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| Harlem Duet | Arms and the Man | Design for Living | Ritter, Dene, Voss | 'Twas | more!

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2006

Ritter, Dene, Voss

written by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Adam Seelig
One Little Goat, Alchemy Theatre, Toronto
November 17-December 3, 2006
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Being at Home with Wittgenstein"


Toronto may be the third largest centre for theatre in the English-speaking world after London and New York, but that doesn't mean that we keep up on the most important developments in theatre elsewhere. Therefore, it's a surprise that a small theatre company in Toronto, One Little Goat, should be presenting the English-language premiere of a play by Austrian playwright and novelist Thomas Bernhard (1931-89), many of whose plays have become standard repertory in Central Europe.


The title of “Ritter, Dene, Voss” gives no clue to its subject matter. The title honours the three famous actors who first created the roles in Salzburg in 1986-- Ilse Ritter , Kirsten Dene and Gert Voss . Such a titles also highlights a theme in Bernhard that while a play may be “about” a certain subject, it is also always about acting.


In the play we are introduced to the two Worringer sisters, both actresses, who, since they have no character names have to be referred to by the original actors' names. The older sister, Dene, and the younger, Ritter, are preparing themselves for their first meal with their philosopher brother Ludwig (Voss), whom Dene has just retrieved from the insane asylum where he spends most of his time. Dene has convinced herself that Ludwig will stay with them this time because, in an effort to sooth his fragile mind, she has tried to make their house and the meal exactly like they used to be before he had to be institutionalized. Ritter, however, is skeptical of Ritter's motives, thinks her brother is better off in the asylum and has nothing to do with Dene's fussing. Gradually, we realize that both sisters love Ludwig in ways that go beyond sororal affection. Dene, who transcribes all of Ludwig's works for publication, believes Ludwig cannot live without her. Ludwig, however, hates Dene for the smothering role she plays and is attracted to Ritter who returns his incestuous affection. The process Bernhard takes us through in the action is the realization that Ludwig is demonstrably better off in the asylum where he can work uninterrupted and with greater freedom than his sisters' passions allow him at home. As is usual in Bernhard, the depiction of the claustrophobia of the Worringer household is also a critique of suffocation intellectual climate of Austrian society.


Bernhard grants Ludwig a large number of biographical details from the life of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)--the wealthy family background, the two sisters, his giving his money away, the titles of this works, the places where he wrote them, etc. The real Wittgenstein, however, was never in and out of asylums like Bernhard's Ludwig nor was involved with his sisters, being drawn rather to other men. Given that the real Wittgenstein's work concerned both logic and the relation of language to truth, Bernhard's play becomes a kind of postmodern absurdist simulacrum. Just as the painter René Magritte created a famous painting called “La trahison des images” (1929) of a smoking pipe above the statement “Ceci n'est pas une pipe”, Bernhard has created a play with a plot that says “Ceci n'est pas Wittgenstein” that could be called “La trahison du langage”.


Indeed, the actors who play both Dene and Ludwig interrupt the action to speak to the audience as “themselves” (whatever that may be), making us ask, as does the play in numerous ways, what makes something fictional or real and since language creates both, how can we use it to discern the difference?


To make this play work best the actors need to adopt the Brechtian acting style of “demonstrating” a character rather than “becoming” a character as most naturalistic theatre demands. Of the three actors, Maev Beaty as Dene is best at this, giving her character just the right amount of stylization. She also had an admirable sense of comic timing. Shannon Perreault is very funny as Ritter, constantly poking holes in Dene's pious façade, but she doesn't have quite the iron grip on her mode of presentation that Beaty does. Greg Thomas is excellent at highlighting Ludwig's bizarreness, seeming calm and almost trancelike one moment, the next aggressive and rude. He makes the now-famous cream puff-eating scene just as comic and disgusting as it should be. What's missing is a greater ambiguity concerning whether Ludwig's actions are intentional or part of his illness.


