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| Merchant of Venice | Othello | Oklahoma! | A Month in the Country | Saint Joan |
| Of Mice and Men |

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2007

others here and here and here

Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck, directed by Martha Henry
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford ;
June 21-September 22, 2007
Reviewed by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

The Best-Laid Schemes ... Gang Aft Agley

Of Mice and MenStratford's first-ever staging of John Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men” (1937) is a so-so production of a play that ought to be vital and heartbreaking. Anyone who saw the fine Theatre Calgary/CanStage co-production directed by Dennis Garnhum last year will know this. What hinders the Stratford production's effectiveness is a combination of uninventive direction, poor use of the Tom Patterson stage and an uneven cast.

The story follows two itinerant farmhands, the quick-witted George and the mentally “slow” companion as they seek work in Depression-era California and dream of sometime having their own place where they are their own bosses. The farm where they find work is itself filled with misfits who cope with loneliness and unfulfilled dreams in ways ranging from acquiescence to violence.

The main challenge to a director is that the work is fundamentally static. Other static plays like “Long Day's Journey into Night” move forward on the revelations of past secrets that inform the present. “Of Mice and Men” simply moves forward through time as we wait for the play's combustible elements to come into contact. Steinbeck creates more tension through the heavy use of prefiguring rather than through the dynamics of conversation. One aspect of the play's modernity, its naturalistic, intentionally repetitive dialogue, is also a source of its stasis.

The trick for a director is to emphasize the tension in the play while avoiding any sense of melodrama or sentimentality. Director Martha Henry does seem intent on avoiding melodrama but does so by only by downplaying what little tension and dynamism exist. The physical staging is the first problem. The play is clearly intended for a proscenium stage not a runway thrust stage like the Tom Patterson stage. If one is going to use such a stage one should use it fully. Designer John Pennoyer has divided the stage into two. The downstage half represents George and Lenny's camp the first scene and their meeting place in the last. The upstage half represents the bunkhouse of the farm where the two find work with the bunks themselves most underneath the balcony. The obvious problem is that Henry thus crams two-thirds of the action into only the upstage half of the stage. This not only restricts the area for physical movement on stage but forces anyone sitting in side sections facing the front half of the stage to sit sideways in their seats for most of the play. Besides this, Henry stages a key moment, when Lenny crushes the hand of the young farm owner Curley, among the bunks under the balcony so that no one, not even those on stage can clearly see what has happened. It is crucial that this event be seen by all because it proves to the ranch hands how powerful and dangerous Lenny's brute strength is. They need this knowledge to leap to the conclusion in Act 2 that Lenny has murdered Curley's wife. Henry also curiously downplays the tension in other important scenes. Why have the old man Candy lie down on his bed, his face away from the audience, while his dog is taken out to be shot. We would like to know his reaction. In the Theatre Calgary production this scene was filled with an almost unbearable tension. Here no one on stage even jumps when the shot finally comes.

In the Theatre Calgary production the actors knew how to move and talk like ranch hands. In the Stratford production only some know how to do this convincingly. As George, Nicolas Van Burek has considerably toned down his usually overheated style. Even so, he allows himself wide gestures with arms and hands that are too theatrical for a naturalistic character, especially a ranch hand. George is supposed to be a cool, rational character, but Van Burek makes him come off as a hothead. As Lenny, Graham Greene captures the childlike nature of the character at some points, encouraged by Henry, into being rather too cutesy. What is missing is the sense of uncontrollable strength and an underlying rage born of frustration that should also make George clearly appear dangerous.

The four who have the best handle on their characters are Jerry Franken as Candy, Stephen Russell as Slim, Philip Akin as Crooks and Brad Rudy as the Boss. They each have the kind of deliberate movements and unemphatic manner of speech of men whose unrewarding work has driven the hope out of them. Russell in particular gives one of his best ever performances and justifies his role as the moral centre of the piece. One wishes he were cast more often in 20th-century works. Franken is also excellent as broken-down old man clutching at anything that will give him a reason to live.

On the other hand, Brian Hamman does not conjure up enough neurotic menace as Curley and Robert King does not communicate enough mean-spiritedness as the dog-hating Carlson. As youngest hand Whit, Aidan deSalaiz seems to have popped in from “Degrassi Junior High” rather than anywhere in the sticks in the 1930s. On the evening I saw the play Tova Smith substituted for Jennifer Mawhinney in the role of Curley's wife. Given that her interpretation of the role was all wrong, blame has to put down to Henry's direction. All the farm hands call Curley's wife a tart but that doesn't mean they are right. By having Curley's wife constantly caressing herself and hitching her dress up when she speaks to the men, Henry leads us to think the poor woman is a nymphomaniac. In fact, as is clear from everything she says, she is extremely lonely and is only seeking someone to talk to since her husband is both insanely jealous and never at home. In her finally speech in the hayloft to Lenny, it should be obvious that she is painfully naive and, in accordance with the play's imagery, as much of an innocent as Lenny's mouse or puppy. Henry's odd approach puts us out of sympathy with her and severely skews the arc of the action.

