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| What Lies Before Us | Gypsy Violins | Bell Book and Candle | The Rocky Horror Show |
We Will Rock You | To Kill a Mockingbird | King Lear | My One and Only | Comedy of Errors |

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2007

What Lies Before Us

by Morris Panych, directed by Jim Millan
Crow's Theatre and CanStage, Berkeley Street Theatre, Toronto
January 18-February 24, 2007
reviewed by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Answer: Not Much"

Morris Panych's latest play, “What Lies Before Us”, now having its world premiere at the Berkeley Street Theatre, opens with actor Matthew MacFadzean in the role of Keating scraping the bottom of a tin can for what seems like ten or fifteen minutes to fetch out the last remaining beans. This initial image could serve as a metaphor for the entire play that is dominated by the sound of Panych scraping the bottom of the barrel for ideas to pad out his play to 90 minutes (not including intermission).

The action takes place sometime in the mid-19th century at exactly 51° North, 118° West. The programme note helpfully informs us that this is “in the Rockies' confluence on the south side of Illecillewaet River, east of Revelstoke, B.C., with an approximate altitude of 6446 feet”. Two surveyors, the Scotsman Ambrose played by David Storch and the Englishman Keating, and their Chinese cook Wing played by Wayne Sujo think they arrived at the designated location to meet an American major to continue their survey. When he does not show up after a month or so the begin to think they are lost. After an avalanche cuts them off and kills their horses, they begin to think they are doomed.

The play suffers heavily from an “anxiety of influence” (in Harold Bloom's phrase) from the very start. The picture of two bickering characters--one rational and pessimistic (Ambrose), one unthinkingly optimistic (Keating)--stuck waiting at an appointed time and place for someone who never shows up, of course, is rather too similar to Beckett's “Waiting for Godot”. The two topographers later immobility and dependence on a mobile, mostly non-speaking servant recalls Beckett's “Endgame”. Keating's persistent optimism despite a growing paralysis that gradually leaves only his head to move freely recalls Winnie in Beckett's “Happy Days”. The trouble is that Panych is desperately trying not to rewrite Beckett. Every time his dialogue begins to echo and of Beckett's plays to closely, he pulls himself up and reminds himself that the play is historical not abstract and that his real themes are the futility of science in trying to understand nature, topography as man's imposition of himself of a landscape, the political rather than practical reasons for surveying to build a railway to across Canada, plus a general satire of religion and colonialism. This difficulty continually situates the play as a lesser subset of plays influenced by Beckett. It winds up neither as good as its models nor any good as an historical critique.

Panych's basic set-up for the play also makes no sense. Ambrose and Keating have somehow managed to cover the 565 miles from the B.C. coast to their present location, even though Keating has no training in either topography or engineering. Panych wants us to laugh at the unchanging clashes of this pair of opposites, but it makes no sense that they could have got this far or stayed together so long given Keating's' obvious deficiencies. The action covers about four months, yet except for posting lookouts occasionally, the surveyors do nothing but sit about waiting for the American major to show up. In Beckett the idea of waiting is at least give some purpose to characters' lives. Seen in an historical setting, the surveyors' inaction just seems stupid. Panych includes the otherwise unnecessary character of Wing mostly to show how the two white men totally ignore him. Despite the long time covered, Wing never learns a word of English and the surveyors never learn a word of Chinese. Panych wants to have the comedy of the two white men constantly having to mime what they want, but realistically people even in the 19th century would have made sure a servant could understand their basic commands. Panych wants us to believe that after four months Wing doesn't even understand the word “water”. Besides this, there are problems with the two main characters. All the humour involving Keating derives from his unfounded optimism and unquestioningly support for God, Queen and Country. Yet, Panych occasionally has Keating spell out the direness of their situation in the most realistic terms to Ambrose--something Ambrose already knows and inconsistent with Keating's character. As for Ambrose, Panych fairly awkwardly has him mention early on that he has a back-story of rebellion and has suffered from bouts of insanity. Yet, nothing ever comes from these revelations.

The confused goals of the play plus a situation we can't believe in plus characters we don't much care about plus a story that literally goes nowhere all make for an extraordinarily dull evening. There is so little forward momentum that many people at intermission assumed the play was over. And indeed it might as well have been since the second act adds nothing of interest. When those around me realized that this was merely an intermission a debate arose whether to sit through the second act or leave.

Given the subpar material, the cast does a fine job. MacFadzean is especially funny as Keating, often sounding rather like Michael Palin playing similar British imperialist twits in “Monty Python”. David Storch does the best he can with Ambrose's speeches that strike the same monotonously dour note for the entire evening. It's fairly embarrassing to watch a fine actor like Wayne Sujo reduced to playing a Chinese cook. Panych may want to satirize white attitudes but not to allow Wing more stage time and more to say seems insulting. Panych gives Wing the final say, but since it is entirely in Chinese, it will be difficult for many to judge the effectiveness of his line readings.

Ken MacDonald and Robin Fisher have created a handsome naturalistic set and period costumes and Jim Millan had provided the efficient but not especially crisp direction. Well-known playwrights like Panych can have their off moments. The result is this, one of his most tedious, least successful plays.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Brian Bedford as King Lear; photo by David HouKing Lear

by William Shakespeare, directed by Brian Bedford
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 28-October 28, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Every Inch an Actor"

Stratford's ninth production of “King Lear” (including one revival) is curiously unmoving.  Brian Bedford's performance in the title role is a study in technique but, much like Christopher Plummer's performance in 2002, never fully explores the depths of the character.  The production is beautifully designed and lit but the text is heavily cut and the cast is uneven. 

As usual Bedford is a great speaker of Shakespeare's verse.  He has such a knack for its rhythm and emphasis that he makes it feel perfectly natural and instantly intelligible.  Despite this, it is clear that Bedford's performance could have been much better if he were not directing himself.  Most obvious is that his Lear's age and physical abilities keep changing throughout the play.  In the first scene Bedford presents him as a drooling, senile man of perhaps ninety who has little breath and needs to support himself first on Cordelia then on the arms of his throne.  In the middle three acts, however, he has become quite a vigorous 60-year-old who can stride about the stage unaided with all the lung-power needed to excoriate Goneril and Regan.  By the end he returns to the age of “four score and upwards” and his feebleness at the beginning.  Another director would have insisted on more consistency.  Bedford does this when directing other characters like Scott Wentworth's Gloucester, who starts out at about age 80 and remains so in movement and manner of speech throughout.

