munro expands to include selling ammunition to both sides of an armed conflict—imagine!—couldn't happen today …).

Helping him though his quest is Rebecca West (Waneta Storms, who has the dynamic range for the role but not the critical sense of rhythm that, alas, is aided and abetted by Munro's over-familiarization between the man of her dreams, reduced to “Ros,” which evokes an unwelcome echo of Frasier , and herself as “Becky,”—more often “Beck”—eliciting visions of the Angel Inn's taps to the locals in the crowd.

It falls to Peter Millard's wonderful portrayal of Ulrik Brendel, Rosmer's long-ago mentor whose own well of oratory has been drowned out by decades of self-deprecation, bankruptcy and booze, to bring life to the slow-moving stage.  But Munro's written prescription for a double-dose of “fucking” rings as false as the bowling pins analogy.  Still, it's worth the journey just for Millard's contributions.

Douglas E. Hughes does yeoman's service to the role of Peter Morten (a.k.a. Mortensgaard in the urtext :  What's been gained?).  His publishing adversary comes in the form of the local headmaster Mr. Alex Kroll (Peter Hutt, who doesn't find his ignition key until the second act).  Here, Munro has stripped the academician turned politician of his PhD, but made up for that with a Christian name.  Yet the pandering to the quick laugh and familiar greetings purges this adaptation of Ibsen's keen sense of irony that burbles through all ranks of society.  The more the players converse on the same plane, the muddier their ultimate fate becomes.

When Miss West finally refers to the Rector as “dear” the moment seems as uncertain as the high-register leading tone of the over-done cello solo, which is tritely accompanied by a unending wash of triplets that most certainly evoke the notion if not the art of Beethoven's “Moonlight” sonata.  Indeed, the final frames of the play throw more than caution to the wind.  Ibsen's mythical “White Horse,” has been truncated and replaced by the never seen, barely noticed “white mists,” which adds little to the final earthly moments of Ros and Becky.

Another unwelcome cut was made to the caustic, thinly-veiled criticisms of the former clergyman; instead, those quotes from Kroll's publication are merely hinted at.  Worse still was jettisoning the play's final words from the all-seeing housekeeper, Mrs. Helseth (Patricia Hamilton at her savvy best), which left many in the audience wondering just what did happen to the unlucky pair of house-agonists after leaving the stage.

Sadly, the final revenge of the dearly-departed, childless matriarch was swept aside in Munro's desire to be fresh and vibrant for “today's audience.”  No worries there.  Many in the room laughed at any of the words they didn't understand and the image of a man “releasing his seeds to the field” drew knowing chuckles and dessert-wine guffaws.

All of which threw memory back to the opening tableau where a couple of books—jammed with society-changing values and ideas—were left carelessly on the floor for the maid to clean up.

 


Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Liar

written by Pierre Corneille, directed by Matthew Jocelyn
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
August 19-September 23, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"To Hell with the Text"

While it is heartening to see Stratford finally explore French comedies written by Molière’s contemporaries just as it is to see it explore 17th-century English tragedies by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, it is very sad that both Webster’s masterpiece “The Duchess of Malfi” (reviewed above) and Pierre Corneille’s great comedy “The Liar (“Le Menteur”) should be staged by directors so enamoured of their own concepts that they almost completely obscure the text of the play they are presenting.

“The Liar” is the second comedy by Corneille that Stratford has mounted. In 1993 it staged his celebration of the power of theatre, “The Illusion” (“L’Illusion comique”). Nevertheless, it is “The Liar” from 1643 that is usually held to be the greatest French comedy before Molière, whose first great play, “School for Wives” (“L’Ecole des femmes”), did not appear until 1663.

The plot concerns a young man Dorante, a compulsive liar, who returns to Paris from his law studies in Poitiers with his faithful but exasperated servant Cliton. In the Tuileries he falls instantly in love with Clarice but he confounds her name with that of her friend Lucrèce. His friend Alcippe is engaged to Lucrèce and Dorante’s father has arranged that Dorante marry Clarice. Dorante improvises one lie after another to escape the wrath of both, not realizing that his choice does not in fact conflict with theirs, until the quid pro quo is resolved at the end.