Bonnie Beecher is normally a magician with lighting, but in this production, except for the scene in Crooks' room, she strangely keeps the lights at the same drowsily dim level throughout. To create a sense of place Henry relies more on Todd Charlton's amazingly detailed soundscape. The problem is that it is often too loud and calls attention to itself.

Those who have never seen the play before will probably be satisfied with the Stratford production though even they may wonder why the play seems listless. For those who have seen a superior production, the reasons for this lack of impact will be clear. In either case Stratford's “Of Mice and Men” is not the compelling piece of theatre it ought to be.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Rose

Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford

June 1-October 27, 2007

by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"The Man That Hath No Music in Himself"

If you want to experience Stratford at its finest, do not see “The Merchant of Venice”. Besides ghastly design and frivolous direction, it features some of the most leaden reading of Shakespearean verse this side of a high school classroom. The cast does include the great First Nations actor Graham Greene in the role of Shylock, but this is neither his finest moment nor that of anyone else.

This is a concept production but no one in the creative team seems to have decided exactly what the concept is. The most immediately off-putting aspect is Phillip Clarkson's design. In a short statement in the programme he says, “Our costumes show a Venice in conflict between old and new values. It is globalized, market-driven, but still deeply religious. So the clothes combine contemporary couture with Renaissance looks”. The result is a wide range of design ideas in bizarre and what seem to be random combinations. Antonio's suit coat has a skirt hanging from it and later his jacket is held together by crossing and buttoning the lapels. Portia wears a nice enough gown when we first meet her if we can ignore the cascade of extra fabric that falls behind her from the waist and bunches up on the ground. Portia's maids wear petticoat frames outside their uniforms. Portia and Nerissa disguised as lawyers wear jackets where one side of the front hangs about a foot lower than the other. Lorenzo seems to be got up to play cricket. When Jessica disguises herself as a boy, she somehow finds an all-black leather suit and cap in the house, and so forth.

This is a play where differences of class and religion are of the highest importance. Clarkson's costumes do not make these clear and do not even link related characters to each other. They do not tell us where the play is set or when although we guess it must be sometime in the future when the moneyed classes have totally lost their fashion sense. The disco music Michael Vieira had composed for scene changes and dances also provides no clue to the setting.

The production's visual confusion is just a sign of the muddle-headedness that characterizes the whole show. One might have thought there was a point to casting Graham Greene as Shylock. When his Shylock speaks of “my tribe” it does take on a different meaning and when we see how the Christians' break his bond, or we might say “treaty”, parallels with North American history come to mind. Rather, they would come to mind if Rose laid any emphasis on them, but the ahistorical costuming and placing of Greene in skullcap and prayer shawl work against them.

Rose's position on the religious content of the play is not even clear. He begins with a party for Antonio as a mock Last Supper set for thirteen where, however, it seems a golden calf is being celebrated. During the trial scene Antonio is drawn out on the floor in the form of a cross. How is it appropriate to portray the most anti-Semitic character in the play as a Christ-figure? When Shylock discovers the loss of both Jessica and his money, Rose directs Greene to emphasize the money more than his daughter in his cries. In a scene at a market we see three booths. Jews are advertising currency exchanges, an Arab is selling arms via computer and a Christian is hawking kitschy religious souvenirs. It appears that Rose's way of dealing with the anti-Semitism in the play is to portray both Judaism and Christianity, with Islam thrown in for good measure, in a negative light.

Even with such confusion, good performances could help salvage the production, but, with few exceptions, there are none. Scott Wentworth as Antonio, Bernard Hopkins as Old Gobbo, Brian Tree as Tubal and John Innes as the Duke of Venice know how make sense of Shakespearean verse and it shows. The rest of the cast speaks Shakespeare's words but its combination of indistinct diction, poorly chosen pauses and random emphases make speech after speech come out as gobbledygook. Jean-Michel Le Gal completely massacres Lorenzo's beautiful speech in Act 5 concerning, ironically, “The man that hath no music in himself”, and Rose has Severn Thomson's Portia read Portia's famous speech about “the quality of mercy” from a piece of paper she finds on the desk. It's painfully clear that Rose has given the cast little help with interpretation the text and a feeling of tedium and anger grows at hearing a cast uttering three hours of poetry they don't understand.

