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| Hotel Peccadillo | Shakespeare's Will | The Cassilis Engagement | Mack and Mable |
| The Circle | Tristan | Kooza | The Odyssey | The Ideal Husband | The Kiltartan Comedies |
| Summer and Smoke | Pentecost | A Delicate Balance | The Philanderer |

more 2007 reviews here --- and here --- and here --- and here

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Some Stage Door reviews of 2007

The Philanderer

by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Alisa Palmer
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 12-October 7, 2007
Reviewed by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Shaw Doesn’t Need a Push"

Shaw wrote his second play, “The Philanderer”, in 1893 but it was not publicly performed until 1907. This is currently the Shaw’s fourth production of the play and only the second to include the fourth act Shaw later excised. When last seen in 1995 at the Court House Theatre directed by Jim Mezon, this frothy comedy was a light, very funny entertainment even including the fourth act. At the Royal George under director Alisa Palmer, the play doesn’t work nearly as well and seems long even in the three-act version. It’s hard to get the knack of directing Shaw and Palmer does not yet have it. Her attempt to make the play funnier by exaggerating two of the characters has the opposite effect.

The self-confessed philanderer of the title is Leonard Charteris. He thinks he has begun his first serious love affair with the young, widowed Grace Tranfield, a self-confessed “New Woman”, and proposes to her. The problem is that his previous romantic conquest, Julia
Craven, who also claims to be a “New Woman”, will not give him up.
In an attempt to escape from Julia, Charteris tries to manoeuvre Julia into marriage with the seriously misnamed Dr. Paramore. There is little secrecy to be had since all the characters are members of the Ibsen Club, a forward-looking private club for “unmanly men” and “unwomanly women”.

The performance of the evening is that of Ben Carlson as Charteris.
In his twelve seasons at the Festival, he has become a master of delivering Shaw’s complex, paragraph-long sentences with amazing clarity and wit. You can appreciate his breath control and the subtlety of emphasis and phrasing in his speaking as much as if he were a singer. He makes Charteris such a dazzling figure that you forget, as do his conquests, what an egocentric rake he is. The
counterweight to him is the serene Grace Tranfield of Deborah Hay.
Unlike the emotional Julia or Julia’s mannish sister Sylvia, Grace most clearly lives up to the ideal of the “New Woman” who is ruled by reason not passion or pretense. Hay plays Grace with a wonderful sense of warmth and self-assurance.

Where Palmer errs is in pushing the parallel couple of Julia and Dr.
Paramore to extremes. Nicole Underhay’s Julia starts out so big that there is no room for further development. One need only compare Underhay’s far more restrained Alma Winemiller in this year’s “Summer and Smoke” to this to see that her overemphatic delivery is a directorial decision. Julia is a potentially rich character. Trying to win Charteris back after he has affianced himself to someone else is an endeavour that even she at some level seems to know is hopeless. Why she should indulge in theatrical hysterics is unclear since that wins her more contempt than sympathy. Palmer seems to want Underhay to eliminate any hint of pathos in Julia’s behaviour with the result that the character appears inchoate and irritating rather than interesting. In contrast, Palmer makes Peter Krantz’s Dr. Paramore worse than he should be. Paramore should have some attractions. How else could Julia seek to make Charteris jealous by paying him attention? Yet, Palmer and designer Judith Bowden conspire to make him look like the 19th-century equivalent of an adult geek with greasy hair and dumpy clothes. Palmer has Krantz emphasize Paramore’s mental preoccupation with his experiments overshadow the sincerity of his feelings for Julia. That the two should ever have anything to do with each other thus becomes highly unlikely. Rather than making the play funnier, the improbability of the situation makes us lose interest.

The rest of the cast is strong. Norman Browning is in his element as the grumbling Joseph Cuthbertson, father of Grace, who wonders what the younger generation is coming to. As Colonel Craven, father of Julia, Peter Hutt seems, comically, to be in a perpetually bad mood, and rightly so since Dr. Paramore has determined that the Colonel has only a year to live. Nicola Correia-Damude, as Julia’s sister Sylvia, a clichéd portrait of the “New Woman” who flaunts her liberation by dressing in man’s clothes and smoking, is a hearty contrast to Julia’s emotionalism.