Toronto-born director Matthew Jocelyn, who has lived and worked in Europe since 1980, has taken the play’s theme of improvisation and made it the primary model for presenting the play, determining everything from line readings to who plays whom. At the very beginning of the show, the eight actors enter one by one and choose from among eight arrows protruding from the front of the Studio Theatre stage. They are colour-coded but with the names hidden, three for the young male roles, three for the young female roles and two for the older male roles. The actor first introduces his- or herself, mentions what other roles they are playing at Stratford this season, picks an arrow and that is the role he or she will play in the performance. Thus, more likely than not, every performance of the play will have slightly different casting. In the performance I saw on opening night, Lawrence Haegert drew “Dorante”, Gordon S.
Miller “Alcippe”, Stephen Kent “Philiste”, Laura Condlln “Clarice”, Jennifer Mawhinney “Lucrèce”, Severn Thompson the maid “Sabine”, Barry MacGregor “Cliton” and Raymond O’Nell “Géronte”, Dorante’s father.

The actors then repair to the back the stage designed by Alain Lagarde with its make-up mirrors, racks of costumes, blown-up photos of rehearsals and groups of props and equip themselves for their chosen role. Lagarde’s costumes allow the cast to remain in what appear to be their street clothes (though these are, in fact, designed, too) and merely pull over a skirt or put on the appropriate jacket. The costumes are made of patchwork material as if they were also improvised and some, as in the dress for Sabine or the coat for Cliton, are embroidered with text from the play.

The actors play, script in hand, while the lights remain up throughout as if the show were really a rehearsal. Jocelyn has directed the actors to use the entire theatre, aisles and all, as their playing area, so that if there were any fourth wall on the Studio’s thrust stage it is thoroughly broken.

All this is fine and creates an atmosphere of fun and unpredictability. If Jocelyn had stopped there, his concept would be firmly established and we as audience could get on with getting to know what for many will be an unfamiliar play. But no, Jocelyn encourages the cast to take the concept of improvisation to far greater extremes. Cast members comment on their lines in Ranjit Bolt’s excellent 1989 translation, how certain eye-rhymes
(“want”-“pant”) don’t really rhyme, how the meter is sometimes off, how they disagree with what the character has to say or enjoy saying a line so much they repeat it. Sometimes they pretend not to be able to make out a line and have audience members read it; they often read out all the stage directions; in one scene they read all their lines pronouncing all the punctuation marks; sometimes they call on the stage managers for help; they get into a side discussion of what else is playing at the same time as their show and the night I saw it broke out into a song from “Oliver!”; one actor leads extras from the cast of the other play on at the Avon, in this case “London Assurance”, from backstage at the Avon across the Studio stage; in a night scene all the lights are turned off and the cast reads their scripts by flashlight and so on. When the actors hold up their hands like a dog and say “Pause”, you wonder whether Jocelyn’s concept is really just an intellectualized version of the anything-for-a-joke technique that has spoiled so many comedies at Stratford over the past several seasons.

All of the improvisations, interruptions and deconstructions of the text and the performance were received with much laughter. None,
however, was accorded to Corneille’s text itself. How could it?
Jocelyn has done everything possible to distract attention away from the text and to his concept for the production, a concept that
moreover could be used to undermine any play, not just this one.
Jocelyn focusses our interest on the actors not on the characters they play and on their fooling around not on the story. No wonder, then, that the play’s not-too-difficult plot becomes almost impossible to follow. You leave the theatre feeling not that you have seen Corneille’s “The Liar” but a directorial wank-off by Matthew Jocelyn. As Jennifer Mawhinney spontaneously exclaimed at one point, “To hell with the text!”

One difficulty of requiring actors to improvise while playing a
classical text is that some are inevitably better than others.
Lawrence Haegert’s comments were the most consistently funny and outshone Gordon S. Miller’s and Stephen Kent’s by far. Laura Condlln thankfully played Clarice almost completely straight, a definite boon to anyone who was actually trying to follow the plot. Except for her one pointed comment, Jennifer Mawhinney’s impromptu remarks tended more towards mere silliness and she played Lucrèce in such a way that the character seemed rather Clarice’s maid than a noblewoman of the same rank. The role of Sabine gave Severn Thompson little chance to show the acting talent she so amply displayed during her time at the Shaw Festival. Raymond O’Neill seemed to enjoy himself, but it was Barry MacGregor who was best able of anyone in the cast to play a character, move the plot forward and comment on it at the same time.