Wentworth plays Antonio as a deeply flawed man, capable of generosity to individual men but not to humanity as a whole. Greene, best known for film and television roles, is not lost on stage but does not appear comfortable. He has not expanded the small-scale acting that works on film to the larger scale needed for the stage and especially the Festival Theatre. Sean Arbuckle's Bassanio is dashing and pleasant but not much more than that. Rose has decided that Lorenzo is a fortune hunter and nothing more. Gareth Potter's Gratiano is unremarkable. Ron Kennell's Launcelot Gobbo blusters so much as to be annoying. Unlike Richard Monette's notorious “Merchant” in 2001, Rose at least allows Jamie Robinson to play the Prince of Morocco with some sense of dignity, though he still encourages Tim MacDonald's Prince of Aragon to be the usual flamenco-dancing cartoon.

It is depressing to see Thompson who has given so many fine performances at the Shaw Festival reduced to playing Portia as an airhead, an idea that hardly makes sense given the trial scene. Rose has her become so taken with the Prince of Morocco, even exiting arm in arm with him, that when Bassanio's turn at the caskets comes around it is as if she suddenly remembers she supposed to be in love with him. Raquel Duffy unaccountably plays Nerissa with a Valley Girl attitude.

One leaves the performance with the strong impression that Richard Rose dislikes the play and can't be bothered to try to make sense of it. If this is true, we shouldn't be bothered to see it. Given the poor design, performances and direction, anyone who chooses this play as the one Shakespeare to see at Stratford will leave feeling cheated.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Do you have a review or opinion to share?
Send us your reviews or stories about theatre in SWOntario, and we'll see they get posted.

Speaking of which, here's what You are saying:

just saw merchant of venice. can't agree. production perhaps over the top, but the performances were solid - greene a very creditable shylock. the best way to do the play is to emphasize everything, and accept the fact that there are warring elements in this play. no heroes, unfortunately. maybe the costumes were at times odd. definitely the best of the four shakespeares. othello, lear tired and dull. this had zip. and adventure. nothing will come of nothing. speak again.  - Jack K.
My friend and I saw Merchant of Venice at Stratford. At the intermission we contemplated leaving. One of the reasons was that the costumes were a jumble of styles and eras that detracted from the performances.

Graham Greene was miscast. I heard from another couple that he was wonderful in Of Mice and Men, but he just didn't fit the part. If the director had some deep theory behind this casting, it evaded us. Greene's diction was poor and often seemed to mumble. Another hinderance was that he stood still most of the time.

This was a leaden performance. I only hope that the young people in the crowd will give Shakespeare another chance.

Caroline

 

Othello

by William Shakespeare, directed by David Latham Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford June 2-September 22, 2007 by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"I understand a fury in your words, But not the words"

Stratford's current “Othello” is a good, workmanlike production that presents the play without any of the bizarre concepts foisted on Shakespeare's plays in so many recent seasons. Unfortunately, the production hews to the received wisdom about the play without

garnering any insights that a close reading of the text would bring.

Director David Latham brings out little tension in the play until Act

5 when it suddenly catches fire. But by then we've had four acts of well-meaning dullness.

“Macbeth” and “Othello” share often similar fates at the hands of directors. Just as less insightful versions of “Macbeth” suggest that the witches “control” the action, so less insightful versions of “Othello” suggest that Iago “controls” the action through a clearly devised plan of revenge. The situation in both plays is far more complex since both are inquiries into the nature of action based on flawed perception. Yet, directors often choose the “character-as- stage-manager” scheme because it is easier.

Iago says he hates Othello because Othello has chosen Cassio for promotion rather than him. As the play should demonstrate, Othello

clearly made the right choice since Iago is not trustworthy.

Meanwhile Iago leads the dim-witted nobleman Roderigo to believe that he can gain Desdemona for him. When Desdemona elopes with Othello, Iago's revenge extends only to disgracing Othello and thus making Desdemona available again for his continued gulling of Roderigo while also hoping to be rewarded for exposing the “crime” to Desdemona's father, Brabantio. The result is exactly the opposite of what Iago intends. Brabantio is not happy, but ultimately accepts Othello as his son-in-law. The Duke of Venice is so impressed with Othello's telling of his side of the story he says he'd give his daughter to the man. And Othello, far from being disgraced, is sent off to battle the Turks since he is recognized as the Venetians' best commander.