More troubling is Bedford's habits of line delivery.  For one of the most despairing tragedies ever written, the opening night was punctuated with hearty laughter right up to the end.  Partly, this is due to the general giddiness of opening audiences.  Partly this is due to Bedford's reputation as a master of comedy so that any line that could vaguely be construed as comic got laughs whether appropriate or not.  Partly, though, this is due to Bedford's use of the same patterns of significant pause and emphasis that he uses in comedy.  Bedford could thus get laughs by using the pause in innocuous lines like “Am I ... in France?” or “I am four score ... and upwards”.  This technique is a sign of wit since it shows the character apparently considering what words he will use.  Bedford, however, uses the same technique in Lear's moments of rage and madness when the character is meant to be speaking without thinking.  Lear's curses on Goneril and Regan should be direful not funny.  The mad Lear should be pitiful not humorous since, after all, one of the signs of madness, is loss of a sense of humour.  When Bedford's Lear meets the blinded Gloucester and acts like a streetperson, I thought Bedford had found a modern correlative for Lear's madness.  But then Bedford soon lapsed into his usual method of comic delivery and undermined the impression he had created. 

Purists will object to many of Bedford's cuts.  There is, for example, no Duke of Burgundy to reject Cordelia for her sudden lack of dowry.  Instead, the King of France steps right up and accepts Cordelia as she is.  Thus we miss the suggestion that the evil Shakespeare is exploring extends beyond the bounds of England.  More surprising is the complete excision of the scene in Act 3 in Poor Tom's hut when Lear holds a mock trial of his daughters.  This scene brings together the main representatives of disguise, madness and foolery for comparison and contrast.  In Bedford's version the only glimpse we get of the mind of the mad Lear is in his short encounter with the blind Gloucester. 

The supporting performances are a mixture of strong and weak.  The strongest performances come from Wenna Shaw as Goneril and Wendy Robie as Regan.  For once these two sisters are clearly differentiated.  Shaw's Goneril is a being of spite from the very start with a volatile, vengeful personality barely under control.  In a brilliant perormance Robie's Regan is more lightheaded, taking her cues from those around her until she unthinkingly drifts into evil.  As Cordelia, Sara Topham is in fine form in during the “love test”, clearly viewing it as an outrageous game Lear has set up that she wants no part of while assuming incorrectly that Lear will see her point of view.  In the final scenes of the play, however, she is unaccountable cool.

Scott Wentworth is a fine Gloucester, a role he seems to delve into more deeply than does Bedford in Lear.  As for Gloucester's two sons, neither Dion Johnstone's Edmund nor Gareth Potter's Edgar is a success.  Johnstone's brings an added rasp to his voice but the most he conjures up is mischievousness rather than evil incarnate.  When Edgar plays Poor Tom, Potter is too self-conscious to be either frightening or pitiful.  Partly because his scenes are cut to shreds his character does not grow in strength as it should.

Bernard Hopkins is excellent as Lear's Fool.  In Ann Curtis's white and pastel blue costume he looks rather like an overgrown baby, and Hopkins himself adopts a childlike voice, yet, tellingly, his eyes show that this is just a pose and that he is telling Lear truths not jests.  Peter Donaldson gives us an Earl of Kent, who by the end does truly seem shattered his experience of man's capacity for evil.  Wayne Best is a fairly brittle Duke of Cornwall with an unvarying tone, while Graham Harley is a stronger than usual Duke of Albany whose moral outrage counters in force his wife Goneril's vile proclamations.  Ron Kennell artfully combines both villain and fop as Oswald, but Keith Dinicol adopts so plummy a tone as Cordelia's Gentleman he seems comic.   

Desmond Heeley, listed as “Set Consultant”, has basically restored the Festival stage to Tanya Moiseiwitsch's original design including the often removed central pillar.  Otherwise, the stage is bare save for a minimum of key items carried on and off.  Those who complain that Stratford never sets Shakespeare in his period will be pleased that costume designer Ann Curtis has set the action in the time of James I, King of England when the play premiered.  She uses a very narrow palette and avoids, as she says in her programme note, fashions of the period like puff britches that now strike us as comic.  With a bare stage it falls more than usual to lighting designer Michael J. Whitfield to create mood and show us where we are and the time of day and kind of weather.  This he does with absolute mastery, proving as so often, that creative lighting can communicate far more than can a physical set.  The show is not so lucky in Jim Neil's sound design.  The offstage conflict where England defeats France sounded as if someone had suddenly switched on the battle sounds of a 1950s Crusaders film.

Bedford's legions of fans will doubtless wish to see him essay one of the greatest roles in all drama.  What they will see is a great display of acting technique but very little emotion.  Longtime Stratford goers will find that, like Plummer, Bedford does not expunge memories of Stratford's greatest Lear, William Hutt.

©Christopher Hoile       

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Gypsy Violins

by Imre Kálmán, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin & Virginia Reh
Toronto Operetta Theatre, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto
February 16-18, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"A Virtuoso Performance"

In past years the Toronto Operetta Theatre has used its February slot to bring Toronto audiences such rarities as “El Barberillo de Lavapiès” by Francisco Barbieri and “The Widow” by Calixa Lavallé. This February the TOT is giving the Canadian premiere of “Gypsy Violins” (“Der Ziegeunerprimas”), an early work by Imre (or Emmerich) Kálmán, composer of such operetta classics as “Countess Maritza” and “The Csardas Princess”. Sensitive direction and solid performances from the cast prove that this highly engaging and moving work does not deserve its relative obscurity.

“Gypsy Violins” was the Hungarian Kálmán's first operetta written expressly for Vienna. The libretto portrays conflicts in the life of an ageing gypsy violin virtuoso based on the actual violinist Pali Rácz (1830-86). Unlike most Golden Age operettas and even those of his contemporaries, Kálmán's operettas tend to focus more on the psychology of realistic characters rather than farcical plots filled with multiple disguises. “Gypsy Violins” is no exception. It focusses on the effects of the passage of time both on the individual and society. Rácz, who is ill and has not played in public for two years, is proud of the acclaim he won during his career. His pride, however, prevents him from appreciating the talents of his eldest son Laczi, who has turned away from the old gypsy method of emotional improvisation and approaches music the “new” way as the interpretation of written scores. A personal conflict parallels this conflict of style. Rácz, already four times a widower with sixteen children, still thinks of himself as young and seeks to marry Juliska, the young daughter of his best friend. Laczi also loves Juliska but though she is attracted to him she agrees to marry Rácz out of duty and respect. Matters come to a head when Rácz agrees to give a concert in Paris despite the objections of his children. This stumbling block here is not the usual disparity of age, rank or wealth one finds in Lehár, but rather the refusal of an old man to acknowledge the changes that time has brought about on him and on the world around him.