The translation by Kenneth Northcott and Peter Jansen is fluent and idiomatic. Jackie Chau's simple set of coloured brocade panels and her period costumes are simple but effective. Dominating the set are impressive paintings by Michele Lazar. The point of Ben Chaisson's video of a constantly burning cigarette behind one of Lazar's paintings was hard to decipher. Kate McKay's lighting is more expressionistic than naturalistic as befits a play about states of mind. As director Adam Seelig shows a sure hand in guiding the cast through Bernhard's unpunctuated text and drawing out its wry comedy and abrupt changes of mood. One question is whether he might have made greater use of pauses as one would in Beckett or Pinter to create a greater sense of tension among the characters.


Anyone who reads the playlists for the major theatres in Europe knows that there are a lot more plays out there that the larger theatre companies in Canada seem unwilling to touch. Therefore, we must be thankful to companies like One Little Goat for opening our minds to such challenging and unusual works as “Ritter, Dene, Voss”. An insightful production like this augurs well for the future.


©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Design for Living

written by Noel Coward, directed by Morris Panych
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 14-November 18, 2006
review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"An Intriguing Design"

The second most performed playwright at the Shaw Festival is Noel Coward. This season the Shaw has added to its list with a thoroughly delightful production of Coward's notorious 1933 comedy “Design for Living” about the downs and ups of a ménage-à-trois. Ernst Lubitsch made a popular film of the same name immediately after the play closed but with a screenplay completely rewritten by Ben Hecht. Coward depicts the growth of a MMF threesome who truly forms an equilateral triangle of love rather than the V-shaped design in the film with two men happily in love with one woman. This was scandalous enough for Hollywood before the 1934 Production Code kicked in without having the two men also in love with each.


Coward wrote the play for him and his friends the famed American acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the play paralleling much of their own relationship. The notion was that their fame would allow them to perform a play whose subject matter would otherwise be deemed unacceptable. They agreed to only 135 performances and no tour. The play was a great success and the acting was praised, but critics generally disproved of the play with George Jean Nathan of “Vanity Fair” calling it “little more than a pansy paraphrase of ‘Candida'”.

The play is a comedy and has its share of witty epigrams, but it does in fact examine the difficulties of the threesome in coming to terms with the true nature of their relationship. In his programme notes director Morris Panych calls it “a coming-out play of sorts” and that is probably why he gets the mixed tone of the play so right. Yes, there is laughter, but there is also pain, hurt, frustration, attempts to lead a normal life before the trio come an awareness that their love simply doesn't fit into any of society's accepted patterns for relationships. Besides this, rather that treating the triangle as a fait accompli, as sometimes happens, Panych focusses on the development of the triangle and the confused, then bemused, awareness of the three that this really is the form their relationship must take for them to be happy.

The globetrotting action begins in the artist Otto's studio in Paris, before moving on to the playwright Leo's flat in London and ending in the trio's art dealer friend Ernest's apartment in New York. Ken MacDonald's set design is wonderfully clever. All three locations have the same set of floor-to-ceiling windows but warped and woozy and seeming to curl into itself. In the background the landscape for each city features a well-known landmark--the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Chrysler Building--buckling and bent as if melting in a terrific heat wave. MacDonald's set suggests Salvador Dali and the surrealist movement of the period but also seems to depict the cage of conventions the threesome find themselves in and are trying to free themselves from. The landscapes emphasize a personal vision of the world over whatever is thought to be “normal”.

Gilda, Leo and Otto--originally played by Fontanne, Lunt and Coward--are here played by Nicole Underhay, David Jansen and Graeme Somerville. Underhay makes Gilda's general confusion quite attractive. On the one hand she is a woman who would like the same freedoms that men have in their lives, yet on the other she has enough scruples to wonder rather abstractly whether betraying Otto in his own studio with his best friend isn't rather “wicked” of her. She tries in Act 2 to live in an exclusive relationship with Leo only to find that his obligations as a playwright always overshadow her attempts at creativity as an interior designer. She thinks that a “mariage blanc” with the elderly art dealer Ernest Friedman will allow her creativity to flourish and it does but then her love life is nil. Thus Panych and Underhay show quite clearly that Gilda's confusion stems from her trying to look at life in an either-or fashion until the awareness of “both” as an answer dawns.