This is typical of the whole play. Rather than carrying out a fully devised plan, Iago improvises as he goes along using whatever means come to hand. He does work Othello into jealousy but Othello comes to himself at least twice and threatens to kill Iago if he cannot provide stronger proof than mere words. In a good production it should become clear that with every trap Iago sets for Othello, he

also further ensnares himself. When Roderigo loses faith in Iago,

Iago has to kill him to get rid of a witness against him. When his wife Emilia puts the pieces of Iago's doings together and reveals them, only murder will stop her tale. Neither death is the result of cool plotting but of desperation. If we see the peril not merely to Othello but to Iago, the level of tension will be higher and our reactions more complex.

This is not how director David Latham presents the play and he does not have the right cast to persuade us of his view. To make the “Iago-in-complete-control” approach work, he needs to have an Iago, who is somehow an embodiment of pure evil, not unlike Edmund in “King Lear”. Festival favourite though he is, Jonathan Goad simply doesn't have the technique to create such a fiend. He attempts to utter all his lines in a darkened, sneering tone but the result is that Shakespeare's poetry comes out as prose and Goad often swallows the last lines of verse paragraphs. Goad makes neither Iago's thought processes nor the images he uses clear enough to create a real character much less a fully evil one.

Latham's approach is further undermined by having such a strong Othello in Philip Akin, the first black Canadian ever to play the role at Stratford. Akin, too, does not bring out all the poetry of Shakespeare's lines, but he is far more successful at it than Goad and he has a stronger stage presence. When Akin's Othello lashes out at Iago we feel a real sense of danger. When Akin's Othello comes to murder Desdemona, we feel that he has to force himself to do it against his better nature. Latham and Akin portray Othello's jealousy as a kind of fit that Iago's prodding brings on. Indeed, in this production it seems more that Iago is taking advantage of Othello's physical weakness due to the onset and consequences of his epilepsy than to any mental weakness. The trouble with this approach is that we get little sense of how Othello feels about himself, a Christian not Islamic Moor in a white man's world who leads attacks against the “infidel”. Nevertheless, Akin's playing of the final scene is so committed that for once we really do feel the mingling of fear and pity that tragedy is said to evoke.

Claire Jullien is the traditional waif-like Desdemona, who doesn't have the kind of strength she should have to be called the “general's general” as she is so often in the text. This is a woman, after all, who contrary to social norms defied her father not only in marrying someone of her own choice but someone of another race. That strength of will should appear somewhere during the play, but with Jullien it never does.

The production receives a major boost by having an experienced actor like Lucy Peacock in the role of Emilia. Indeed, of the four principals, Peacock gives the most nuanced performance. Though she says little in the first acts, Peacock makes it clear through Emilia's behaviour that she is mentally estranged from her husband and capable of believing the worst in him if she did not harbour some remnant of her former love for him. She communicates with increasing distress her dawning realization of what actions her husband may be undertaking against Othello and his wife. Peacock makes Emilia's final scene both explosive and affecting.

The principals receive strong support from Stephen Russell as non- blustering Brabantio, Gordon S. Miller as very believable Roderigo, Jeffrey Wetsch with much more presence than usual as Cassio and Tova Smith as an exotic Bianca.

Designer Carolyn M. Smith has set the play in period with a predominantly black and white colour scheme alleviated with highlights of red and gold. There are some peculiarities. Desdemona arrives in Cyprus with a headdress covered in shiny black spangles that would look more at home on one of the Supremes. Iago's tunic

and leggings are so bulky it looks like he is ready for hockey.

Except for a few pieces of furniture carried on and off, the stage is bare. Lighting designer Michael J. Whitfield uses a narrow palette often giving a soft burnished look to the scenes. Latham directs the play in such a low-key mood that the agonizingly drawn-out deaths he gives both Roderigo and Desdemona seem out of place.

“Othello”, a play full of surmises and inferences, gains immeasurably by being played on the Tom Patterson stage. The immediacy makes the final scene even more excruciating than usual. Though this is one of Stratford's better productions of the play, one wishes that Latham had looked into the play more deeply and that more of the cast could, like Peacock, bring out more of the poetry in the text. As it is, the production runs smoothly but lacks richness in both interpretation and characterization.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Oklahoma!

by Rodgers & Hammerstein, directed by Donna Feore
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
May 29-November 4, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

Mary Alderson's review is here==>

"Cain't Say No"

The Stratford Festival's first-ever production of the classic musical “Oklahoma!” is one of the most joyful musicals ever staged in the Festival Theatre. With a dynamite cast, unfussy design, imaginative choreography and its succession of great songs, this is a show that aims to please above all else. This goal, however, tends to gloss over the dark undercurrents in the work that are what make it great musical in the first place.