Judith Bowden has created a handsome wood-panelled set that under Louise Guinand’s lighting and small changes of decoration serves as three very different locations. Flanking the stage are two statues of semi-clad women reinforcing in numerous ways the history of how men have idealized and objectified women and thus literally keeping the play’s surprisingly modern theme of gender construction constantly in view. The cleverest set is the Ibsen Club itself featuring a bust of the master and the prominent signs demanding “Silence”. Shaw may have been an avid supporter of Ibsen but he could still see the contradiction in dedicating a temple burdened with strict rules to a man who championed freedom.

From May 25 to July 15, the Shaw Festival performs the excised fourth act in which we meet the characters four years after the events of Act 3. The way that Palmer has directed the play seems entirely geared towards the four-act, not the three-act version. Her
three-act version seems merely to stop short rather than conclude.
With the characters of Julia and Dr. Paramore pushed to such extremes, we feel we need a further act to resolve the sense of paradox. That should not be the case. Since most people, as I did, will be seeing the three-act version, the director has to make it work on its own. After all, Shaw thought the three acts self- contained when he cut the fourth. My favourite “Philanderer” remains the 1995 production where Act 3 ended with what felt like a real if ironic conclusion and Act 4 functioned as a kind of wry epilogue for those who have a hankering to see what happens to fictional characters after the main story is over.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

 

A Delicate Balance

by Edward Albee, directed by Diana Leblanc
Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford
August 9-September 23, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"An Intriguing Puzzle"

In 2001 Stratford presented Edward Albee's best-known work “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1962). Now the Festival gives us Albee's “A Delicate Balance” written four years later, a work that is very much a companion piece to the earlier play. Where “Virginia Woolf” is loud, gritty and in your face, “Balance” is more subdued, more abstract and more enigmatic. Both plays deal with nights of confusion and terror and battles for territory ending on a symbolic Sunday morning, but where "Virginia Woolf" presents us with some

resolution of the central problem, "A Delicate Balance" does not. Even the central problem itself is not clear in the later play. Stratford has assembled a very fine cast for its production who under Diana Leblanc's insightful direction make the multiple layers of meaning clearer that I've ever seen before yet without losing the play's fundamental sense of mystery.

The play is set in the smart living room of the wealthy Agnes and Tobias. Agnes is meditating aloud about the pleasure it would be to go mad, realizing that as long as she can speculate on the subject it will not have happened. The main thorn in proper Agnes's side is her proudly drunken sister Claire, who has come to live with them after quitting an Alcoholics Anonymous retreat. Soon Agnes and Tobias learn that their daughter Julia has broken up with her fourth husband and will also be returning home to live with them. Before Julia arrives, however, Harry and Edna, best friends of Agnes and Tobias, pay a surprise visit. In fact, Harry and Edna have not just come to visit but to live with Agnes and Tobias in order to escape the unnamed "terror" that has suddenly made their own home uninhabitable. This intrusion, which so closely treads on the boundary of friendship and on the rights of host and guest, upsets "the delicate balance" of the household in ways grievous to all but Claire, who watches everything, including her own life, from the sidelines.

Leblanc has given us such a well-spoken, well-considered production that numerous aspects of the structure and meaning of this problematic play become clear. First of all she underlines the presence of so many sets of doubles among the characters. We first meet Tobias with Agnes and Claire, two sisters with exactly opposite attributes--first representing order, the second disorder. When Harry and Edna enter fleeing an unnamable terror, it is clear that they are alter egos of Tobias and Agnes, who have never fully dealt with the unspoken void in their lives, the death of their son Teddy, which forced them apart and alienated their daughter Julia. Indeed, when Harry and Edna settle in, they begin acting exactly like Tobias and Agnes, a point Leblanc emphasizes by placing them on stage in the same locations where we first met Tobias and Agnes. When Julia enters a second parallel is created. We have two sets of intruders into the ordered life of Agnes and Tobias--Harry and Edna who are their “closest friends” and Claire and Julia, who are relatives. This sets up a central question of the play, “Who has a greater claim on our love--a close friend or a relative we may not actually like?” How important really is a blood relation in determining who does or does not have a claim on our time and space? When Tobias is alone with the three women of his family in Act 3 he compares them to the three witches in “Macbeth”. Given their three different ages, it not hard to see how this looks forward to Albee's “Three Tall Women” (1991) in which three actors of different ages represent the same wife of a dying husband. More than once, Leblanc underscores the remark that Julia is on the way to turning into Claire.