Jansen might initially seem miscast as Leo, appearing rather more petulant than debonair. But as it turns out his cynical laissez-faire attitude and mocking tone serves to distinguish him from Somerville's more serious-minded Otto and ultimately is shown to be a kind of mask he wears to hide his passion. Somerville is excellent as Otto and Panych is right to let his disappointment in both Acts 1 and 2 sound a real note of unhappiness. The drinking scene between Leo and Otto in Act 2, the funniest single scene in the play, is beautifully directed and played as the two friends, deliberately disinhibiting themselves through drink, gradually become aware of the sexual attraction that underlay their friendship and decide follow it through. This is truly a sublime humour as both wonder in their self-imposed haze, “Is what's happening what I think it is?” only to acquiesce after a brief struggle with themselves to realize, “I guess it is. Well, why not?”

The only other major character in the play is Ernest Friedman played by Lorne Kennedy as a prissy asexual (though likely a firmly repressed homosexual) art dealer of the older generation. His stiffness and repression serve as a fine foil for the trio who seek a life devoid of either.

Among the minor characters Jane Johanson is hilarious as Leo's upright London maid Miss Hodge, who becomes increasingly exasperated at the immoral goings-on in Leo's flat. In the New York scenes Jeff Madden and Jessica Lowry as the not so happily married couple of the Henry and Helen Carver provide a good example, if we needed one, of how conventional marriage does not always make people happy. As Grace Torrence, "a typically Europeanized New York matron" according to Coward, Camilla Scott, still sporting Katherine Hepburn's Bryn Mawr accent from “High Society”, is a pompous female counterpart to Lorne Kennedy's Ernest.

Anyone who sees “Design for Living” will be amazed to see the subject of sexuality treated so forthrightly in 1933. It makes plays of the 1950s like “Tea and Sympathy” (1953) appear positively quaint. To watch Otto, Leo and Gilda gradually discover who they are is a liberating experience and, in such an insightful production as this, we can't help but share in the exhilaration they feel.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Harlem Duet

written and directed by Djanet Sears
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
June 29-September 22, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

A Landmark Production at Stratford

Djanet Sears’s “Harlem Duet” is an important play and its production is an important event at the Stratford Festival. It is the first work written by an African-Canadian author to be produced in the Festival’s history. It is the first to be directed there by a black
woman. And it is the first there ever with an all-black cast.
Historical firsts alone should draw our attention but it is the powerful performances of the two principals that make the experience gripping despite what one must admit is rather heavy-handed direction from the author.

“Harlem Duet” premiered in Toronto in 1997 and won numerous awards including a Dora, a Chalmers and a Governor General’s Award for Best New Play. It is imagined as a prequel to Shakespeare’s “Othello”, where we meet Othello’s first wife, an African-American woman named Sybil, called “Billie” for short, whom Othello throws over in favour of a white woman named “Mona”. In order to show the timelessness of the situation, Sears sets the play in three distinct periods. Most of the action occurs in the present in the Harlem apartment Othello and Billie share at the symbolic corner of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Boulevards. We are not in the world of the military but in the vicious world of academia where Othello has just won tenure over a white candidate “Chris Iago”. Leaving Billie, a graduate student and his wife of nine years, to marry Mona, seems to set a seal on Othello’s assimilation into the hierarchy of the white world.