The simple story parallels two love triangles. The serious triangle involves Laurey, a young woman on a farm in the Oklahoma Territory in the early 20th century, who loves the cowboy Curly. He loves her, but each is too proud to admit it. To spite Curly, Laurey says she'll go to the box social (a party where girls' lunch baskets are auctioned off for charity) with her farmhand Jud Fry. Jud, however, is pathologically obsessed with Laurey. His moodiness and habit of collecting pornographic postcards make one worry should Laurey find herself alone with him. The comic triangle involves Ado Annie, the girl who “Cain't Say No”, who loves whatever man she's with at the moment. She can't choose between the itinerant Persian peddler Ali Hakim, who just wants to get her in bed, and the cowboy Will Parker, who wants to marry her if only he can get the $50.00 together that her father demands. All these tensions come to a head at two communal meetings in Act 2.

Because of songs like the “Surrey with the Fringe on Top”, “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'” and “People Will Say We're in Love”, people tend to assume that the musical is a nostalgia piece about a time when America was a more innocent place. In fact, unpleasant tensions underlie almost every aspect of the story. The song in Act 2 “The Farmer and the Cowman” underscores a clash between two ways of living in the West, the first depending on fences and property the second on freedom of movement. “Kansas City” seems to point out how naïve the Oklahomans like Will are who visit there, but at the same time describes an urban life and morality that will eventually crowd out both the farmer and the cowman. The souvenir Will brings back is a nudie photo in a kaleidoscope tube. Later it's revealed that this tube contains a hidden knife and is used as a way of tricking someone to come close enough to be stabbed. Peddlers like Ali Hakim are already bringing some of the city's wares like scanty underwear and pornographic pictures into the country.

Just as she de-emphasized the negative aspects of Dickensian London in “Oliver!” last year including a whitewash of the character Fagin, this year director and choreographer Donna Feore de-emphasizes the negative aspects of Hammerstein's Oklahoma Territory. She choreographs “The Farmer and the Cowman” not as the brawl Max Reimer made it in the Theatre Aquarius production last year but as more of a competitive dance. More serious is her interpretation of Jud Fry. In Reimer's production Jud was a man who is mentally slow and is clearly being toyed with first by Laurey and then by Curly in “Pore Jud Is Daid” when Curly suggests not too subtly that Curly should kill himself. In Feore's version Jud is simply a dangerous brute. Reimer staged the final fight between Curly and Jud with more ambiguity so that the impromptu trial really appeared as a show trial to clear Curly of wrongdoing just so there would be a happy ending. Feore makes it clear that Fry falls on his own knife and speeds through the trial scene so that the objections to it don't have time to register. Though the Theatre Aquarius version did not have the same resources that Stratford has, in many ways it was a more satisfying experience because it showed the world of the musical to be much more complex.

Where Feore does score is in the 15-minite-long dream ballet that ends Act 1 where Laurey imagines being married to Curly. Jud suddenly takes his place, suggesting at some level that Laurey fears Jud's less honorable desires may also be shared by Curly. Unlike in some productions the actors portraying Laurey, Curly and Jud all take part in the ballet. People who already know the Laurey, Blythe Wilson, as a remarkable singer will be delighted to find she is also a remarkable dancer.

Wilson is a pleasure throughout with a bright, clear soprano and vibrant personality. Shaw Festival regular Nora McLellan makes her first appearance at Stratford in the role of Aunt Eller. She has a winning combination of a tough-as-nails exterior combined with common sense and a wry sense of humour. McLellan makes it quite believable that this woman has a strong enough personailty to break up a fight between pig-headed men. Lindsay Thomas is not as effective as Ado Annie. There are ways to give this character a bit of self-knowledge and make her less of a caricature. The squeaky little girl voice Thomas uses obscures the words in the dialogue and the songs and we thus lose much of their humour. Stephanie Graham has come up with an irritating laugh for Gertie Cummings, but it would be better if it seemed natural instead of put on.