Terry Hodges gives a virtuoso performance as Rácz. He makes Rácz a fascinating, fully rounded character, not at all the usual operetta “old man”, rather one with a complex mixture of pride, temper, gentleness and good humour. Hodges's rich mature baritone is ideal for Rácz's key meditation “Time, Oh Time You Tyrant King” ("Weit ist es mit mir gekommen"). The detail of his acting is a joy, especially in the important scene when Rácz secretly watches his aggrieved son play the violin in public and waves of surprise, envy, humility and delight play across his expression.

James McLennan, recently the TOT's excellent Candide, has another success as Laczi. He may find some of the part's highest notes challenging, but his rounded tone and passionate delivery create a vivid portrait of young man who tries to realize his worth despite his father's censure. As Juliska, Elizabeth DeGrazia, sporting a beautiful, clear-toned soprano, is a pleasure throughout. Her soaring duet with McLellan, “Softly Through the Summer Night” ("Bist plötzlich durchgegangen") is one of the musical highpoints of the evening. As Rácz's eldest daughter Sari, Katerina Tchoubar displays a fairly heavy accent but has much improved since her last TOT appearance in “Wiener Blut” in 2005. Her voice is stronger and fuller and her enunciation is much clearer than both in speaking and singing. She has an undeniable vivacity that makes a very positive impression especially in the work's best-known number, the lively “Hazazaa”.

Tenor Rory McGlynn is well cast as the debonair lady's man Count Irini, who invites Rácz to Paris, as is baritone Joseph Angelo as the devil-may-care King Estragon. Co-directors Guillermo Silva-Marin and Virginia Reh give the casting a nice fillip by choosing the young (and much younger-looking) Ken James Stewart to play Count Irini's guardian Monsieur Cadeau. The role is normally played by an aged gentleman perpetually put out by his change's personal and financial transgressions. Having Cadeau played by someone younger and more conservative than his master only enhances the comedy. Stewart, a recent graduate of the Randolph Academy, is already so adept and comic nuance and timing he is certainly one to watch in the coming years.

Cadeau's age is not the only change that the directors have made in the show. Like most Viennese operettas the libretto has the usual (but to us peculiar) short third act that introduces a new, often unnecessary comic character, in this case Count Irini's grandmother, before tying up the various strands of the plot. Silva-Marin and Reh have made the work stronger by eliminating the Countess along with delays of the Third Act. They wisely make the conclusion of the action derive directly from Rácz's encounter with Laczi in Paris. This foreshortening increases the work's dramatic impact and eliminates the original's depiction of Rácz's downward spiral that is more depressing than enlightening.

Ideally, Kálmán is best heard with full orchestra since his works are so alive with orchestra colour. Nevertheless, under conductor José Hernández the 11-piece ensemble sounded like a top-notch salon orchestra and gave the show a sense of intimacy. Special mention should be made of concertmaster Lance Elbeck whose fiery violin playing stood in for the simulated on stage playing of Rácz and Laczi.

When I first saw this work at the Ohio Light Opera in 2001, I thought I'd never have the chance to see it again since this piece is not revived all the often even in Europe. What a treat then to see it again in an even better sung and acted production right here in Toronto! Since the TOT has found an ideal Pali Rácz in Terry Hodges, let's hope it considers reviving this production with him sometime in the future. The realism of this piece serves a useful role in the TOT's project of broadening our awareness of what operetta is.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Bell, Book and Candle

by John Van Druten, directed by Douglas Beattie
Touchmark Theatre, River Run Centre, Guelph February 17-24, 2007
reviewed by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door


Touchmark theatre brings us a rarity in the romantic comedy “Bell, Book and Candle” (1950) by American author John Van Druten (1901-57).  The play curiously shares the same situation as Van Druten's “I Am a Camera” of the following year.  Both are less known in themselves than as inspirations for entertainments in other media.  “I Am a Camera” became the basis for the Kander and Ebb musical “Cabaret” (1966) and “Bell, Book and Candle” not only was made into a film of the same title in 1958 but also inspired the popular television series “Bewitched” (1964-72).  People who have seen even a few episodes of the series will likely find that they have to struggle to put it out of their minds.  Once they do, they will find a play that, unsurprisingly, delves into more fundamental issues about what it is to be human than the series ever attempted.

The play posits a world now familiar from “Bewitched” or the Harry Potter novels where witches live among us in the everyday world.  They look exactly like ordinary humans except that they have learned ways of controlling the forces of nature.  Their rules, though, as  those laid down by Harry Potter's Ministry of Magic, are that any magic they perform must appear to be a coincidence.  At the centre of the story is the voluptuous Manhattan witch Gillian Holroyd (much more alluring than TV's “Samantha”), who has become dissatisfied with her life as a witch and has grown attracted to her tenant upstairs, the oblivious Shepherd Henderson (i.e., the “Darrin” figure).  A crisis arises when Gillian discovers that Shepherd is about to marry in a week and not merely to anyone but to Merle, her (non-magical) archfoe in high school.  Realizing that she must act quickly, she puts a spell on Shepherd that causes him to forget Merle and fall in love with her instead.  Two questions this raises is how satisfying such an enforced love can be for Gillian and what Shepherd will do should the spell be broken and he discover what Gillian has done.

Van Druten's special take on witches, including Gillian, is that they are selfish.  They use magic to take “short cuts”, as he calls it, in the scheme of things to get what they want and to please only themselves.  Van Druten's witches, therefore, cannot shed tears and lose their powers should they fall in love with a non-witch.  This gives the play a rather more serious tone than one might expect from a “romantic comedy”.  Ultimately, the play is about the magic of ordinary human love and the sacrifices it involves.

Van Druten notion of witches' characters does make the central female role a challenge.  For the first two acts Gillian must seem cold and rather cruel in her pursuit of Shepherd.  Elana Post, looking stunning and imperious, plays this well, but, inevitably, we become most engaged with her character when, to give away the plot, she realizes that she has actually fallen in love, has lost her powers and her past self has been exorcised as the implements of exorcism in the title suggest.  Post expertly distinguishes between the invulnerable and vulnerable Gillians and makes this transformation the heart of the play.

Phi Bulani is excellent as Shepherd.  He has innocent good looks and a sort of artless, puppy-dog charm that completely contrast with Post's Gillian and, indeed, help explain why she would be attracted to someone who has all the softness she seems to lack.  Bulani is especially good at depicting the hapless Shepherd when he is under Gillian's spell and finds himself in an inexplicable state of bliss.  He is hilarious in physical comedy as when he is drawn against his will as if my magnetism into Gillian's apartment.

