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|Man of La Mancha High Society | The Arms and the Man | The Crucible |
Too True to Be Good | Love Among the Russians | Mending Fences | Insomnia |


Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2006


Directed by Chris Abraham
Daniel Brooks with Guillermo Verdecchia's

Desperately seeking Lily

Like a recurring dream that teeters between fantasy and reality, Insomnia has returned to the stage after a seven year absence to plague John F. (Daniel Brooks) with doubt, delirium and deceit.  Truly the author of his own misfortune, John's life and loves disintegrate before our eyes and as we squirm along in voyeuristic bliss with his Kafkaesque descent into, finally, the longest sleep in the world.

The topically updated script is carefully constructed to deliver wave after wave of scenes in the frenetic life of John, largely through his relationships with wife Gwen (Fiona Highet devours the role effectively), his brother William (played with a magnificent blend of lechery and larceny by Randy Hughson), and his sister-in-law Kate (Colombe Demers, who keeps the ensembles moving forward with surety and panache).  “The world as we know it needs changing,” but what does anyone know for certain?

The show's centrepiece is John's solo railing “protocols.”  His kingdom, the “Republic of Doubt” is delivered stand-up style with more devastating passion than one-liners.  It's staged on a blood-red floor, which, emerging out of black, lets Brooks as author/actor soar far above the text and resonates with anyone who's known the awful taste of despair.  His “That's all” (so at odds with Meryl Streep's dismissive tone in The Devil Wore Prada ) clearly, isn't.  With a simple piano line and wind in his ears, the sometime writer takes pencil to the floor to work out the proof to his problems.  More and more pencils erase the writer's block and lead to blessed sleep.

All of the elements combine to reinforce the ever-lurking dream/nightmare components of the writing.  Director Chris Abraham lets his talented charges plumb the depths of the text, but, with his top-notch production team, captures the nuances of mood and the dynamic range of the mayhem in spectacular fashion.  Witness Andrea Lundy's lighting:  scene-changing bulbs-in-your-eyes power to the subtle and discreet baby-Lily window (the delicate mobile another nice touch).  Richard Feren's music and sound design add further depth:  the tiresome opening loop at one with sleep deprivation, the charming cuckoo clock—only the unfortunately flat oboe spoiled the effect as the new life appears in John F.'s false-front world.

“I've been thinking about love and how long it lasts.”  By journey's end, everyone on both sides of the stage can identify with that notion.  The beauty of this relationship dissertation is not in the words or situations as they transpire in the lives of the dysfunctional quartet, but rather how those scenes play in our own lives, kindling (or rekindling) whatever remains of the inner child within us all. JWR



Mending Fences

Theatre in Port, till December 31, 2006

The Trouble With Harrys

With Mending Fences , Canada's most prolific playwright has raised his own standards from dependable and good to savvy and grand.  The occasional slow spots and uneven pace of earlier work has been purged in the early edits.  We're left with a show that makes two hours vanish even as its frequent doses of relationship truth have the crowd howling, squirming or tearing up as the fictional situations trigger factual memories.  Theatre doesn't get much better than that.

Theatre in Port wisely reunited Norm Foster with director Chris McHarge to put together this première production.  With nine other plays brought to life over the years, it's little wonder that this effort flows as smoothly as the Russian vodka and Canadian beer drown the sorrows of Harry Sullivan (Foster) and his first wife, Lori (Heather Hodgson).  Set in rural Saskatchewan, the risk and danger of living in isolation is brought home from curtain to curtain.  But even those who live in well-populated areas will identify with the notion that it's lack of communication rather than acres of empty real estate that can rip family units apart.

Until now, Foster acts in his own plays only after the initial production has run its course.  In this work, with so many threads of autobiography woven into the fabric, it's hard to imagine anyone else in this part.

The six-pack before noon, (“Should you be driving?”; “Probably not.”) absentee father struggles with his pride both at work (now a janitor after mad cow disease wiped out his herd) and in bed (“I've had longer farts.”).  Told through lower-the-lights flashbacks, we see Harry's marriage disintegrate.  Harry Jr. (Derek Ritschel-Drew), starved for affection and forced to play team sports, departs with his mom back to civilization (“32 hours away”) after her final straw (thrown by a horse, whose name “Nomad” seems just a bit too on-the-nose).

An Act II moment worth the price of admission alone is the mother/son scene where Foster's “invisible” countenance speaks louder than the whole script about the hidden agony of family breakdowns.  Marvellous.

Thirteen years later, Harry Jr. suddenly returns.  Father and son haven't had a word since the rupture.  Harry Sr. is bedding his next-door neighbour, Gin (ironically short for Virginia, also played by Hodgson) whose husband committed suicide because of his own failure and “loving me too much.”  Like a Mozart opera, Foster pens all manner of duets and trios—using every combination imaginable—to reveal character, backstory and provide many moments of tears-in-your eyes laughs.  In the manner of Brad Fraser, his snappy dialogue between protagonists (“Love ya.”; “Mean it.” Leaving Metropolis ) becomes a ritornello between the two Harrys that is always enjoyable even in its predictability—bonding by epithet supreme.  The only drawback to this device is the slight weakening of the impact when “Cat's ass.” shifts characters.