Among the men Dan Chameroy is excellent at Curly's dialogue but his crooning singing style that has worked so well in other musicals is much too suave for someone who is supposed to be a cowboy. His performance is eclipsed by that of Kyle Blair as Will. He has the kind of strong, open voice and ringing tones a Curly should have and he has the more natural look and gestural language of a cowboy. His dance solos are spectacular especially in the big “Kansas City” number where he even does a series of lariat tricks. David W. Keeley is well cast as Jud and could certainly have given us a character as complex as George Masswohl did for Theatre Aquarius if he had been so directed. What he portrays is a character who is so malevolent it is hard to understand how Laurey could have hired him in the first place let alone use him as ploy against Curly. Jud really has to evoke some sense of pity to make Laurey's actions credible. Jonathan Ellul is very funny as Ali Hakim and thankfully does not portray him as Middle Eastern caricature. As an indication of how strong the male ensemble is it includes former Nylon Mark Cassius as Ike, Jamie McKnight as Fred, who played title role in Ross Petty's “Aladdin” in Toronto and on tour, and Paul Nolan as Slim, who was such an effective Curly for Theatre Aquarius last year.

Feore and designer Patrick Clark have done a fine job of transferring a show that cries out for a proscenium stage to the Festival's thrust stage. Clark has created a foreshortened, weather-beaten farmhouse reminiscent of a Grant Wood painting that recedes from the stage during the big dance numbers. His costumes, drab for the men and pastel for the women, are in keeping with the period. His best idea, conceived with lighting designer Alan Brodie, is to have a series of seven lightboxes on either side of the stage to suggest the big open skies of Oklahoma. They are shaped to look like sheets blowing in the wind on a clothesline and lights inside are coordinated to glow and subtly change into all the colours one imagines for early morning, noon, sunset and evening.

If Feore takes rather too black-and-white a view of the drama, she compensates for it with a highly varied and imaginative sequence of dances that draw more on the traditions of ballet than show dancing. The “Kansas City” sequence and the “Dream Ballet” of Act 1 are both thrilling and remain the dance highlights of the show. As conductor Berthold Carrière gives a vibrant account of the score.

For anyone who love show tunes and dancing, this year Stratford really has a winning pair of musicals. “Oklahoma!” with Rodgers and ballet and “My One and Only” with Gershwin and tap complement each other nicely with their different styles and moods. Even if “Oklahoma!” is a bit too cheery for its own good, it's hard not to be bowled over by the sheer talent on display in the music and especially in the dance.

©Christopher Hoile

Mary Alderson's review is here==>

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

A Month in the Country

by Ivan Turgenev, directed by Tadeusz Bradecki
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 11-October 6, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Idle Hands"

A month in the countryThe Shaw Festival is offering theatre-goers a rare chance to see Ivan Turgenev's best-known play, “A Month in the Country”, in a flawed though entertaining production. It is true that the Festival is using Brian Friel's 1992 adaptation that he himself called a “very free version” of the original that unnecessarily inserts some Irish references. But the advantage is that the language is straightforward and clear and avoids the archaisms found in many translations. Friel also brings clarity to the characters and their relationships in a play that can sometimes seem overly complicated. Even if it is refracted through the eyes of another playwright, the play is intriguing in the way it anticipates so many of Chekhov's themes forty years before that writer's first major play. It is also fascinating in itself as a disillusioned mediation on the nature of love.

Turgenev wrote the play in 1850 but because of what was considered its attack on marriage, it was not performed until 1872. As in Chekhov's four major plays, we find ourselves on a large estate in the middle of nowhere inhabited by an extended family of bored, wealthy people, their hangers-on and their servants. At the centre of the play is Natalya Petrovna, who is comfortable married to Arkady Sergeyevich Islayev, a man who uses the same words to praise the latest farm machinery as he does his wife's appearance. Natalya already has a longtime admirer in the person of her husband's best friend Michel. It is quite clear that Natalya and Michel are intellectually and emotionally closer than Natalya could ever be with Arkady.

When the play opens Michel has just returned after a month's absence to find Natalya in a volatile mood. In probing into the cause he discovers to his chagrin that Natalya has fallen in love with Aleksey, her son's new tutor, with whom her own adopted daughter Vera herself is in love. When Natalya finally convinces herself to pursue an affair with Aleksey, she alienates all those around her. Though the structure of the play could easily be labelled a tragedy, Turgenev called it a “comedy”, not merely because there is so much humour in it but because the action reveals love not as the selfless emotion people think it is but as an extended form of egotism. The characters are in love with what another person represents to them more than what that other person actually is.