Interspersed with the action in the present are flashbacks to the early, happier years of Othello and Billie’s marriage. There are also glimpses back to the Harlem Renaissance in 1928 and the Frankie- and-Johnny relationship of “She” and “He”, the second being a classically trained actor who is about to put on blackface to appear in a minstrel show. Then there are glimpses further back to “Her”
and “Him” in the American South in 1860, in which “Him” plans to escape with “Her” from the plantation to freedom in Canada, but backs out at the last moment not wanting to leave his white mistress.

The point of the three time periods and their reflection on issues in Shakespeare’s play is to underscore the tensions within any minority and the majority that surrounds them. Should those in the minority assimilate into the majority despite the past or present prejudice and oppression it has shown the minority, or should the minority maintain a stance of separateness as much as possible in order not to lose its sense of identity and origin? This is not a simple question and Sears does not present is as such. In fact, one of Sears’s achievements is to make clear how torturous a question this is for those to have to face it. Othello’s leaving Billie’s is enough to unbalance her, but his leaving her for a white woman literally drives her insane.

Sears counterbalances Billie’s response with those of “She” and “Her”
in the past and Billie’s friends, her landlady Magi and sister-in-law Amah, in the present and her father Canada, who makes a surprise visit. All three in the present feel Billie’s reaction is too extreme, just as in Shakespeare’s play we feel Othello’s reaction is too extreme. Through Amah, the “raissonneur” figure in “Harlem Duet”, Sears brings up a theme that goes through all of Shakespeare’s plays, especially his late romances even if it not acted on, and that is forgiveness. Amah points out to Billie that the more you hate something the more you become defined by that hate, the more, in fact, you become just like the thing you hate.

The production is a triumph for Karen Robinson in the roles of Billie, She and Her. The intensity of her performance grabs you and never lets go, whether Billie is in the depths of depression, obsessively concocting a “magic” potion to poison Othello’s handkerchief, lucidly arguing with him about racial politics or raging out of control. At the same time, she clearly distinguishes the emotional labile Billie from the disdainful She and the passive Her.

Nigel Shawn Williams, who originated the roles of Sears’s Othello, He and Him in 1997, gives an excellent performance. Except for differences of dialect, his three characters are much more similar
than are Robinson’s, but that seems to be part of Sears’s point.
What Williams achieves the difficult task of garnering some measure of sympathy from us for his point of view. Sears has not written Othello as a villain and he makes clear that beneath their differences he still feels love for Billie, whose obsessiveness may have driven him out. His parting from her is painful for both of them. We feel less sympathy for Him, whose backing out seems cowardly, and he makes the moment that He begins to put on blackface, because the caricature is more acceptable that the real thing, absolutely chilling.

Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, who originated the role of Magi, is a welcome comic presence who is determined to have a baby within a year--all she has to do find the father. Walter Borden gives a solid performance as Canada, Billie’s reformed alcoholic, whose symbolic name and concern for Billie suggest she has an escape route that she willfully does not take. As Amah, newcomer Sophia Walker does have the stage presence or vocal heft to match those of the rest of the cast, a pity since her character’s role of presenting Billie with a more rational view of her situation is so crucial.

Many scene changes are accompanied by Bryant Didier on bass and Robert Bardston on cello, reflecting the “duet” of the two principals in selections from classical to ragtime to jazz. Unfortunately, Sears as director does not leave it at this. Other scene changes are accompanied by a soundscape of excerpts of speeches by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan and other black leaders and personalities. This soundscape has the effect of drowning the production in footnotes. The central debates between Billie and Othello are already imbued with the philosophies and goals of these figures. While the soundscape clearly shows the context in which the characters’ arguments occur, the primacy for their expression in the theatre should come from the stage not the loudspeakers.

While Astrid Janson’s costumes instantly capture the period and personality of the characters, her set is uncharacteristically
cluttered as it tries to represent all three time periods at once.
Paul Mathiesen’s lighting is key in establishing changes of mood and focus.