It is all a great shame. If you want to see improv, you go to Second City not Stratford. Anyone who wants to see Corneille’s great comedy will just have to hope that some other company dares to stage it with at least some modicum of respect for the text.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead

written by Robert Hewett, directed by Geordie Johnson
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford June 30-September 24, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"First Aussie Play at Stratford is a Winner"

Stratford has a hit on its hands with “The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead”. The title rather misleadingly suggests that the show is some sort of farce set in a hair salon. In fact, though
there are bursts of humour, the play is predominantly serious.
Australian playwright Robert Hewett takes what seems at first to be a routine story about adultery and twists it into something rich and strange. The story itself is fascinating but combined with a tour de force performance from Stratford regular Lucy Peacock, this play is not to be missed.

The play premiered in Sydney and received such acclaim that it toured the country and has already received productions in Europe. The work has a very strict structure--each of the two acts consists of four monologues directed to the audience as if the characters were trying to explain their actions. Rhonda Russell, a suburban housewife and the redhead of the title, has the first and last monologues. In her first monologue we hear how Graham, her husband of seventeen years, phones one day to say he has left her. The “brunette” Lynette, Rhonda’s neighbour, says she has seen Graham with the other woman, “the blonde”, and urges Rhonda to confront her. When they arrive at the mall where the other woman works, Lynette points her out. The confrontation turns violent, Rhonda is arrested and the other woman is taken to hospital.

Up to this point Hewett’s play seems like a rather common, sordid episode of a soap opera. Instead, we soon realize that he has used
this event merely as a starting point to explore far deeper issues.
Between Rhonda’s first and last monologues we hear her story told from the points of view of six other characters. There is the lesbian doctor Alex, who treats Rhonda’s husband for depression and whose partner Christine is injured. Next is Lynette, who denies any responsibility for what happened. Then, unexpectedly, is Michael, a four-and-a-half-year-old boy who tells us about his pet lizard, his sister Ellen, the old woman Mrs. Carlyle they sometimes have to stay with and the party Alex and his father are going to have for his mother.

If Act 1 moves in an unusual direction, Act 2 is even stranger. We meet Graham, drunk as skunk in the men’s washroom, whose ramblings now that Rhonda is in prison place an entirely different complexion on the events that seemed so clear in Act 1. Then we meet the aged Mrs. Carlyle about seven years after the events in Act 1 who tells us her opinions of what happened and how Ellen and Michael have turned out. The next character is the Russian store-owner Tanya (the real blonde?), whose description of events casts even more doubt on our initial impressions. Rhonda’s final monologue presents her view of what she has learned about herself and other people while in prison.

Beside the themes of fidelity and betrayal, wounding and healing that we might expect from the subject matter, Hewett, who frames his tale a kind of mystery, explores the bigger mystery of chance and necessity and how we accommodate ourselves to them. The question is naturally linked to an examination of the nature of innocence, guilt, punishment and forgiveness. Much in the manner of Ray Lawrence’s fine Australia film “Lantana” (2001), Hewett shows that no simple incident is all that simple and that the mundane can reveal universal mysteries. Hewett has decided that he will alter the script to suit the location where the play is mounted. Given that so much of the action takes place in suburbs or in a mall, now found all over the world, his update for Canada involved, he says in his note, involved few changes and the mention of Tim Horton’s.

We owe a debt of thanks to director Geordie Johnson, who saw the play in Melbourne in 2005, for recognizing its worth and bringing it to North America. His production at the McManus Studio in London, Ontario, that year was the work’s North American premiere. The Stratford production is a more elaborate remount of that production.

Johnson also recognized that the play would be the perfect vehicle for Lucy Peacock. Again he was absolutely right. Peacock lately has given the appearance of suffocating under the weight of playing an immovable mountain of classical roles. This play shows her as you’ve never seen her before, as if she were exhilarated with breathing in fresh air. The seven characters she plays are so sharply differentiated that in the case of Graham and Mrs. Carlyle you can hardly believe it is Peacock who is playing them. The Rhonda we first meet is meek and quiet, stunned by losing her husband and by her incomprehensible actions. The Rhonda we meet at the end is also meek and quiet but now transformed by the knowledge time and reflection have given her. As Lynette and Graham, Peacock
delightfully revels in the female and male versions of vulgarity.
Both characters are obnoxious, completely self-concerned and irresponsible. Graham is a male chauvinist jerk of the first order, but his obviousness contrasts with Lynette’s mask of care and “education”. Peacock presents Alex as aloof because her intellectual and emotional sides are in constant battle. Peacock also is expert in playing the characters at either extreme of age--Matthew, a normal, loveable little boy who shows he is unconsciously disturbed by events he doesn’t quite understand, and Mrs. Carlyle, who understands far too well what has happened even though she is now almost totally isolated.