Rounding out the superlative cast are Eric Woolfe, Liza Balkan and Ian Deakin.  Woolfe plays Gillian's devil-may-care brother Nicky, later the model for Samantha's Uncle Arthur in “Bewitched”.  His mischievous expression and the tart way he delivers his lines make the character a constant pleasure.  Balkan plays Gillian's Aunt Queenie, who will become Samantha's Aunt Clara in television.  Balkan's bumbling character is a complete contrast to Woolfe's Nicky but is just as funny.  Balkan is gifted with a brilliant sense of comic timing and it shows here in every scene she's in.  Deakin has the comic role of author Sidney Redlitch, a self-proclaimed expert in witchcraft, filled with more bluster than knowledge.  Deakin brings off Redlitch's hilarious combination of inebriation and pedantry with panache.

What is missing from the play is a concentration of witty dialogue.  Compared to another supernatural comedy like Noel Coward's “Blithe Spirit” (1941), Van Druten's language tends to be rather ordinary.  He seems to look for most humour in, what would have been in 1950, his highly unusual portrait of witches as our contemporaries without the pointed hats and magic wands.  However, our experience of shows like “Bewitched” or the Harry Potter novels have made us familiar with this idea and have blunted what would otherwise have been a sequences of unusual surprises in the play.  What remains effective are Van Druten's gallery of comic supporting characters and the more sublime comedy of Gillian's internal struggle and of Shepherd's confusion, explicitly compared to that of Shakespeare's character Bottom in “A Midsummer Night's Dream”.

As usual the play is impeccably directed and designed by Douglas Beattie.  Beattie's 1950s apartment for Gillian features a figure on its back wall that initially suggests a stylized tree.  In a story about the effect of the knowledge of witchcraft, we can't help wondering whether Beattie is relating the story to the legend of Adam and his first wife Lilith, who was a witch, and whether he views the change in Gillian as a metamorphosis of the powerful Lilith into the fallible Eve.  Under Renée Brode's highly effective lighting, when Gillian casts a spell two paintings under the tree's two branches light up and suddenly seem to become large malevolent eyes.

Once again Touchmark has brought professional theatre on the same high level as the Shaw Festival to Guelph.  Top-notch performances and insightful direction make “Bell, Book and Candle” an enchanting comedy that both entertains and enlightens.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Rocky HorrorThe Rocky Horror Show

by Richard O'Brien; directed by Ted Dykstra
CanStage, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto
March 29-May 5, 2007
review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Caught in a Time Warp”

Any company considering staging a musical like “The Rocky Horror Show” has to ask itself the simple question “Why?” The reason has to do with the peculiar history of a work that became an object of cult veneration not as a stage musical but as a film. Some film musicals like “Cabaret” that change significant aspects of the characters and omit and add songs have not displaced the stage musical that remains a harder-hitting work. The conceit of “The Rocky Horror Show”, however, is that what we are seeing is actually a B-movie of the type the Usherette extols in the opening number “Science Fiction”. “Rocky Horror” as a movie, thus, makes more sense in many ways than as a stage show. The current production of “Rocky Horror”, a co-production by CanStage and the Manitoba Theatre Centre that makes heavy use of video, only makes questions about the rationale of staging the show more pointed.

Most of the fun in seeing the movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the late 1970s and ‘80s, was to witness the bizarre phenomenon of a full house of teens and twentysomethings using lines and scenes in the movie as prompts for callback lines or the launching of various props--rice, toast, water, cards, toilet paper, hotdogs, etc.--at the screen. The effect was much like attending a secular mass with the movie script as its liturgy. The whole experience was thus far more important than the movie itself. This experience is what made the film famous and then led to revivals of the stage show after it had flopped on Broadway in 1975.

Sitting in an ordinary Thursday night audience, I discovered via Eddie Glen's poll of “Rocky Horror” virgins (i.e., those who had never see the movie or the stage show) that this group made up virtually the entire audience. The elder subscribers next to me asked if I could tell them what to do when and the young women behind me complained at intermission that they knew you were supposed to shout words out at certain times but they couldn't figure out when. Thus, from the start, an audience so dominated by “virgins” was guaranteed not to have the “Rocky Horror” experience that had made the show so famous. The audience had to rely on the efforts of pockets of “Rocky Horror” die-hards, or “Rocky Whore-ers” as they're called, now in their 40s and 50s, to suggest what things may have been like. So outnumbered by earnest seniors and clueless young people, these die-hards created the effect not of a ritual but merely of eccentricity. Since live theatre is not the same as film, CanStage had to print a list of “Do's and Don'ts” for viewing the show, which, though necessary for the actors' safety, ensures that, even if the audience were entirely composed of “Rocky Whore-ers”, the experience would not be the same.

Under Ted Dykstra's lax direction the show itself is torn between imitating the movie and trying to be different, pretty much falling between two stools. Perhaps at some time in the future when all the die-hards have died off, it may be possible for a director to reimagine the musical without reference to the movie, but at the moment, it seems, that isn't possible. Designer Michael Gianfrancesco's curtain and set aimed to make the stage look like a broken down movie theatre with a the movie screen askew on the back wall and split open at one end. His best idea is to have Rocky brought to life in a horizontal old-fashioned movie theatre popcorn machine apparently through the influence of the popcorn popping.

Unsurprisingly for a stage show that pretends to be a film, the best aspects of the production are its uses of video. To have Riff-Raff video Dr. Frank ‘n' Furter during “Sweet Transvestite” and project it on the screen behind reinforces Riff-Raff's subservient position and Dr. F.'s self-aggrandizement. The montage designed by Tyler Devine and Craig Putt of old movie posters to illustrate each of the references in “Science Fiction” is masterfully done. Surpassing these are the filmed appearances of John Neville as the Narrator projected onto the curtain, the back screen or on two disks near the proscenium. Neville's completely deadpan delivery of the Narrator's loony, moralizing version of events is funny enough in itself but the needless cutting between quirky angles of the filming and the occasional dipping of the boom mike into the frame made his over-seriousness even funnier. It's too bad that “Rocky Horror” fans are trained to shout out “Boring” to drown out his speeches since they are the best parts of the show.

Like Dykstra, costume designer Erika Conner does not bring a unified vision to the show. Her Brad and Janet could have stepped out from the movie. So could Riff-Raff and Magenta except that she has restyled their hair. Frank ‘n' Furter's outfits are also basically the same as in the film except that he has a shaved head and goatee and makes his first appearance in an extravagant red robe that makes him look like a clichéd image of the devil. Columbia, in her 1960s-style fluorescent colours, does not fit in at all. If Conner does not come up with a look for the show neither does choreographer Jody Ripplinger devise up any stylish moves focussing overmuch, as does Dykstra, on pelvic thrusts as a universal form of emphasis. It's odd that she does not choreograph the “Time Warp” with the correct air-punching arm movements since you need only look at the fans in the audience to see what should be done.