Having an aversion to teams, and especially hockey, Harry Jr. has become a golf pro and father.  Unfortunately for him, his indiscreet conquest of the club president's daughter on the back nine left him unemployed and confined to a permanent seat in the doghouse.  What better time to visit another uncaring dad?  Ritschel-Drew brings an engaging freshness and earnest desire to please to the role.  As the performances continue he will, no doubt, (largely through the process of osmosis) deepen his inner pain with subtle gestures and looks that Foster's experience summons up effortlessly in nearly every scene.

It falls to Hodgson to deliver the dramatic showstopper.  Her near-manic rail against men (“they only know how to fight”) allows her own frustrations to vent with passion and conviction that the majority of the stronger sex can only imagine.  Prior to this explosion, the cautious widow is extolling the virtues of her seven-bean salad (not all of which was devoured at the union social).  In the aftermath of her diatribe, the guilty Harrys demonstrate their peas-in-the-pod demeanour not through words but from a brilliant bit of finger business that, once again, lifts this show into the must-see category.

Those who revel in bathroom humour and bawdy banter won't go away disappointed.  From perky nipples, to want-to-see-my-driver?, the etiquette of wearing a borrowed “cup,” Foster's playful sense of naughty keeps the chuckles, winks and guffaws coming easily.  Fortunately, those yuks and the abundance of sarcasm and moral inertia only serve to reinforce the tragedies that masquerade as people's lives on and off stage.

By journey's end, the metaphorical engine-in-the-bedroom is turning over and the back-forty fence is fixed, but the future hopes and happiness of the players must await the next installment from Foster's ever-active imagination. JWR



Man of La Mancha

Written by: Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion & Mitch Leigh
Directed by: Scott Lale
Heritage Theatre, Brampton, Ontario till April 30, 2006

Review by Stage Door Guest Reviewer S. James Wegg

Trial by Stagecraft

Dr. Carrasco. Padre, we are modern men. We face facts.
Housekeeper. The innocent must pay for the sins of the guilty.

- Act I, I Don Quixote

From the original novel by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra through the music of Telemann and Richard Strauss, the ballet of Balanchine to the pen of Graham Greene as well as numerous films, the timeless tale of madness, torture and devotion continues to maintain its appeal to anyone oppressed.  The musical reincarnation, Man of La Mancha, has captured the wit and wisdom of its predecessors and added copious amounts of song and dance to the delight of “popular” audiences since its Off-Broadway première in 1965.  Lucky are those who have tickets for Brampton’s Arts Culture and Theatre Production’s look at the well-loved classic.

Director Scott Lale has assembled an acting-rich, vocally-lite cast most of whom are required to remain on stage for the entire show.  Happily, his savvy blocking and deft lighting plot (with only a couple of opening night “sudden transitions” that will soon fade away) yield swift and smooth scene changes and visual variety as the play-within-the-play unfolds.

The charming Heritage Theatre has the advantage of audience intimacy but also the many challenges of a “not-originally-meant-for-this-purpose” venue.  From the rear, the lighting-cue chatter distracts from the action.  On stage, Musical Director Ryan deSouza and his nearly backstage band are forced to follow more than lead the cast through the tuneful score.  He does an admiral job with a clear and decisive baton hand that only needs to let the left shape and colour to harvest further texture, tone and warmth from the ensemble—kudos to Jose Santis’ guitar and one more trip to the woodshed for the brass.

It is but to wonder why any sound reinforcement is utilized in this petit salle.  The body mics combined with Alex Amini’s marvellous eye for fabric, armour and head dressings are too often heard as well as seen (marring Karen Coughlin’s engaging portrait of Aldonza).  Overhead, every appearance by the Captain of the Guard (Danny Harvey) and his execution aid (Ryan Gauvin) is heralded by the Gatling gun force of loosing the chain.  Worse, the full-cry ensemble tests the ear drum, electronically exacerbates any pitch deficiencies while, necessarily paling in comparison to the pre-recorded Gregorian chants that are a marvel of balance and restraint.

As Don Quixote, Mark Llewellyn brings his own fine madness to the role and makes us all believers in giants, castles and errant knights.  His constant companion, Sancho (D. Kirk Teeple) bubbles along amiably as he leads the Python-like horses (only missing the coconut hooves!) through the adventure but lacks pitch-surety when in song.