Under Johnson’s crisp, elegant direction, Peacock brings a sense of compassion to even the most despicable of this wide spectrum of characters. In a very neat ploy, Johnson has each character leave behind on stage a prop used during each monologue, that remain there till the end like pieces of a puzzle that we have to complete.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s design is beautifully simple. His costumes instantly capture the essence of each character even though, despite the title, we come to learn that appearances are deceptive. The best feature of his design is a large Plexiglas panel at the back of the stage. On the top half of it Craig Macnaughton’s wonderfully conceived video montages are projected, recalling images from the previous monologue and setting the scene for the next. Meanwhile, the bottom half is a backlit muslin screen that shows us Peacock in silhouette physically change from character to character which simply and aptly heightens the theatricality of the production. In that, too, Kimberley Purtell’s sensitive lighting and Stephen Woodjetts’s eerie score play an integral role.

Produced by The Blonde Project, this is the kind of show that is so stimulating one hopes that after its short run at Stratford it will tour to reach the widest possible audience. Kudos then to Geordie Johnson for bringing such a clear vision to this exciting play, to Lucy Peacock for giving one of her best-ever performances and to the Stratford Festival for programming its first-ever play from Down Under.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Love Among the Russians

written by Anton Chekhov, directed by Eda Holmes
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
June 24-September 24, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
James Wegg's review of this production is also here

"Shouting Among the Russians"

The lunchtime show at this year’s Shaw Festival, “Love Among the Russians”, is comprised of two early farces by Anton Chekhov that he
called “vaudevilles”--“The Bear” (1888) and “The Proposal” (1889).
Morwyn Brebner has adapted the two and Eda Holmes has directed them as if they had nothing to do with any of Chekhov’s other works. As a result both become non-stop shouting matches with more in common with the Three Stooges or Daffy Duck than with “The Three Sisters” or “The Seagull”.

The better known of the two is “The Bear” in which the widow Elena
has been mourning the death of her promiscuous husband for a year.
Her aged servant Luka urges her to give up her seclusion, but Elena insists that she will remain faithful to her husband even if he never did to her. Into her life steps the misogynist lieutenant Grigory Stepanovich Smirnov, who demands that Elena pay him the money her husband owed him or he will go bankrupt and will not leave until she does so.

The point of this skit is to see how two opposites attract. Smirnov, the “bear” of the title, is rough and loutish while Elena is over- insistent on maintaining propriety. What we should see is that Elena doth protest too much in her mourning and that her resistance to Smirnov is exactly what he likes in a woman. Unfortunately, Holmes pays little heed to the dynamics of the text. As soon as she has Elena put on perfume before Smirnov’s first entrance we know Holmes plans to throw Chekhov’s characterization out the window. She is more interested in physically choreographing their battle around the Court House stage, including pointlessly collapsing furniture, than in exploring the subtler comedy of the characters’ battle within themselves between the hatred they outwardly profess and the attraction they start to feel in spite of themselves. At no time does she direct Luka to act like the 85-year-old he says he is and so neglects the physical humour possible with this figure and misses one of the comic highlights of the play when Elena commands that Luka to throw out the physically stronger Smirnov.

In 2002 the Soulpepper Theatre Company of Toronto presented “The Bear” in a so-so adaptation by Jason Sherman directed by Albert Schultz. Earlier this year Touchmark Theatre of Guelph presented the play in Irishman Brian Friel’s excellent adaptation directed by Douglas Beattie. Of these three Eda Holmes’s approach is the most superficial, turning Chekhov’s subtle interplay of characters into a blazing shouting match. In contrast, Beattie’s approach that explored the psychological comedy of the characters’ conscious and unconscious self-deception was more humorous and more intellectually satisfying. It also served to show how Chekhov’s vaudevilles, farcical though they may be, still look forward to the Russian master’s later work. After all, if you are going to stage Chekhov’s vaudevilles, why willfully ignore, as Holmes does, their context in the writer’s work?