For Natalya, who should be happy with both a husband and lover, Aleksey represents a last attempt to feel the excitement of youth. And here lies the production's central flaw. Fiona Byrne, an actor I have repeated praised in these pages, is simply miscast as Natalya. Natalya should look as if she is old enough to be the mother of both Vera and Aleksey, but Byrne is blessed with youthful looks and figure and could easily pass as a contemporary of the two young people. This makes a romance between Natalya and Aleksey more likely but that is contrary to what the play is about. It also has the effect of removing any pity we might feel for Natalya's desperation to be loved by a young man and makes us condemn her as no more than a voracious, egotistical creature.

This is all very unfortunate since in other circumstances Byrne gives what is an excellent performance. In great contrast to her ingénue roles in the past, Byrne plays a woman who in the midst of wealth and too much leisure has become neurotic. She is skittish, emotionally labile, seemingly only in command of herself when she sets out to deceive and even then condemns herself for such deception. Yet, in the central scene where Natalya wants Vera to pretend that they two are “sisters” so that she can worm secrets from Vera, Byrne and Marla McLean look so similar in age that Natalya's ploy doesn't have obvious insidiousness it should have.

Byrne is surrounded with the kind of fine ensemble work for which the Shaw Festival has become so renowned. David Jansen manages to garner our sympathy for Michel, who is, in fact, quite a disreputable character willing to betray his best friend and become a parasite in his household by somehow convincing himself of the nobility of his love for Natalya. We watch as is unease over her behaviour changes from true concern for her to wounded pride and anger when he realizes that Natalya has a new object of affection. In contrast, Blair Williams' Arkady (especially in Friel's version) comes off as a fool and mama's boy, too absorbed by his own narrow interests even to notice that his wife is conducting more than one affair under his roof. Martin Happer is well cast as Aleksey, a naive young man from a poor background, overawed to be in such fine surroundings as the Islayev estate and unaware of his rugged good looks and their effect on women. The finest male performance comes from Ric Reid as Doctor Shpigelsky, a man painfully conscious of the disdain with which the others regard him because of his descent from peasant stock. His response is to play the buffoon so that at least they laugh at him because of his own doing. It is one of Reid's best ever performances with a wonderfully complex mixture of humour and pathos.

In this he is matched by Sharry Flett as Lizaveta, the hired companion to Arkady's mother. It is fascinating to watch in her the struggle between a desire for independence and the routine self-belittling that quashes it. The totally anti-romantic courting scene between two such self-conscious middle-aged people as Shpigelsky and Lizaveta in Act 2 is the highpoint of the evening and is so exquisitely performed it alone is worth the price of admission.

Marla McLean is also excellent as Vera, who starts out as an innocent teenager but seems to age before our eyes from the hurt and betrayal she suffers during the action. Patricia Hamilton plays Anna Semyonovna Islayeva, Arkady's mother, whose outward severity belies a more complex view of human relations than we first imagine. Moya O'Connell is fine as the lusty maid Katya but wears makeup that doesn't suit the character or the period. David Schurmann is very funny as the German tutor Herr Schaaf, whose Freudian malapropisms may actually be intentional. Thom Marriott gives substance to the servant Matvey and his frustration with Katya's coquettishness. And Michael Ball has never looked as dim-witted or comically unappealing as he does as Afanasy Ivanovich Bolshintsov, a rich peasant in love with Vera.

Peter Hartwell's set consists almost entirely of louvered shutters, brown on one side for indoor scenes, painted with a garden scene on the other for outdoor scenes. The shutters cleverly reflect a society that is closed in on itself and the louvers suggest a world where everyone is engaged in spying on everyone else. Tadeusz Bradecki directs with customary clarity though he might have given more variety to staging the repeated situation in the play when a couple is suddenly surprised by a third party.

“A Month in the Country” is seldom staged in Canada. Its last professional production in Ontario was back in 1973 at the Stratford Festival when it was directed by William Hutt. For that reason alone anyone curious about Russian drama or Chekhov's antecedents should not miss this production. Even if the central role is miscast, the production abounds in so many well-drawn character portraits that it will please anyone in the mood for an unflinching look at human foibles.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Saint Joan

by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Jackie Maxwell
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 9-October 27, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Rosling Triumphs as Saint Joan"

Saint JoanWhatever you do this summer, don't miss “Saint Joan” at the Shaw Festival. In an absolutely riveting performance as Joan it stars Tara Rosling, a woman who was born to play the role. Director Jackie Maxwell misses none of Shaw's intellectual points but still manages to give the work such a strong emotional pull that its conclusion is devastating.