The interaction of these multiple parallels brings out a remarkably rich view of life as a balancing act between order and disorder, sanity and madness, repression and expression, male and female and the roles of host and guest, friend and intruder, friend and relative. By the symbolic placement of characters in significant locations on stage and by having each actor subtly emphasize key words and phrases, we see the reduplications Albee has created and hear Albee's themes echo through his prose turning it almost into a kind of poetry.

The production was originally to have starred the late William Hutt as Tobias. Doubtless his presence would have changed the dynamics on stage. As it is Martha Henry as Agnes and Fiona Reid as Claire dominate the piece with David Fox's Tobias remaining a quiet figure in the background until his remarkable outburst near the end. Henry speaks the long, complex speeches Albee gives Agnes with such beauty that it is a pleasure in itself just to hear them. Yet, this formal beauty has a negative side that Henry shows in Agnes's obsession with order, constantly arranging objects and furniture and adjusting other people's clothing. Reid is the perfect foil, constantly making jabs at others to see how far she can go as well as satirizing herself as beyond help. Reid who played Claire for CanStage in 1998 has the acidity and timing of Albee's equivalent of Shakespeare's “all- licensed Fool” down pat. Fox inevitably comes off as weak in comparison with this formidable pair, and I missed the undercurrent of fear that should be present in him from the beginning to show that he, too, is struggling with his own “terror”. Nevertheless, he rises magnificently to the challenge of Tobias's long speech pleading with Harry to stay, imbuing it with such raw emotion it is almost embarrassing to watch the character so totally abase himself.

Patricia Collins is excellent as Edna moving from being petrified by fear in her first appearance to surprising imperiousness as Edna settles in. As Harry, James Blendick is cast against type. He has such stage presence and such a rich voice, it is difficult to believe he could ever be in terror, but his muted, restrained performance helps make his situation plausible. Michelle Giroux communicates Julia's anger but never the shame or distress her character would likely feel after so many failures.

Astrid Janson's design captures the upper-class milieu but some of her costumes are unbecoming. The pleated shawl she gives Martha Henry hangs in such a way as to make her look osteoporotic, which she certainly is not. Janson has Julia arrive in a high-fashion leather outfit with stiletto boots, appropriate for a single bar but not for a woman running home after a failed a marriage. Louise Guinand's lighting is subtly beautiful throughout especially in conjuring up the dawn of a new day at the end.

There's no doubt that “A Delicate Balance” is a deliberately puzzling play where Albee, true to his absurdist background, portrays metaphorical situations naturalistically. Yet, Leblanc, Henry, Reid and Collins ensure that this puzzle is always intriguing and often very funny. If you know Albee only from “Virginia Woolf”, catch this show to get a more rounded view of a great playwright.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Pentecost

by David Edgar, directed by Mladen Kiselov
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
August 10-September 21, 2005
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Theatre of Revelations”

It's been a long time since the Stratford Festival has programmed a serious contemporary British play. If “contemporary” means written within twenty years or less before a Stratford production, we have to look all the back to “Amadeus” (1979) by Peter Shaffer in 1995, “Home” (1970) by David Storey in 1990 or “Not About Heroes” (1982) by Stephen MacDonald in 1987. David Edgar's “Pentecost” (1994) gives us an idea of what we've been missing. It is an ambitious, large-scale play of ideas, challenging to both the audience and actors. Under Bulgarian-born director Mladen Kiselov the company absolutely shines. They show a commitment to the work stronger than anything I've seen in a non-musical at Stratford in years. The play itself may overreach its grasp, but the performances and production are thrilling.