While it is good that Stratford has finally presented “Harlem Duet”, it’s too bad it could not do so in tandem with a production of “Othello” to give visitors even more food for thought in relating the works to each other. Let’s hope that “Harlem Duet” is not just an aberration in programming but watershed at North America’s largest classical theatre festival for writers, directors and actors of colour. “Harlem Duet” is proof that there are powerful, eloquent stories out there that deserve as wide an audience as possible.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Arms and the Man

written by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 4-October 29, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
See also James Wegg's review here

Off the Mark

The Shaw Festival’s fifth production of “Arms and the Man” is rather a disappointment. It certainly doesn’t measure up to the play’s last outing here in 1994 or to Stratford’s production in 1982. While the set design is a treat and there are some good performances, there are also some sub-par performances and flaws in the direction.

In this 1894 comedy we meet Raina Petkoff, a spoiled Bulgarian girl, who is betrothed to the narcissistic Major Sergius Saranoff. Both avow an ideal “higher love” to each other, but when the Swiss Captain Bluntschli, a mercenary for the enemy forces, bursts into Raina’s bedroom one night to escape pursuit, she soon falls for the man who carries chocolate instead of ammunition, her “chocolate cream soldier”. Meanwhile, Sergius seems keen on a bit “lower love” with the family servant Louka. Shaw neatly pits the realists Bluntschli and Louka versus the idealists Raina and Sergius.

Shaw’s comedy undermining heroism, patriotism and any sort of idealism associated with war ought to be particularly relevant just now. In director Jackie Maxwell hands, however, it comes off as a silly trifle. In part this is because she focusses so much on the play as a battle of the sexes that she misses the bigger picture. In part it lies in her misinterpretation of key characters. And in part it lies in her adding or playing up unnecessary physical gags as if she thought the play were not funny enough on its own.

The worst example of misinterpretation is Maxwell’s view of Sergius as a testosterone-flooded idiot. According to Shaw and to the Shaw Festival’s own programme notes by the late Ronald Bryden, Sergius is not meant to be a clown but an example of heroism that the world has outgrown. Bryden quotes Shaw that Sergius is a “movingly human figure whose tragi-comedy is the true theme of the play”. Instead of this, Maxwell has actor Mike Shara either constantly striking ridiculous poses or doing training exercises whenever he’s on stage. Sergius attraction to Louka is enough to undercut is alleged adherence to “higher love”, so all Maxwell’s added shtick, even though Shara performs it with gusto, is unnecessary and frequently distracts from what he is saying.

Another bizarre alteration is making Major Paul Petkoff, Raina’s father, into a drunkard. It’s true he asks for brandy in his coffee, but Maxwell has Peter Hutt make Petkoff’s first entrance as if already sloshed and proceed to empty an entire brandy bottle at breakfast in his first scene. In the text the comedy of Major Petkoff is over-confidence and narrow conservatism. To make him drunk misses a point crucial to the comedy and its meaning and in Hutt’s slurred delivery obscures many important lines. Maxwell also neglects several obvious bits of comic business in the text. The retrieval of Raina’s portrait from Petkoff’s coat is not as exciting as it should be with an inebriated Petkoff and Maxwell totally overlooks the long set-up joke about the Petkoffs’ “library” by focussing instead on their new electric bell to for servants.

The only part of the play that seems to engage Maxwell are the scenes between Louka and Nicola, where a woman prepared to do anything to rise above her station is being held down by a male’s conventional hierarchical world-view. These scenes she has Catherine McGregor and Peter Millard play as serious drama, and indeed they are the only scenes that seem to have some fire to them.

As for the rest of the cast, Patrick Galligan is an atypical Bluntschli. He plays the role not as a comedian, but as the attractive, eminently sensible, unsentimental rationalist he is supposed to be. In this, Galligan probably comes closest to what Shaw originally intended. Nora McLellan is very funny as Mrs.
Petkoff, a woman with an absurdly high regard of herself as the epitome of fashion and culture in the supposed backwater that is Bulgaria. The show’s central liability is Diana Donnelly as Raina, certainly the least ethereal Raina seen so far at the Shaw. It is a one-note performance and that single note is unluckily an unvarying whine. Even at the end when Bluntschli finds her out, she doesn’t change her tone or demeanour. In a good production we are supposed to she her metamorphosis from gilr to woman. Here nothing happens.