It falls to Coughlin and Phil Cook as Padre to raise the bar vocally.  The former has a flexible, centred tone heard to its best advantage in “Aldonza.”  The latter’s Benediction was a showstopper; his “To Each his Dulcinea” was introspectively thoughtful with only the last few measures slipping below standard.  Special mention also goes to Robert Woodcock, whose Barber’s song was a great pleasure.

Lale wisely left most of the solos as “stand and deliver,” which were effectively and hilariously balanced by Daniel Levinson’s Stooges-staged fight scene and the dance of 1,000 armourments during the gypsy sequence.

Windmills away!  All innocents are encouraged to partake of the quest for “doing the right thing” and savour an “Impossible Dream” of your own.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

High Society

Music & Lyrics:  Cole Porter; Book:  Arthur Kopit
Shaw Festival, 2006 till Nov 19
Review by S. James Wegg, Stage Door Guest Reviewer

High-energy, high-power ensemble electrifies

Ontario's power problems are over.  Should supply exceed demand between now and November, simply hooking up the grid to the Shaw Festival's high-voltage production of Cole Porter's High Society will swamp the lines leaving no one in the dark and whistling a tune to boot!

From the opening chorus of the show's namesake, the Lord Household's servants show they are masters of their domain:  singing and dancing up a storm that, with a few notable exceptions, far outshines the principals as they work through the details of the one-wedding-three-grooms storyline that provides the excuse for all of the hijinks and hilarity.

An early showstopper is “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” (perhaps Regis will drop by for a cameo during his upcoming Casino Niagara stint).  Under the adroit leadership of director Kelly Robinson, choreographer John MacInnis deploys his charges with wave after wave of high-kicking legs, fully-extended arms (where not even the fingers are given a moment's rest) in and out of William Schmuck's rolling-stock set.  The unstoppable bodies and the burnt-orange based colour scheme headily combine with the sassy score and energize both sides of the stage in a manner too seldom seen in Niagara-on-the Lake.  Whoopee!

While the maids and butlers are most certainly a team, tossing their props with surety, moving into and out of many reprise tableaus with deceptive ease, there is no doubt that Shaw newcomer David Lopez (rich baritone and a knowing visage that adds more backstory and insider gossip than a three-hundred word text message) is the catch of the day.  Yet rather than blow his compatriots away, he inspires and supports, daring each number to heat up a degree or two.  By the time “She's Got that Thing” revs up and the tassels reach “full twirl” its hard to remember this production is lifting off in staid Niagara wine country, perhaps future marketing pieces will refer to these presentations as a “spectacular Broadway Shaw!”

In the leads, the voices of note belong to Jay Turvey as Mike Connor (“You're Sensational” note-for-note the finest music-making of the two acts) and Patty Jamieson in the role of his nearly-loved sidekick and fellow gossip columnist Liz Imbrie (a compelling late-inning beckon in “I'm Getting Myself Ready for You”).

Next up on the kudos list is Melissa Peters who brings just the right mix of naïveté, street smarts and adult-manipulation to the part of Dinah, the much younger sister of Tracy (Camilla Scott).  Scott makes effective use of her comedic gifts and range of delivery, but seems content to belt-and-deliver her songs rather than craft them with equal care and subtlety.

Of her two other suitors (the third being Connor whose brief skinny-dip infatuation only serves to bring him closer to his true love—Hey!  It's a musical, these outrageous situations never happen the “real” theatre …) boat-builder and ex-husband Dexter Haven (Dan Chameroy) gets the best songs and the girl.  Chameroy has all of the right stuff until the top of his charts prove an insurmountable task.  As the jilted groom (sadly, he's not an alcoholic so doesn't fit the family profile), David Leyshon portrays George Kittredge with believable outrage and exits with dignity.  Which is more than lecher, drunk and all around party favourite Uncle Willie (Neil Barclay, as broad and blustery as ever) can say.

The senior Lords (Sharry Flett and Lorne Kennedy), despite some philandering by the man-of-the-house with blackmail attracting tarts, serve up a compelling example of let the past fade into infamy, for there is more to a long-term relationship than fidelity, er, pass the champagne.

Music Director Paul Sportelli and his talented band swept through their leader's sparkling adaptation with compelling zest and only a couple of false entries will vanish in successive performances.  Like the Lords' employees above them, they keep the pace fast and furious, letting their enthusiasm commingle with that of their colleagues on stage and add yet another dimension of excellence to Robinson's magical vision.

But there's another mix that threatens to scuttle the combined efforts and sink the good ship High Society even as it embarks on its summer/fall voyage into the ears and eyes of thousands of patrons:  that of the reinforced sound.

With mics in the pit, the orchestra, inadvertently, comes across as recorded and not well done at that.  The natural acoustics of the festival Hall and the “managed” reproduction of Peter McBoyle's well-intentioned sound design exacerbate rather than complement—“Just One of Those Things.”  On stage, the dialogue, literally on several occasions, fades in and out while the vocal lines have an unflattering edge that gives the entire show an unnatural hue.  Would there be panic in the aisles if a line or two was covered?  Imagine Porter “au natural!”  “Let's Misbehave!”  With this spectacular cast, left to their own skills of diction, projection and style why not pull the plug on progress and unleash High Society directly to the admiring throng?