To bring off a deliberately camp show like this requires a first-rate cast while the CanStage cast is quite uneven. After Neville, who appears only on film, the best performance comes from Adam Brazier as Frank ‘n' Furter. He does a wonderfully vampy “Sweet Transvestite”, but the only song where he has a chance to show off his fine voice is “I'm Going Home” which he makes the musical highlight of the evening. He handled the dialogue adroitly, seeming to imitate a Shakespearean Colm Feore at his most unctuously self-admiring. Brazier's obvious pleasure in playing so outrageous a character helps gave the show a vitality it sorely needs.

Mairi Babb is an excellent Janet with the prim and perky early ‘60s demeanour down pat. She does a fine job of her big song “Over at the Frankenstein Place” (best known for the chorus “There is a Light”, when, at my performance, precious few remembered to wave their flashlights or glowsticks). Ron Pederson is good as the wimpy Brad, who has to keep puffing himself up to seem manly. He sings “Once in a While” so well it becomes the production's first showstopper because of its quality rather than its familiarity. It's too bad Pederson doesn't make it clearer how his escapade with Dr. F. has or has not changed his self-image.

Eddie Glen, though, great as the Cockney-accented audience warmer at the top of the show, was not very easy to understand either as Eddie, one of Dr. F.'s failed experiments, or through a heavy German accent as Dr. Scott. As the B-film-besotted Usherette, Alison Somerville gives a fine performance of “Science Fiction” but as Magenta her diction suddenly became unclear. The same problem besets Steven Gallagher as Riff-Raff, Gerrad Everard as Rocky and especially squeaky-voiced Christine Rossi as Columbia, who rended whole swaths of dialogue and lyrics incomprehensible.

All in all, the CanStage production is hit-and-miss affair and pales as an experience for anyone who has actually ever attended a midnight showing of the film filled with Rocky Whore-ers doing their thing. Despite Brazier's bravura performance, the stage show comes off as kind of cheesy panto for adolescents. Rocky virgins may well wonder why CanStage decided to stage it at all. ©Christopher Hoile

our comments and reviews are always welcome

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

We Will Rock You

See also review by Mary Alderson here

by Queen and Ben Elton; directed by Ben Elton
Mirvish Productions, Canon Theatre, Toronto
to January 6, 2008
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Another One Bites the Dust”

People who contemplate seeing “We Will Rock You” should know what they are getting into. If your goal is to see a cover band give a high-energy concert of 29 songs by Queen and could care less about plot or characters, then this is the show for you. If, however, you go to the show because you like musicals that tell a coherent story via song and dance, then you will probably be disappointed. While Queen's songs are inherently theatrical, Ben Elton's book is unbelievably bad and an unfit vehicle for the music.

I am not against the show because it is a compilation musical. (New York critics like to use the derogatory term “jukebox musical” for a musical based on a compilation of a group's or songwriter's back catalogue; that's is, it was derogatory until the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical went to the homegrown compilation musical “Jersey Boys”.) Readers of Stage Door will know that I praised the ABBA-based musical “Mamma Mia!” But what made “Mamma Mia!” so delightful is exactly what is missing from “We Will Rock You”. Catherine Johnson's book for “Mamma Mia!” is a masterpiece of its kind in integrating pre-existing songs into a story that they helped to move forward. In fact, Johnson had a knack for making the songs seem to grow from the story and thus involved the audience in the plot. When it came time for the main character Donna to decide whether or not to marry, people would become so wrapped up in the action they even called out “Yes!”

Ben Elton's book is entirely different. The action is set 300 years in the future on an Earth so dominated by capitalism that it is called Planet Mall. This being a dystopian future, only one company GolbalSoft runs the world with the Killer Queen at its head. Through Radio Ga Ga the company manufactures anodyne music and only this is available for download on the internet. Needless to say, there is no rock music on Radio Ga Ga since GlobalSoft fears it might lead to a spirit of rebellion. In fact, GlobalSoft has become so tyrannical that its has banned all musical instruments. So far this scenario seems inspired by Queen's early dislike of synthesizers signalled by the phrase "no synthesizers were used on this record" on their albums, though by 1980 they, too, began to use them.

There still are misfits in this brutally controlled but bland world. Such are our hero Galileo Figaro, who keeps hearing bits of old rock music in his head, and the would-be goth girl whom he names Scaramouche. They escape to join rebels living on the outskirts of cities called Bohemians. Once the Bohemians realize that Galileo already knows the sacred texts (i.e. rock lyrics) that he could never have seen, they acclaim him as the hero was prophesied to save the world by discovering the location of an electric guitar and bringing back rock music.

That Elton fetishizes the electric guitar reveals what nonsense his plot is. He seems never to have seen a show like “Stomp” which demonstrates that vibrant music can be made from virtually any ordinary material that comes to hand. Formal musical instruments are not necessary. Besides that, what about the human voice? Elton realizes this flaw enough to make a joke disdaining a capella music which, for totally unknown reasons, all the Bohemians dislike. Well, they'd have to to make his plot work. And even then, as shows like “Gumboots” or “Riverdance” show, people are quite capable of communicating a rebellious spirit through tapping, stamping and clapping.

Elton does show us a home-made stringed instrument but only in order to make fun of it. The fact that the Bohemians have not developed instruments from their surroundings or music through voice and dance, makes them seem incredibly dim-witted. Elton only enhances this notion by having the Galileo and the Bohemians constantly refer to inane song lyrics like “Who Let the Dogs Out” and wondering what their sacred meaning is. In fact, Elton emphasizes that the Bohemians really have no clue what it is that they revere since they each have chosen names for themselves that are singularly inappropriate. A girl calls herself Ozzy Osbourne (Meat Loaf in the original) and a kickboxing black guy calls himself Britney Spears. Elton probably does this just for the sake of laughs, but the result is that we can't possible care about the hero and his quest if both are made to look stupid.

Even more fundamental is the simple fact that all the music sung is by Queen. Thus, even though GlobalSoft has banned rock music all we hear throughout the show is rock music. Even the villains, the Killer Queen and her henchman Khashoggi are characterized by songs by Queen. If this were a musical that seriously was attempting to portray two different groups of people, those in control versus the rebels, whose foremost characteristic is difference in music, the creators certainly would not use the same style of music for both. Besides, this, it's fairly ridiculous to hear the characters complain about their need to find the sacred music so they can sing when they have just finished singing it. All this suggests at the very least that “We Will Rock You” needs an entirely different book, at least one that does not fall into self-contradiction at every turn.