Sue LePage presents Petkoffs’ home not as just a large house replete with folk-inspired elements that might pass for a mansion in a land devoid of grandeur. William Schmuck’s costumes, however, suggest that the Petkoffs actually are wealthy, even though they brag that they “go back twenty years”. Mrs. Petkoff’s gowns and turbans are humorously outré, but she has too many costume changes appropriate for the real level of wealth the Petkoffs are revealed to have, especially as compared to Bluntschli. Similarly, Schmuck makes Petkoff’s favourite old coat look brand new without any of the signs of wear and tear that men’s favourite robes or slippers are wont to have. To do this is to miss the visual counterpart to the play’s critique of the Petkoff family’s adherence to worn-out ideals.

An uninformed audience might enjoy the show for the superficial gags Maxwell adds to it, and indeed, Mike Shara is very funny, even if all his stage business obscures the point of his character. This production suggests that Maxwell, who can make a wonderfully nuanced experience of such a complex play like “The Magic Fire”, has not yet got the knack of how to direct Shaw.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome


written by Eric Woolfe, directed by David Nairn
Theatre Orangeville, Opera House, Orangeville December 1-23, 2006
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

‘Twas the Life Before Santa

As Gregory Maguire did for the Wicked Witch of the West, so Eric Woolfe does for Santa Claus. Maguire’s 1995 novel, since turned into the hit musical “Wicked”, tells the story of Elphaba, the Witch of
the West, from her birth until after Dorothy’s departure from Oz.
Woolfe’s play, now receiving its world premiere at Theatre Orangeville, charts the life of little Nicky from when he’s sent to an orphanage until he finds his true love, sets up home at the North Pole and begins the traditions portrayed in Clement Moore’s famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823). Woolfe’s play has the potential to become a popular seasonal entertainment. It has a clever story line, vivid characters and, when it finally gets going, it is exciting and funny. The main problem is that the show seems to take forever to get going, indeed, almost the entire first act.

By the end the question seemed to be why the second act was so good and the first frequently bordered on tedium. The most obvious answer is that by Act 2 all the exposition is over and Woolfe can focus on the action. The second answer is that in Act 2 Woolfe makes far less use of a narrator than in Act 1. While the narrator himself is a problem so is the narrator’s voice. The play begins with Knecht Ruprecht (played by Mike Nadajewski) entering dressed in Victorian garb but speaking in the colourful slang of American gangsters in 1930s and ‘40s pulp novels and Hollywood films. Immediately we are disoriented concerning the play’s time and place. Woolfe may have intended this effect but for a play meant for parents and children it starts the play off on the wrong foot. Much as I, too, am a fan of Hollywood gangster lingo, it has now become so archaic that few adults in the audience and none of the children are likely to know precisely what Ruprecht is talking about--rather a liability in a narrator. Since Act 2 shows that Woolfe doesn’t really need a narrator, it would be a help if he managed to do without one in Act 1.

After Ruprecht’s introduction, when Nicky and the girl Lucy are handed over to orphanage of St. John the Dwarf, we are treated to a long scene of the orphans singing Christmas carols. While it is nice for the community to incorporate the Theatre Orangeville Youth Singers directed by Joy Bell and Joan Borden into the production, the interlude means the show comes to a halt just when it should be building momentum. Before we have a chance to applaud the fine singers, Woolfe has the presiding nun Sister Pomeranski enter and berate the young people for their poor singing. This completely spoils the mood and it takes time for the show to recover. Woolfe obviously enjoys the figure of a misanthropic nun, but he dwells too long on a character unimportant in the overall story. Only when we move ten years ahead to see what has happened to Nicky and Lucy does it seem the action is finally under way.