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Arms and the Man

by Bernard Shaw
Shaw Festival till Oct 29, 2006
Review by S. James Wegg, Stage Door Guest Reviewer

The triumph of bawdy over brains

Two lines of script illuminate director Jackie Maxwell's choices for the overall tenor and tone of Shaw's Arms and The Man :

Louka.  When you set up shop you will only be everybody's servant instead of somebody's servant. …  Sergius.  Life's a farce.

Louka's savvy social-commentary and insight challenge the mind and, for some, strongly-held belief.  On opening night, it slipped by barely noticed.  The brief utterance from Sergius heralds the silly and ridiculous (unless the annotation “cynically” is faithfully observed), but ignited brandy-fuelled guffaws from the formally-attired, sponsor-rich crowd in the Festival Theatre.

So which is it?

Well, er, both!

Act I begins promisingly enough.  Raina Petkoff (Diana Donnelly, too fast in the early going, but soon finds her delivery rhythm) blushes with upper-class pride as her flaky mother (Nora McLellan, eager as can be and positively salivating for the electric bell gag several scenes hence) delivers the happy news that her daughter's fiancé, Major Sergius Saranoff (Mike Shara) has disobeyed the orders of his Russian masters and led his troops into a surprising victory over the ill-equipped Serbs and Austrians—seems the ammunition for their artillery was the wrong gauge.  Only defensive interventions by Canada's Sea King helicopters could have sealed the victory faster.

But before you can say “Hark!  What enemy through yonder window breaks,” Captain Bluntschli (Patrick Galligan, hands-down the brightest, most consistent star on the stage—barely looking a lustrum over his “announced” thirty-four years) hoists himself over the balcony (Raina and family are proud Bulgarians, ever-ready to risk life and limb when forced by stronger allies) and into the arms of his adversary's beautiful daughter.

But, no worries, he's Swiss—a soldier-for-hire, pragmatic to the core (“It is our duty to live as long as we can.”) without an ounce of the superficial idealism (defined by Shaw as “only a flattering name for romance in politics and morals”) that oozes from the Petkoff coat of charms.  It's no coincidence that Bluntschli hails from the land of neutrality and is fed chocolate creams by his oh-so-hospitable hostess.  With more comic irony than Haydn's modulation-by-silent-bars, the early goings-on drew a few knowing chuckles but little collective marvel at the playwright's brilliant wit.  It took the exhausted soldier's literal (and wonderfully hilarious) falling into sleep to provoke the first belly laugh from the storied crowd.

Act II opens with a servant dialogue.  Nicola (Peter Millard, picture perfect, but still ramping up his timing and lines) looks forward to the unforeseeable day of his own shop and a family life.  Louka (Catherine McGregor, Carmen-like, to be sure, yet favours gesture and expression over deftly understated pronouncements, “You'll never put the soul of a servant into me.”) plans to barter her way to a better life utilizing the plentiful supply of family secrets that she's discovered, but takes a bruising at the hand of a lover-beyond-her-station even as she tries to rise above hers.  Her assailant, of course, is the campaign “hero,” groom-to-be Sergius.  From his first entry to the final curtain, Maxwell takes advantage of Shara's impressive looks and skills, having him pose, posture and mug his way into the funny bones of the assemblage.  He howls, squeaks and “pshas” with glee, but in the process pulls the production miles away from sophisticated commentary and into the realm of second-tier melodrama.

He's not alone.  Peter Hutt's portrait of Major Paul Petkoff elicits many yuks but few zingers.  The unravelling of lie after lie, the “Whose coat is it anyway?” follies stirred up with “What the butlers saw” makes for much merriment but fails to plumb the satiric depths of Shaw's incredible understanding of the classes, the inanity of war and sexual subtext.  The revelation that Bluntschli's revolver would only have shot blanks (echoing the impotent ammunition of his rival on the battlefield) in the bedroom of the voluptuous Raina was rendered and accepted as a “just so” news item on the parliamentary channel.

The script's careful set-up of the “only library in Bulgaria” (at one with the recent Buffalo production of All the Great Books (abridged))— cross-reference below , was surprisingly shunned by set designer Sue LePage's otherwise resplendent recreations of the Petkoff Manor.

By the time various relationships have been sorted out, truncated or about to begin, and the enthusiastic applause dies down, the moment of reflection on the fine meal just devoured comes to no firm conclusion as to the amount of tip that ought be left.  Seasoned devotees and newcomers alike are invited to wind their way to Niagara-on-the-Lake, order the prix fixe and decide for themselves.


Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Too True to Be Good

written by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jim Mezon
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre,
Niagara-on-the-Lake May 26-October 7, 2006
Reviewed by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door
James Wegg's review follows

"True Enough to Be Very Good"

This is the fourth time the Shaw Festival has mounted Shaw’s surreal comedy “Too True to Be Good” and it is in almost every way superior to the play’s last outing in 1994. The play’s unusual structure may have puzzled critics in 1932, but now it seems daring. The wide range of topics it covers dealing with the dissolution of all certainties and despair for the future strikes a very strong chord today. And under director Jim Mezon the play has never been funnier.

In his Preface, Shaw described the three-part structure of the play as funny in the beginning, serio-comic in the middle and “a torrent of sermons” at the end. This self-awareness, including Shaw’s knowledge of his own penchant for sermonizing, is one of the many playful aspects of the piece that make it seem so modern. Starting with the title, the play is based on series of reversals of expectations. The play begins with the speech of a Microbe who has become sick from the illness of his nameless host Patient. The “sickly” Patient has become ill and remains so because of the “care”
of her mother, Mrs. Mopply, who has already lost several children to illness. The Patient’s night nurse (aka Susan Simpkins aka
“Sweetie”) turns out to be a thief and lets in another thief (aka Aubrey Bagot aka “Popsy”) who plans to steal her jewels. Rather than being alarmed, the Patient is so anxious to get away from her mother she suggests that the two thieves kidnap her and sell her jewels to pay for their getaway as an escape for the thieves and a chance finally to experience life for the Patient. The three end up in a sunny, unnamed, far-flung outpost of the British Empire, nominally under the command of Colonel Tallboys, who would rather paint watercolours, but which is actually controlled by the amazing efforts of a Private Napoleon Alexander Trotsky Meek, whose given names suggest the power that his family name and outer demeanour seem to hide.

Here the two thieves, one an ordained minister, find that leisure is not all it’s cracked up to be and the Patient is disappointed by life itself. None of the three, however, is as cynical as the Elder, Aubrey’s father, a confirmed atheist, who appears in the last act and is convinced the world is about to end. As the Elder tells us: “The universe of Isaac Newton, which has been an impregnable citadel of modern civilization for three hundred years, has crumbled like the walls of Jericho before the criticism of Einstein. … Nothing can save us from a perpetual headlong fall into a bottomless abyss but a solid footing of dogma; and we no sooner agree to that than we find that the only trustworthy dogma is that there is no dogma.” Since the play was written in 1932 his cynicism seems prophetic. Besides that, Shaw brings up the conflict between what he calls the “higher centre” and the “lower centre”, the mind and the body, or more specifically, intellect and sex. As Aubrey says, “Since the war the lower centres have become vocal. And the effect is that of an earthquake. For they speak truths that have never been spoken before-- truths that the makers of our domestic institutions have tried to ignore.” The absurdist humour combined with such startlingly relevant discussions makes for an intellectually invigorating evening.

Director Jim Mezon starts the play in the right mode of fantasy by prefacing the action with a scene in which black-clad actors circle the sleeping Patient with various objects that recur in the course of the play. This immediately sets up the action as the fevered dream of the Patient and Mezon plays on this unreality throughout. A large conch shell, for example, is used as if it were a gramophone. Alan Brodie’s lighting is crucial in establishing the aura of unreality of the Patient’s room, the blazing heat of the British outpost and the spiritual gloom of the ending. Kelly Wolf’s costumes capture the nature of each character but she exercises her imagination most freely in the harem garb for the escaped Patient and in the female thief’s comic view of what a countess might wear. She makes the Microbe look thoroughly disgusting, rather more like a ball of radioactive mucus than any bacterium. Costuming the Microbe as a thief as in 1994 also helped draw a parallel with the Patient’s Nurse and her companion.

Mezon has drawn exactly the right level of exaggerated playing from the cast, heightened enough so preserve the air of fantasy but not so forced that we disregard the characters as abstractions. The one exception is Williams Vickers as the Microbe, who tends to overplay his part through loud whining. I much preferred the sly, quieter unsavoriness of George Dawson’s Microbe in 1994.

Otherwise, the cast is uniformly good, fully aware that this kind of play is funnier the more the characters take the action absolutely seriously. Mary Haney is hilarious as the over-solicitous Mrs.
Mopply whose only source of attention comes from having a perpetually sickly child. Nicole Underhay is a delight as the Patient, making
her profound disillusionment with freedom and adventure very funny.
One of her character’s most unusual realizations is that “We do nothing but convert good food into bad manure”--not quite a topic we associate with Shaw.

As the two would-be criminals, Kelli Fox and Blair Williams are a treat. Fox, obviously relishing the chance to play such an overtly comic role, is especially funny when the low-born Susan Simpkins attempts to play a foreign countess, using an accent that wanders all over the map of Europe. Williams’s deft characterization turns out to be the mainstay of the action. Indeed, his depiction of sententious seriousness befuddled by the incomprehensibility of reality pretty much summarizes the attitude of the whole play.