The story, of course, is simply an excuse to string songs together by Queen, to disguise what is essentially a concert as a musical. Even the production itself reinforces this notion. Mark Fisher's set puts metal scaffolding hung with lights and surmounted with guys manning spotlights in front of the proscenium at the Canon Theatre echoed by similar scaffolding on stage. The Canon is not deficient in lighting instruments. Fisher is deliberately trying to make the set look like that of a rock concert not a musical. For most of the show you would not ever know there was a live band because instead of being in a pit they are placed on a raised platform at the back of the stage behind a screen that effectively cuts the depth of the playing area on stage in half. This means that most of the singers and actors in this narrow space face front when delivering their lines or songs, again bolstering the impression of the show as a concert not a musical. Similarly, Willie Williams's lighting seldom creates mood on stage but rather rolls into full manic rock concert mode with every song. Video by Mark Fisher and Williams, though well done, is used so extensively that the show frequently threatens to become a live-action movie.

As director, Ben Elton encourages an acting style that resembles television sketch comedy that at no time draws you into the story. At least the cast can sing. I saw Danny Balkwill, who alternates with Yvan Pedneault as Galileo. He has a certain boyish charm and shows believable confusion at hearing voices. His voice is strong and smooth but does not have the odd wobble that Freddie Mercury's voice had that seemed to communicate vulnerability and toughness at the same time. Evan Buliung plays Khashoggi as the cartoon character he is. Sterling Jarvis and Jesse Robb display lots of vitality as Britney and Burton. Jack Langedijk's aged hippie Pop is embarrassingly overdone.

Among the women, Erica Peck is a perky smart-ass Scaramouche with a great rock singer voice, but you do wish she could find some variation in her one-note tough-girl routine. Alana Bridgewater is far more comic than threatening as an overblown Killer Queen and outdoes everyone in the mugging department. She does, however, have a powerful voice. Suzie McNeil is a real find as Oz and one wishes her character had more to do. She sings “No One But You” with the real feeling lacking in so much of the show.

Despite the nonsensical story, the songs do have a power of their own. The two emotional highlights are the two quietest songs, “No One But You (Only The Good Die Young)” in Act 1 and “Who Wants To Live Forever” in Act 2. In the first Oz sings to the assembled Bohemians while images of rock singers who died young, including Mercury, create a black-and-white montage behind her. The second Galileo sings to Scaramouche after they have made love and we finally get a glimpse of how Queen's music could have been used to evoke character rather than caricature.

Partway through Act 2, Elton abandons the plot altogether. The show explicitly becomes the rock concert it covertly had been all along with “Bohemian Rhapsody” performed as an oratorio directly to the audience. In the end you will admire the cast's singing and dancing abilities, but you may very well wonder how former Queen members Brian May and Roger Taylor could ever consider Ben Elton's execrable book a suitable vehicle for their songs or as a tribute to Freddie Mercury. Elton claims that rock music is all about a boy expressing his rage with a guitar in his garage. In fact, the show pretty much represents the emasculation of rock music through commercialization that it pretends to decry.

©Christopher Hoile


our comments and reviews are always welcome

The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
June 2-October 26, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Fie, now you run this humour out of breath"


Take “Laugh-In”, the Three Stooges, Austin Powers and an early comedy by Shakespeare, put them in a blender, pulverize and you have Stratford's current production of “The Comedy of Errors”. This is the last time Richard Monette directs Shakespeare at Stratford as Artistic Director and by the end of the performance that seems a blessing. This is Stratford's 200th Shakespearean production and it is depressing to see how far the Festival has fallen.  There are errors here but little comedy.

“The Comedy of Errors” is Shakespeare's shortest play and one of his earliest, written sometime between 1592 and 1594. Shakespeare combines features from two plays by the Roman playwright Plautus (c. 254-c. 184 BC). From “Menaechmi” he takes the idea of identical twins who have grown up in different cities and from “Amphitruo” he takes the idea of twin servants with the same name. What we get is a play set in Ephesus at a time of hostility between Ephesus and Syracuse when it is death for any Syracusan to set foot in Ephesus. Such is the fate of the aged merchant Egeon, who tells Duke Solinus, ruler of the city, how he had twin sons waited on by twin servants, but how eighteen years ago he, his wife and they all became separated in the aftermath of a shipwreck. Since Egeon cannot pay the fine, he must be executed. Soon his son Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio arrive in Ephesus seeking their counterparts only to be mistaken for the Antipholus and Dromio who live in Ephesus. Much confusion ensues.


For most people this play ranks rather low on the list both of Shakespeare's plays in general and of his comedies in particular. Yet, with its themes of illusion and reality, madness and time as healer, the play looks forward to greater works by Shakespeare like “Twelfth Night” and the late romances. Indeed, as Nancy Meckler's fine production for the RSC in 2005 demonstrated, if the anguish of Egeon and the mental distress of the two Antipholi is taken seriously, the play's ending can achieve the kind of emotional resonance and sense of release one finds at the conclusion of “Twelfth Night”.

Unfortunately, most directors see the work as nothing more than a slapstick farce. Even more unfortunately, Monette sees the play as merely a convenient recepticle in which to toss every gag he has ever used. Shakespeare's play is there somewhere, but it collapses from the weight of the mountain of junk Monette has amassed.

The destruction of the play begins with the very first scene. Egeon delivers his long expository speech to Solinus and what appears to be a masked Greek chorus. After every four or five words the chorus reacts in unison with sighs, shouts, laughter, weeping, etc., thus completely distracting us from what Egeon says. The first interruption garners laughter from the audience, the second less, till finally there is none. Unlike Antipholus of Ephesus in Act 4, Monette doesn't seem to realize that the same joke used too often eventually is not funny. Solinus mispronounces “Ephesus” and adjusts his dentures every time he says it. Monette's signature screaming “Komedy Kat” runs across the stage not once but thrice. The Courtesan's electric headdress lights up every time she has an idea. Amplified cartoon sound effects accompany every slapstick whack or punch and kiddie music accompanies every silly chase around the set. There is no joke that Monette does not flog to death.