Lucy has been adopted by a kindly old toymaker, Pop Hoffman, who has magical book, the Arthuricon, that holds the secrets of how to make all toys ever made or to be made. Nicky, meanwhile has taken up a life of crime and is now the world’s greatest cat burglar, Crimson Nick. Nick plans to steal Hofmann’s latest creation and the Arthuricon. In flashbacks we learn that at the orphanage Nick became acquainted with the Julenisser, the elves that live in the walls of buildings and steal anything that lies unattended. Nick learns their magic although the dying Julenisser queen thinks that her folk should give things to people rather than take them. Back in the present, the evil Ice Queen, who lives in a castle at the North Pole, has just learned of the Arthuricon and also plans to steal it and kidnap Hoffman in hopes that at least one of his toys can shake her out of her misery.

Eventually, Nick, Lucy and Ruprecht set out on a quest to the North Pole rescue Hoffman and the book. Along the way they meet such creatures as the Ice Queen’s minions, the squawking Gargravens, a set of argumentative conjoined trolls, a Dogman and the Bodach that guards chimneys. This highly entertaining quest takes up all of Act 2. If only Woolfe could tighten up Act 1, we could meet Act 2 with high hopes instead of apprehension.

The cast is uniformly strong and cleverly deployed in multiple roles. Darren Keay makes a dashing Crimson Nick, a suave 1940s-style criminal mastermind and poles apart from the repellant Dr. Kraus he plays at the start of the action. Douglas Chamberlain plays two endearing, elderly characters but manages to make them quite distinct. His Pop Hoffman is kindly and filled with enthusiasm. His Julebukk, the King of the Elves has a majesty tinged with melancholy. Mike Nadajewski is good as Knecht Ruprecht despite the accent and is very funny as one half of the conjoined trolls even though he confusingly uses the same accent. He is best as the strange Dogman the travellers encounter in the Mistletoe Forest through his hilariously accurate mimicry of our canine friends’
habits and ways of paying attention.

Among the women Janet Porter is an engaging Lucy, a plucky old- fashioned girl and such an extreme contrast with the child-hating
Sister Pomeranki you’d never guess the same actor played both roles.
Burgandy Code sharply differentiates her five roles lending grace to the dying elf queen Rikkenisser, making the evil Ice Queen into a comical cross between the young Judi Dench and Cruella De Vil. She uses an entirely different voice as the Bodach, a puppet creation so effective one wishes there were more of them in the show.

Among the young people Cameron Kennedy is quite remarkable as Rupie (the young Knecht Ruprecht). He speaks the convoluted 1940s gangster slang with understanding and has real presence as an actor. Aidan O’Brien and Hannah Manzi are well matched as the Young Nicky and Young Lucy, among other roles, and Elisabeth DuBois and Carleigh Knudson lend fine support in many small parts.

Steve Lucas’s clever, whimsical set allows for rapid changes of scene among such varied settings as the orphanage, the Mistletoe Forest, Ice Queen’s castle at the North Pole and the World In-Between where the Julenisser live. Vandy Simpson and Nancy Turner’s costumes are like storybook illustrations come to life especially for the more fantastic beings and Simon Day’s lighting enhances the mood of every scene. David Nairn’s pacing seems slow in Act 1 but reaches an exciting clip in Act 2. In one of the most memorable scenes, Nick holding Lucy and Rupie lays a finger aside of his nose and the cast’s miming plus Day’s tumbling lighting effects create an unexpected sensation of the three suddenly shooting upwards in the air.

On the whole, “’Twas” is an imaginative and enjoyable show. It has so much going for it as it is that I hope Woolfe will undertake revisions to tighten the action, make the language more accessible and thus realize the story’s full potential. Then “’Twas” may soon become a regular holiday treat.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

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