Benedict Campbell is a wonderfully pompous Colonel Tallboys, good at making class distinctions but nothing else, while Andrew Bunker has a fine turn as the indispensably ultra-efficient but self-effacing Private Meek. Graeme Somerville has the most serious role as Sergeant Fielding, a soldier in a crisis of faith because he finds the two books that have guided his life, the Bible and “Pilgrim’s Progress”, no longer answer his questions. Norman Browning fortunately does not play the Elder as loony geezer but rather as a baleful prophet dragged down by his own cynicism. This provides an excellent parallel to his son, the optimistic Aubrey, who gives a long sermon at the end of the play “that we have outgrown our religion, outgrown our political system, outgrown our own strength of mind and character” from which the characters in ones and twos sneak away ot leave him alone with his preaching.

Of the two plays by Shaw on offer at the Festival, “Arms and the Man”
may be better known, but Jim Mezon and his cast have made this rarity both funnier and more intellectually rewarding. When quirks in a play like “Too True” have been captured so well, you don’t want to wait twelve years for it to come around again.

©Christopher Hoile


Too True to Be Good

by Bernard Shaw
Shaw Festival till October 7, 2006
Review by S. James Wegg, Stage Door Guest Reviewer

Pearls of wisdom and misery

In Too True to Be Good , George Bernard Shaw turns the tables on his usual subject matter and examines the plight of the more-money-than brains set.  While simultaneously pillorying the rich who religiously feed their young with thrice-daily meat rations and copious amounts of Doctor-dispensed green draughts for their never-ending “complaints” (real or imagined), he lets the great over-washed bleat out their woes:  “… it was only by drinking and drugging—cocktails and cocaine—that I could endure my life.”  But through his skillful characterization, beginning with the robbery-in-progress epiphany of a masked burglar (Blair Williams, who nearly steals the show to boot) “honesty is the best policy,” and culminating in the thief-as-preacher's final sermon, which drives all other characters into the wings, one is left with the absolute certainty that it's the “not unknown” playwright who utters every caustic word.

Under the watchful and savvy care of director Jim Mezon, the Shaw Festival's production is a pleasant affair that manages to keep the wordy script moving forward and handles the few-and-far-between action sequences with aplomb.  Best-in-show is Private Meek (Andrew Bunker—the epitome of the all-knowing soldier who runs the company while his Colonel dabbles in watercolours).  His Act II one-man-army “attack of the maroons” (only a Wagner excerpt was missing), where the unseen enemy is frightened off by deftly placed fireworks, leaving Her Majesty's expedition unscathed and ready for tea and near silly-walk entries are worth the price of admission alone.

William Vickers' portrayal of The Monster (a.k.a. The Microbe) kicks off the production with a sick-bed gurgling aria that provides the aural backdrop for the half-dozen bowler-hat “corps” that lifts and separates the forever-ailing, misery-personified patient (the monochromatic Nicole Underhay) from her centre-stage revolving bed.  His medicine-matched green string of body lights is just one of many subtle touches by production designer Kelly Wolf.

As The Patient's Mother, Mary Haney leads the female squad with convincing authority as she morphs from bewildered (she's fed, ministered and coddled her other offspring into early graves) to besieged.  It takes a common assault from Colonel Tallboys' (Benedict Campbell, hilarious as a literal tea totter, hen-pecked from afar brigand inventor) sun umbrella to bring the matriarch to her senses.  The result of that being a Mother/Daughter sisterhood pact (only from the mind of Shaw!) and a crowd-pleasing belly laugh as the hot-tempered KCB seeker utters “Pardon me.  I apologized.  I did not express my regret.”

Much of the opening act's fun revolves around The Nurse (Kelli Fox—first-rate as a no-nonsense caregiver, but weakens the comedy considerably with her mid-Atlantic impersonation of a Countess that evokes the dying episodes of Gilligan's Island ) as she and The Burglar, armed with a society magazine illustrated feature of The Patient's gems, convince the bed-ridden, measles beset (but—a miracle of makeup—only on the face) to join her intruders and escape into the simple life of servitude.  (Her I Dream of Jeannie get-up completing the homage to escapist sitcoms of the 1960s.)  Don't miss the pearl-grab:  a howler of a sight gag that works on many levels, not least of which is family-jewel envy!

Once the first act curtain falls, the rest of the journey has an uneven pace.  As The Microbe states in his last gasp, “… the characters will discuss it at great length for two acts more.”  Happily, another pair of actors await their cue until summoned for the final frame.