“The Proposal” is a fitting companion to “The Bear” since it presents a congruent but opposite situation. Here the nerdy Ivan Vasylievich Lomov has come to propose to the unsophisticated Natalya Stepanova and indeed has the approval of her father Stepan Stepanovich Chubukov. The difficulty is that whenever Natalya and Ivan get into conversation their disagreements about the most minor questions--who owns what land, whose dog is better--escalate into major arguments from which neither will back down. Holmes’s broad approach works better in this piece than in “The Bear”, but it’s not hard to see that greater subtlety would be even more successful. It would be much funnier and more logical if she allowed the “loving” couple’s arguments to escalate gradually and with some pretense of unwillingness rather than suddenly to have them explode. By staging this play as another shouting match, Holmes makes no attempt to create any difference in tone or modulation between the two works, which would at least provide a sense of variety.

In this, Holmes is not helped at all by Morwyn Brebner’s perfectly dreadful adaptation from Anastasia Rossinsky’s literal Russian translation. Brebner totally ignores all the carefully coded levels of politeness and diction found in the texts, and whose transgression makes the plays so funny. Instead, she has all the characters in both plays, young or old, male or female, express themselves in exactly the same modern-day teenspeak. “Roly is so unbetter than Poly”, Natalya says to Ivan at one point about their dogs. This anachronistic diction turns out to be Brebner’s sole source of humour, since she telegraphs characters’ feelings that Chekhov more subtly and gradually reveals. Just as Rick Miller can make Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” funny by playing all the roles in the voices of the Simpsons, so any play can be made “funny” by translating it into inappropriate diction.

Since the actors have been directed to play caricatures not characters, none can be judged according to nuance or insight. In “The Bear”, Blair Williams speaks loudly and makes broad gestures but he still comes off more as dashing than boorish as Smirnov ought to be. Diana Donnelly is petulant as Elena but never convincing. Her mourning seems a sham from the beginning and her opposition to Smirnov plays like flirting even when it shouldn’t. Williams Vickers could make a good Luka, but as mentioned above, he never acts as ancient as he says he is. In “The Proposal” Vickers plays the father Chubukov no differently than he did Luka. Diana Donnelly is much more at home in the role of the uncultured Natalya, but Martin Happer is the one actor who actually succeeds in making the hopelessly geeky Ivan funny because of his character’s personality not the shtick attached to it.

Andrew Bunker, Krista Colosimo and Elodie Gillett, billed as “Musical Russians” add to the vaudeville atmosphere of the show by singing a very silly song “Don’t Fall in Love” written by Brebner, Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey as a prelude, interlude and finale to the two plays. As befits the production, William Schmuck’s costumes play on clichéd notions of Russian dress.

If any of N-o-t-L’s hoards of ice cream cone-licking pedestrians decide to commit to only one show on the Shaw playbill, “Love Among the Russians” will likely please them as a chance to sit in an air- conditioned room for an hour watching people acting goofy. For frequent theatre-goers, however, Brebner’s adaptation is a gross dumbing down of the text and Holmes’s hurried direction ensures that the show plays as much like a live-action cartoon as possible. These may be farces by Chekhov, but there is much more in them than are dreamt of in Brebner’s or Holmes’s philosophy.

©Christopher Hoile
Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Ghosts

written by Henrik Ibsen, directed by Diana Leblanc
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
August 12-September 23, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Relevant Revenants"

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death, both the Stratford and the Shaw Festivals are presenting works by Henrik Ibsen, often called the father of modern drama. At the Shaw is the less often seen “Rosmersholm” of 1886. Stratford has just opened its production of the more often revived “Ghosts” of 1881. “Ghosts” is a much more accessible work than the enigmatic “Rosmersholm” and Stratford uses a much more straightforward adaptation than the gratingly modern version used at the Shaw. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, it is the Shaw’s “Rosmersholm” (reviewed above) that creates more tension and moves to a more devastating conclusion.

In its day “Ghosts” was Ibsen’s most controversial play. Inherited sexually transmitted disease, incest and euthanasia are all themes that make this play more relevant than ever especially given the presence of a conservative Christian minister who believes such topics should not even be discussed much less dealt with in any practical way. In its day the play was so scandalous that when it was first published booksellers refused to stock it and theatres in Scandinavia refused to stage it. Therefore, strangely enough, the
play’s first performance took place in Chicago in Norwegian in 1882.
The Stratford production uses the Richard Harris’s lightly modernized version of J. Basil Cowlishaw’s translation, which calls far less attention to itself than Neil Munro’s heavily updated version of Ibsen’s text for the Shaw.