Besides this, Monette's idea of interpreting the text is to have the actors act out Shakespeare's plays on words as if we were ignoramuses and to create puns wherever he can. “Oh nay!” the chorus exclaims in the first scene, whereupon the actor playing one of the Duke's horses neighs. What wit! As if that were not enough, Monette loads the play with in-jokes. Egeon marches across the stage holding a sign reading “My end is near.” The second time he crosses it he turns the sign around to show a blowup of the Stratford season brochure with Monette on the cover. This is his last year as Artistic Director, geddit? The camel from “My One and Only” rolls by with an advertisement for that show. Later we get another advertisement for “Oklahoma!” Monette has been accused before of anything-for-a-joke direction, but here he takes it into the realm of chaos

Monette says in his director's note: “As I stood in front of the library in Ephesus, a great cloud passed over and when the sun returned I had a feeling of having passed through time. I decided that if I ever had the chance to direct The Comedy of Errors again, I would set it in the city of ancient Ephesus.” Unfortunately, the time Monette was transported to was not the second century BC but the early 1960s. Set designer Michael Gianfrancesco gives us the façade of the Library of Celsus with its ranks of three doors and windows, but he has also placed doors in the Magritte-like sky glimpsed between the door jambs. Dana Osborne's costumes refer to ancient togas and chitons, but dyed or even tie-dyed in Sixties-ish colours.


Despite the extraordinarily broad acting style Monette has encouraged, some actors actually remain intent on delivering their lines with some degree of sensitivity. Chief among them is Brian Tree as Egeon, who maintains his concentration despite constant interruption. The same is true for Chick Reid as the Abbess, who struggles against the current to bring some dignity to the final scene. The main advantage of casting Bruce Dow as Dromio of Syracuse and Steve Ross as Dromio of Ephesus is that they look so much alike we do actually become confused about which is which. The same is not true of David Snelgrove and Tom McCamus as the Antipholi of Syracuse and Ephesus, who are not matched in looks or age. Both Dow and Ross are very funny and would have a greater impact if the whole show were not so hyped up.


Otherwise, most of the play comes out as meaningless bluster even from such fine actors as Ian Deakin (Duke Solinus), Allegra Fulton (Adriana), Sophia Walker (Luciana) and Walter Borden (Dr. Pinch). The two most annoying performances come from Lawrence Haegert as a hippie-style hopheaded Balthasar and Brigit Wilson as a baby-voiced Courtesan, whose bizarre New York accent in which she replaces both L's and R's with W's is nearly impossible to understand.

During one of the Abbess's important final speeches when all the hidden relations are about to be revealed, Monette decides to have someone in a man-sized penguin suit wander across the stage and into the abbey. On its back is a sign “For the critics”. I assume that in doing this Monette is figuratively giving the critics “the bird”. If so, I heartily return the sentiment.

©Christopher Hoile

our comments and reviews are always welcome

My One and Only

by George Gershwin, directed by Michael Lichtefeld
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
May 31-October 28, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Mary Alderson's Review is here===>

"'S Wonderful"

If you like tap dancing, then shuffle straight over to Stratford and see “My One and Only”. Director and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld has turned this 1983 musical based on a potpourri of George Gershwin tunes into a tap dance spectacular beyond anything ever staged at Stratford. The joyous mood is so infectious you'll want to sign up for tap lessons the next day.

“My One and Only” started out as an attempt to revive George and Ira Gershwin's 1927 musical “Funny Face”. Soon the original book by Fred Thompson and Paul Gerrard Smith was thrown out and replaced with a new one. After disastrous out-of-town tryouts that book was thrown out and replaced with one by Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer and the entire show was re-choreographed by Tommy Tune. In 1983 it opened on Broadway starring Tommy Tune and Twiggy and became a hit. The musical still retains six songs from “Funny Face”, more than any other source, including such favourites as the title song and “'S Wonderful”. To these are added songs from other Gershwin musicals (e.g., “Strike Up the Band” from 1927) and films (e.g., “A Damsel in Distress” from 1937). Michael Lichtefeld says in the programme notes that ever since he choreographed “Camelot” at Stratford in 1997 he has wanted to do the show here. His love of tap, Gershwin and the 1920s in general and of this show in particular is evident from first to last.

Most of Gershwin's many musicals are not produced because of the fairly silly books that were in vogue at the time. It's a bit ironic that the new book for “My One and Only” is even sillier than the old one, but it is so deliberately silly and absorbs so many iconic aspects of the 1920s that it becomes a kind of camp homage to the period. Texan daredevil pilot Billy Buck Chandler wants to be the first to make a solo flight from New York to Paris but his attention is diverted when he falls in love with English Channel swimmer Edythe Herbert, star of the European Aquacade managed by Prince Nicolai Erraclyovitch Tchatchavadze. When Edythe falls in love with Billy, Prince Nikki does all he can to thwart Edythe's happiness.

The story is merely an excuse for an explosion of creative design and choreography. Douglas Paraschuk's set is inspired by the abstract works of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who painted irregular grids of black lines on white and filled in selected boxes with bright colours. Surrounds in this mode fit inside the proscenium and form a screen behind which scene changes take place. The show begins with a clever opening title sequence as in the movies projected on this screen. Throughout the show Paraschuk's designs evoke posters of the period touting modern wonders like streamlined trains, aeroplanes and ocean liners along with famous scenes from Fred Astaire movies. Meanwhile, David Boechler's myriad costumes call to mind Erté in the fabulous gowns for the women and Fred Astaire's formalwear for the men. The show is remarkable for how well integrated all aspects of the design and direction are along with Kevin Fraser's lighting and Sean Nieuwenhuis's video design. This is most obvious in the fantastic blacklight “Aquacade” that opens Act 2 and is alone worth the price of admission. Nothing this clever has been seen on the Avon stage since the fabled Gilbert and Sullivan series in the 1980s of Brian Macdonald and Susan Benson.

Lichtefeld's choreography is a wonder in itself. The opening number “I Can't Be Bothered Now” is so big you wonder how Lichtefeld will be able to top himself, but he does with each big number more inventive than the last. Luckily these showpieces are interspersed with quieter numbers where one or both of the principals simply sings one of the show's parade of great songs. Lichtefeld has the pace just right and so does music director Berthold Carrière.

In a show like this where the story is secondary to music and dance, it is really up to the actors themselves to make their cardboard characters come alive. In this area Laird Mackintosh scores a notable triumph as Billy. Mackintosh has always been dependably good, but his mastery of acting, song and dance has grown perceptibly stronger with each appearance at Stratford so that at last he emerges as the undisputed star of the show. His voice is clear and strong in “Strike Up the Band” and his dancing has a poise and finesse few can match. Maybe it is the sense of vulnerably and potential goofiness behind his handsome exterior, but Mackintosh actually makes us care about this peculiar “white tap-dancing aviator” and hope he wins the girl.