Norman Browning devours his role as The Elder.  The atheist father of The Burglar is given an elevated pedestal from which to lecture his secretly ordained son and his partner in crime (and 10-day lover—a record!) the former nurse and sometime regal faker.  His science vs. religion theme is as long-winded as most vicars on Sunday, but what registers best, “My wife has died cursing me.  I do not know how to live without her,” speaks the most wisdom and brilliantly reminds everyone that, after all is said, blessed or calculated, it's really relationships that rise above position or power.

Graeme Somerville's rendering of Sergeant Fielding gets under the skin of his lines, balances the career-soldier fortitude with a smouldering sexuality that first finds his equal then partner in Nurse's final incarnation ( faithful lover), while simultaneously reminding soldiers' spouses everywhere that far away from home and in service to the “colours” a stiff upper lip can easily find new life and limb in the “middle.”

Shaw's insights into human interaction and somewhat surprising thesis that the rich are just as miserable as the poor—preachy as it is—should be supped on and savoured by patrons from all economic backgrounds.  A visit to the Court House Theatre's pulpit is highly recommended, because, no matter which side of life's ledger you frequent, your point of view is bound to surface—even if it's too good to be true.

Your comments and reviews are always welcome


Love Among the Russians

by Morwyn Brebner
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-lake, till September 24, 2006
Stage Door Guest Review by S. James Wegg

Funny they should say that


Artistic directors of repertory theatres plan in many different ways.  Like fine-dining chefs, they painstakingly select a variety of works from the literary market then attempt to engage the ideal actors and designers to bring their vision to life.  First comes the “dream team” then, faced with humungous egos, over-stretched budgets and scheduling conflicts, the leadership gradually cobbles together a season of plays that simultaneously fulfills the stated mandate and has at least the potential to fill the house for every performance.  The ideal result—on paper—should demonstrate that every production in the line-up is both attractive in its own right as well as a logical and necessary component of the whole.  Over time, artistic directors are more judged by their seasons than their individual triumphs.

On the other side of the lights, the audience seldom subscribes to every item offered on the menu.  Mini-packs and multi-performance discounts have just as much pull in seat selections as the actual fare.  Local patrons slip south for the winter; tourists, necessarily, can only fit in so many events during their excursions to far-off venues.

Which brings us to the critics.  These professional attendees have the greatest odds of “seeing” the entire roundup and are faced with a constant conundrum:  Do we review each production from the largely singular point of view of the crowd around us or do we set our sights on the value of each presentation to the collective goal?


Mid-way through the roll-out of the Shaw Festival's 2006 season, Love Among the Russians (Morwyn Brebner's fresh adaptations of Anton Chekhov's The Bear and The Proposal ) is the perfect foil to the generally staid work thus far.  The incongruous hilarity of the original is frequently overshadowed by way-over-the-top broad, physical humour that brilliantly entertains newcomers even as the veterans squirm in their seats.

Directed with zest by Eda Holmes, this sixty-minute foray into the perils of love, spiced with copious amounts of pratfalls, puns and principled predicaments is the funniest farce to date and a must-see for those able to leave their pretensions at the door.

Act I

Both plays are well served by the specially created song, “Don't Fall in Love” (music by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey to Brebner's whacky lyrics:  “Love is a flower, but in it hides a beetle”).  Every inch of the Court House Theatre is used to introduce the sextet of characters (played by four actors, see budget, above) who fearlessly deliver the generation-now dialogue “improvements” (“glitterati” and “take it outside” to name but two) even as they are draped in late 19th Century costumes and supported (well, mostly—the decaying chair gag in The Bear is a hoot) by period furniture.

William Vickers is steady and stoic as Luka, egging his mourning mistress (Diana Donnelly) to open the windows and rejoin the world.  It falls to a creditor, Grigory Stepanovich Smirnov (Blair Williams, zanily madcap as he tries to collect the cash for his oats but ends up feeling them) to rock the widow's solitude with demands for payment that are nearly settled by a duel.  The mayhem is infectious—marred only by scraps of dialogue (“little skirt” is actually full length gown; “played my feelings like a fine wine,” er violin?) that are at odds with the action.


The transition from the first “one-acter” to the next is worth the price of admission alone.  Guitar and tambourine are no longer hoisted in anger but joined by an ever-so-appropriate squeeze box in an encore of the “love motif.”  The fleet-footed cast has soon rearranged William Schmuck's easily functional set while kicking up their heels and warning of the perils of the heart.

Act II and Finale

In The Proposal , Martin Happer more than makes up for his pitch-puzzled singing voice by providing many moments of body contortion that drive the comedic pace faster than his colleagues can match.  As neighbouring landowner and would-be suitor, Ivan Vasylievich Lomov, Happer throws his thin frame and boyish face into full-length twitches and a deft rendition of a hunting dog's under-bite that instantly have the onlookers howling with glee.

“My heart is swelling up” works on every possible plane as the object of his affections, Natalya Stepanovna (Donnelly again—a tad too petulant, but the perfect foil to her palpitating admirer), “can't not get married,” preferring to bicker rather than beguile.