As is often his way Ibsen creates resonance by juxtaposing two simple plots that are parallel bur opposite to each other. In the subplot the supposedly reformed alcoholic carpenter Jakob Engstrand wants his daughter Regina, a maid in Mrs. Alving’s household, to return to him because he wants to start a refuge for wayward mariners. In the main plot Oswald, a painter, has returned to live with his mother Mrs.
Alving after many years abroad in Paris. Pastor Manders, spiritual advisor to both Engstrand and Mrs. Alving, has arrived to dedicate an
orphanage that Mrs. Alving has built to the memory of her husband.
Despite appearances, this is not a picture of happiness. Regina hates her father and refuses to leave Mrs. Alving. Mrs. Alving hated her husband and his constant sexual straying. She is building the orphanage so that something good might come from all the evil he committed. Oswald has returned home because he is seriously ill and knows he will soon not be able to care for himself. When Mrs. Alving hears Oswald flirting with Regina, she sees the “ghosts” of the past, her husband flirting with their former maid, and knows she must act to stop him.

The glory of Stratford’s production is the performance of Martha Henry as Mrs. Alving. This character is sometimes portrayed as an overprotective mother, but as the text and Henry’s performance makes clear, Mrs. Alving is now so solicitous toward Oswald in a vain attempt to make up for the years when she sent him away as a boy and later encouraged him to go abroad. She tries to convince Oswald and herself that she was a good mother although she hesitates to say why that involved keeping him away from home for so long. In fact, she was attempting to insure that Oswald was influenced as little as possible by his abominable father. Henry’s voice drips with irony when she speaks with Pastor Manders, whose every command she followed even though they only brought her years of misery. Henry shows us a woman who has become independent and intellectually inquisitive since she has learned that the Pastor’s conventional morality is too narrow to encompass reality as she has experienced it.

As Pastor Manders, Peter Donaldson gives a straightforward performance, but ultimately he never suggests how so unworldly a person and one with such a black-and-white view of the world could
possibly have had such power over so strong a person as Mrs. Alving.
In fact, he still does have enough power over to convince her not to insure the orphanage she has built--a fact, given his general weakness, that simply doesn’t ring true. In part, this imbalance between Manders and Mrs. Alving is the fault of director Diana Leblanc, who should make it clear that their struggle for dominance is what drives the drama and that that struggle only works if both parties bear equal weight.

Gary Reineke gives a fine performance as Jakob Engstrand. He deftly communicates beneath the pitiful Engstrand’s whining, subservient tone a wiliness in looking out for any opportunity to get what he wants. Adrienne Gould is also very fine as Regina, puffed up by dreams beyond her station so that, like her father, insolence lies very close beneath surface servility. After Mrs. Alving reveals a key secret to her at the end, Gould unfortunately blusters so much that her reaction is not as clear as it should be. As for Mrs.
Alving’s cherished son Oswald, newcomer Brian Hamman simply looks and acts too hale and hearty for someone suffering from tertiary syphilis. His illness should be plain from the very start to make the onset of further symptoms at the end of the play more believable and to make it clearer that Mrs. Alving is intentionally blinding herself to the reality of his condition.

Leblanc, who took over the project when Stephen Ouimette withdrew, makes the mistake of having Mrs. Alving always appear right and her opponents, especially Pastor Manders, always appear wrong. The relation between the two is more complicated than that. Indeed, Mrs.
Alving’s blindness to Oswald’s conditionn now should parallel Mander’s blindness towards Mr. Alving’s true nature in the past. As Oswald, Hamman clearly needs more direction than he received to make his character plausible. In general, what is missing is the sense that the characters’ choices inevitably propel them toward their doom, a feeling that Neil Munro so forcefully sustains in “Rosmersholm”. Unlike Munro’s dénouement, made all the more devastating through restraint, Leblanc errs on the side of melodrama in shaping the play’s final moments. Mrs. Alving should be paralyzed with horror and indecision, as Ibsen states in his stage directions, rather than moving about in doubtful action.

Though the Tom Patterson Theatre is the most fitting stage at Stratford for this play, Charlotte Dean’s design gives the Alving house such a spacious feel it hardly creates the sense of claustrophobia necessary as Mrs. Alving’s world, collapses. This task falls mainly to Bonnie Beecher’s lighting that pervades the large space with an aura of gloom and to Todd Charlton’s highly realistic soundscape of constant rain.

Ibsen’s “Ghosts” is a central work in the development of modern drama and the role of Mrs. Alving is a wonderful showcase for Martha Henry’s talents. Despite the production’s various flaws, these provide the overriding reasons to see a play that has only grown more relevant with the passage of time.

©Christopher Hoile

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