Unlike so many of Shaw's other theatre works that follow the structure of the well-made play, in “Saint Joan” Shaw was influenced by the early English chronicle plays and divided the action into six scenes each revolving around one of the miracles thought to be performed by Joan. It escalates from the sudden production of eggs on a farm to the miracle of her execution at the stake that left her heart intact. The Epilogue that deals with Joan's canonization as a saint in 1920 almost 500 years after her death has often been a sore point for directors. In the Festival's last production in 1993, director Neil Munro had the cast read the Epilogue from lecterns in from of the curtain. In this production, only the third in the Festival's history, Maxwell has cleverly divided the Epilogue in two with the first part serving as a Prologue to the action. Here Maxwell imagines a ghost world where soldiers from World War I meet Joan and ask her about her death. Seeing the same characters again at the end gives the play a cyclical structure that masterfully reinforces Joan's last lines, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”

What makes Rosling's performance so remarkable is that she is so inside her character that she makes every aspect of Joan's behaviour seem perfectly natural and believable. She appears so radiant with her convictions that she does represent the paradoxical combination of simplicity with a superhuman force that no mere mortal can withstand. Because of the innocence and joy she so fully embodies it is truly heartrending when she is confronted with the pyre her voices told her she would never have to face and she momentarily loses faith in them and recants. People think of Shaw as coldly intellectual, but as Rosling and Maxwell prove his plays can have an enormous emotional impact.

Rosling's great performance is reason enough to see the play, but she is blessed with a flawless supporting cast. Ric Reid carefully distinguishes his two roles of comically skeptical squire Robert de Baudricourt, the first to help Joan on her way, and the grave and imposing Inquisitor, who really does believe what he does is for the greater good. Harry Judge is appropriately infuriating as the simpering Dauphin, who can't recognize what's good for him. Norman Browning is filled with supercilious menace as the Archbishop of Rheims and seems to be a demon in disguise as the Executioner. Thom Marriott plays two hotheads, first La Trémouille, the arrogant leader of the French army and justifiable angry to have it placed in command of Joan, and later the prosecutor Canon d'Estivet, who can barely conceal his hatred for her. Patrick McManus is excellent at capturing the nature of the French commander Dunois, a tough, military man with sensible, even a sensitive side.

Shaw devotes Scene IV set at “a tent in the English camp”, to a debate about the greater meaning of what Joan represents. In itself it is a fascinating discussion as the Earl of Warwick, representing the secular feudal world, and the Bishop of Beauvais, representing the world of Catholicism, come to realize that Joan symbolizes something new and dangerous to them both--“protestantism” and “nationalism”. What they imply is that she also symbolizes the beginnings of an individualism that requires neither church nor state. This is the kind of intellectual debate that those who don't like Shaw point to to support their case. Yet, they should see how masterfully this kind of scene can be staged. Blair Williams as Warwick and Ben Carlson as Beauvais are not talking heads but present characters with quite distinct personalities. Williams makes Warwick elegant but evil, a man with an overwhelmingly malevolent air who seeks any excuse to obliterate a threat to his power. Carlson makes Beauvais learned and cautious, a man who also sees Joan as a threat but seeks rational support for her extermination. Both actors seem to come upon the concepts they discuss as if for the first time making both the debate and its ideas exciting. In contrast Peter Krantz plays the doltish English Chaplain John de Stogumber, whose unthinking bigotry against the French comically contrasts with sinister reasoning of Warwick and Beauvais. Krantz later plays de Stogumber's conversion to Joan's cause after her execution with raw, transfiguring emotion. 

Even the smaller roles are well cast. Martin Happer is both a cool and dapper Gilles de Rais (better known as Bluebeard) and later the young pigheaded Canon de Courcelles, who can't distinguish the small issues from the big ones at the trial. Douglas E. Hughes has quiet but unyielding demeanour as Captain La Hire, one of Joan's few staunch defenders. Andrew Bunker contrasts the slowish provost-marshal Bertrand de Poulengey with the ardent Brother Ladvenu, who does all he can at the trial to save Joan from burning.

Sue LePage has designed a unit set of stairs and a door lintel that readily can stand in for any of the locations required, especially when so precisely lit by Kevin Lamotte. Her costumes successfully suggest World War I uniforms from the waist down with medieval trappings from the waist up. This captures both the double perspective of the play--a 1920s play written about 15th-century events--but also carries into the design the universality emphasized in the prologue and epilogue. Similarly, Lamotte creates a panoply of stars, seemingly a reference to a painting by Anselm Kiefer, that begins and ends the play and covers scene changes and places the action in an atemporal context.

This is a great play insightfully directed and flawlessly acted with a spectacular central performance. Actors who are as perfect as Rosling is as Joan don't come along very often. See her while you can.

©Christopher Hoile

 

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