As her long-suffering father, Stepan Stepanovich Chubukov, William Vickers pushes too hard and slips into buffoonery (aided and abetted by the script with its soon-tiresome “blah, blah, blah” and fox vs. sheep joke) that brings back memories of The Three Stooges where Charlie Chaplin would be more appropriate.

But, no worries!  By the time the combative wooers are at each other's throats over whose dog needs an orthodontist, the audience is rolling in the aisles in sympathy and replays of their own ridiculous arguments—the first sign that love has struck again!



Your comments and reviews are always welcome


The Crucible

by Arthur Miller
Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-lake, till October 14, 2006
Stage Door Guest Review by S. James Wegg

The invisible crime

Don't miss this one:  girls dancing naked, blood gulped around a fire, mysterious illnesses, sullied reputations, inquisitions by Church and State, verdicts of death by hanging, confessions of lying with the Devil become the only road to salvation and life!  Then killer dialogue from the lips of the highest authority:  “I cannot pardon these when twelve are already hanged for the same crime.  It is not just.”

Who could argue with such sound logic?

In Arthur Miller's The Crucible , the town of Salem, Massachusetts is brought to its moral knees as the voice of God speaks through “the children” and systematically condemns their elders to the rope.  No evidence other than witnessing Lucifer's work and being possessed by him is required to purge the god-fearing community of lechers, landowners and baby killers.  Praise the Lord, raise the scaffold.

The Shaw Festival's first production of the perils of witchcraft in the late seventeenth century is a compelling visual tour de force that, when it finds its rhythm and tone, will be rightly seen as a highlight of the current season.

From the opening sepia scrim—“into the woods” where witches play, Peter Hartwell's vision of Puritan life is marvellously Spartan and functional.  Teresa Przybylski's costumes with their greys, blacks and period headdress add further verisimilitude.  The promise of music and eerie whisperings add an opening chill that, sadly, is never rekindled.  The stark hymn, led offstage by Reverend Samuel Parris (Ric Reid) while his devilishly ill daughter, Betty (Katie Cambone-Mannell, whose screeches of possession can strip paint) is examined, becomes a tiresome competitor to the actors in the attic.  The Kronos-like contribution from the Blue Spruce String Quartet is especially apt and welcome, yet the single note “Danse macabre” violin call needs some bones in support of its otherwise tedious repetitions.  Finally, the closing chorus convincingly brings the drama to an end if only the lyrics were declaimed with better diction …

All of the above didn't happen independently.  Director Tadeusz Bradecki has a clear vision for Miller's most allegorical work and has persuaded his colleagues and considerable cast to collectively shed light on the evil that men do in the name of power and glory.

Leading that charge is Benedict Campbell's near-perfect portrayal of John Proctor—a devout farmer and family man who sleeps with his sometimes servant, Abigail Williams (Charlotte Gowdy) to ward off the chill of his plain wife Elizabeth (stoically given by Kelli Fox).  As the nubile witches strive to protect their own lives, they take great pleasure in naming the names of those who they've seen in Satan's company.  Proctor's world implodes as Elizabeth is arrested on the strength of a puppet (artfully made in court by Abigail's replacement, Mary Warren who is skillfully fashioned by Trish Lindstrom).  John holds the key to his wife's release:  confess to having “known” Abigail and the chief accuser's testimony will be dismissed as the vengeful ravings expected of all harlots.

The judiciary go about their necessary work with practised efficiency.  Highest on the bench is Deputy Governor Danforth.  Jim Mezon's take on the eager dispatcher of the damned is a solid testimony of willful blindness that inspires his collaborators to heady heights.  His line “A person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between” will continue to resonate with audiences everywhere:  some nodding in resigned agreement, others enumerating 21st century black magic of vanished weapons of mass destruction and inhumane treatment of prisoners in the struggle for ideology and fossil fuel.

Danforth's partner in confessional crime is Reverend John Hale (played with fervoured passion by Peter Krantz).  His own crucible comes seeing John Proctor's miserable admission count for naught when the too-clever-by-half Governor chooses to ignore Elizabeth's discreet acknowledgment of her husband's infidelity, preferring the half-truths and bald fabrications of excitable wayward girls.

Others hold their ground and die for it.  None better than Bernard Behrens' heart-felt depiction of Giles Corey who knows the law from personal docket experience and has the last laugh on those who would steal his property (hello there Caledonia!).  “More rocks” indeed.

The local vicar, appropriately salivating at the altar of personal gain aided and abetted by the devil-made-me-report-it court clerk (Guy Bannerman), Judge Hathorne (David Schurmann, happily enjoying the discomfort of others) and the flask-toting Marshal (Jeff Meadows) work together feverishly to arrest and convict the good citizens of Salem who, like crimes of the century before and after are only guilty of their neighbours bearing false witness against them.  But, er, isn't that a sin?






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