As for the girl, Edythe Herbert, Cynthia Dale is a disappointment. It is true as Walter Kerr noted in his review of the original production that the musical never gives us a good idea of what Edythe is all about. Dale doesn't seem to have much of an idea either. Her accent switches so often between London and New York you think she's going to be revealed as some sort of imposter. Overall she seems more concerned with striking the right pose than in conveying character or emotion. She gives a fine rendition of “How Long has This Been Going On” at the end, but it seems completely detached from the rest of the musical and she maintains such an icy demeanour Edythe seems more in love with herself than with Billy.

Otherwise, the rest of the cast is excellent. Dayna Tekatch as Billy's tough-talking tomboy airplane mechanic Mickey is fine counter-example to all the 1920s-style the helpless Edythe and the airheaded Aquacade girls. David W. Keeley makes the Georgian Prince Nicolai, a villain you love to hate, consistently funny by playing the part with deadly seriousness when many a lesser actor would be tempted to excess. Marcus Nance is a powerful presence as Reverend J. D. Montgomery, who runs an “apostolic establishment by day and an alcoholic establishment by night”. Mark Cassius, best know to audience for his work as one of the Nylons, exudes assurance as Mr. Magix, a kind of super-makeover artist, to whom Billy comes to be transformed from a country boy to a “high hat gentleman”. In the original production the title number became a showstopping duel between Tommy Tune and Charles "Honi" Coles as new and old representative of the art of tap dancing. At Stratford neither Mackintosh nor Cassius is of that level, but Lichtefeld has nevertheless contrived a superb tap duet for them that becomes increasingly complex.

Serving as a kind of chorus are Kyle Blair, Ray Hogg and Julius Sermonia as the three New Rhythm Boys who entertain us with, guess what, more tap dancing and even a little roller-skating, while the scene changes.

Initially, you may balk at a show with such a silly plot. But the lineup of hit songs by the Gershwins, Lichefeld's incredibly inventive dance sequences and Laird Mackintosh's delightful performance that captures the revitalizing spirit of the piece so perfectly make this a show to bring a smile to every face and a tap to every step.

©Christopher Hoile

Mary Alderson's Review is here===>

our comments and reviews are always welcome

Peter Donaldson as Atticus Finch; photo by David HouTo Kill a Mockingbird

by Christopher Sergel, directed by Susan H. Schulman
Stratford Festival, Avon Theatre, Stratford
May 30-October 27, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

See Mary Alderson's review, too! ===>

"Mockingbird Slow to Take Flight"

Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird” from 1960, is one of the most frequently taught novels in American high schools. It was made into a famous film in 1962 by Robert Mulligan starring Gregory Peck as the Southern small town lawyer Atticus Finch. In 1987 it was adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel and it is this version that has just opened at the Stratford Festival. In the theatre the novel becomes a solid middlebrow play that raises important issues at a comfortable distance while serving as showcase for fine acting.

Sergel has condensed the novel's three years into one. Following a tedious tradition in adapting novels to the stage he has retained Jean Louise as the narrator who watches her younger tomboy self, nicknamed Scout, participate in the action. It is 1935 in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama. The story is primarily about how Scout and her brother Jem come to realize that Atticus Finch, the boring, unathletic man who is their father, is actually a kind of hero. When Finch takes on the hopeless cause of defending a black man against the charge of rape of a white woman, the children are angry about the constant taunts they receive in school. Yet, once they witness the trial and see the truth of the matter, they recognize the courage in their father who is willing to fight for justice against a sea of prejudice. As a play Sergel's adaptation is pedestrian. Jean Louise's narration and scene setting is largely unnecessary. The entire first act is exposition with the main drama concentrated in the trial scene of the second act. Sergel's condensation of the action means that the play seems to end about five times before it is actually over.

Nevertheless, what makes the play worth watching is the high level of the acting from the principals. Peter Donaldson gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as Finch, able to let us see anger, frustration and strength shining behind his outwardly placid exterior. In 10-year-old Abigail Winter-Culliford as Scout, 13-year-old Thomas Murray as Jem and Grade 7 student Spencer Walker as their friend Dill, the Festival has found a truly remarkable trio of child actors. There may be some slippage of their Southern accents, but they give very natural performances and have strong enough voices to carry all through the Avon Theatre without sounding forced. Winter-Culliford is a particular delight and maintains focus and intensity even in the long periods when she does not speak.

Dion Johnstone is absolutely riveting as Tom Robinson, the young black man accused of rape. In his testimony at the trial he portrays a complex mixture of emotions--desire to tell the truth but to protect his accuser tempered with fear of reprisals and the court's disbelief. Michelle Giroux acquits herself well in the unenviable role of Jean Louise that, at least under Susan H. Schulman's direction, requires her to remain on stage silently watching the action for extended periods of time.

A host of minor roles are all well played. Barbara Barnes-Hopkins is Finch's stern but loving housekeeping Calpurnia. Keith Dinicol is the liberal sheriff Heck Tate, torn between upholding the law while aware of its unfairness towards black people. Joyce Campion is the ancient but verbally antagonistic Mrs. Dubose. Paul Essiembre is Walter Cunningham Sr., who can be turned from leading a lynch mob when a child recalls his conscience. Patricia Collins as the insightful Miss Maudie, David Francis as the perceptive Judge Taylor, Roy Lewis as realist Reverend Sykes and Laird Mackintosh as the pathologically shy Boo Radley are all memorable.

As for the two villains of the piece, Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, one wishes that Schulman had turned down the hysteria in the performances of Wayne Best and Dayna Tekatch down a notch or two. Shouting and screaming do not enhance the characters' viciousness.

One of Schulman's best ideas is to give the black community greater presence than is evident in Sergel's adaptation by including six spirituals sung at significant moments in the action given moving performances by a six-member choir integrated into the action.

While Charlotte Dean's costumes capture the period and various levels of society, her set looks the model for a set rather than the finished product. She constructs the walls of the main two buildings, the Finch house and the Radley house out of materials that become transparent when lit from behind. This is meant to give a sense of unreality to the play, but one wonders whether Dean should not have gone farther and given the whole production a more stylized look. As it is, the set looks like a low budget attempt at realism. Kevin Fraser's lighting is as sensitive as usual but Schulman has him abruptly change cues for Jean Louise's narration as if its separateness from the main action literally needed to be highlighted.

Sergel's condensation of the action has the unwanted effect of giving the play a self-congratulatory air. When Miss Maudie, the play's main moralizer, says that the fact that the jury deliberated three hours over the fate of Tom Robinson is a “step closer to tolerance”. This is an overly optimistic summation of the issues the play raises. You wish someone would ask how many wrongfully convicted men have to die before “tolerance” is achieved, if, indeed, given people's capacity for hatred, it ever can be achieved?

©Christopher Hoile

See Mary Alderson's review, too! ===>


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