The play takes place in an unnamed Balkan country shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a small village Gabriella Pecs, a local art curator, has discovered a fresco that could rewrite art history in Western Europe. If her hunch about the date of the fresco is correct, a local artist from her otherwise insignificant homeland may have beat Giotto by painting the first European artwork to use perspective. Pecs enlists the help of Oliver Davenport, a visiting British art historian, to help authenticate her find. Since in the past the church has been both Catholic and Orthodox, a prison and a museum, representatives of church and state soon at loggerheads about who owns the building and thus the potentially priceless work of art and Leo Katz, an American art historian is brought in to discredit the views of Pecs and Davenport. Besides this Pecs and Davenport want to move the fresco to a safer more controlled environment because of nearly pollution sources. Before anything can be settled, a group of refugees break into the church and hold the art historians hostage, threatening to kill them and destroy the fresco if their demands are not met.

This is just the first act of the three-hour play and the number of ideas Edgar throws out about the interrelations of East and West, art history, politics, religion, ownership and exploitation is dazzling. The second act, unfortunately, simply doesn't measure up to the first. The ever-widening play of ideas suddenly collapses into a rather conventional hostage drama with, threats, emissaries and negotiations. To fill out the play Edgar gives us the background stories of all ten refugees and then, despite efforts to keep the hostages and their captors separate, the two groups holed up together inevitably join in entertaining each other and begin breaking down the psychological walls between them. We are meant to see a parallel between the refugees of complex provenance and the fresco. We are also meant to the refugees as symbolic of all the other groups who have passed through the country claiming the church as their own. When Edgar tries to return to the topic of art history, it seems forced with all the refugees listening in unlikely rapt attention as Davenport explains his insight into the fresco. The urgency Edgar gives to removing the fresco is a false prod to the plot since any fresco of the importance he suggests would have to be studied in situ so that scholars could learn more about the circumstances of its creation. In act 2 we keep hoping for the exhilaration of the first act to return but it never does.

Despite this, what does hold our attention is the intensity of all the performances in large parts and small. Lucy Peacock makes Pecs warm and intelligent. She catches the humour and passion of a woman who has learned English from outdated textbooks but whose enthusiasm shines through. When Pecs loses heart so do we. John Koensgen plays Davenport as a typical proper Englishman who gradually lets down his guard to get caught up in Pecs's quest and eventually in Pecs herself. Jonathan Goad, in one of his best ever performances, is perfect as Katz, Davenport's American foil. He starts off as a cynically swaggering American know-it-all, but even he eventually puts off this pose to reveal a profound love of art beneath.

Dan Chameroy is excellent as Father Petr Karolyi, a local Catholic educated in Britain when his country was under Communist rule, who now is impatient with its slowness to modernize. His opponent is the Orthodox Father Sergei Bojovic, played by Stephen Russell as a gruff, intractable old man disdainful of all that is new. Kiselov is especially good at coaching actors to reproduce the studied arrogance of East European petty officials. Brian Hamman as Mikhail Czaba captures the slimy thuggishness of one arm of the government while Nora McLellan as the Cultural Minister Anna Jedlikova, shows calculation and empathy warring beneath a surface of icy hauteur. Among the refugees, Adrienne Gould as their leader Yasmin commands the stage with absolute assurance. Barbara Fulton reveals the frightening emotional instability of Fatima. And Nora McLellan is hardly recognizable in her second role as the outwardly and inwardly disheveled Marina.

Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter, commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, understood among Orthodox Christians as the reversal of the effects of the Tower of Babel. Edgar recreates Babel on stage since only three of the 23 speaking characters are portrayed as native English speakers. The English- speaking ability of the rest lies at all levels between complete fluency and totally inability. The nature of the play requires the actors to speak with authority a huge range of other languages from Latin, Greek and Arabic to French, German, Italian, Russian, Bulgarian and many more. Often at Stratford casts can't even get simple British or Southern U. S. accents right. But here, the actors (with the help of fourteen dialect coaches) speak their macaronic lines with amazing confidence and accuracy. It seems quite clear that Kiselov has gone through the life history of each character in great detail with each actor. That would explain why the complex life of this unnamed country comes across as so rich and real.

Eo Sharp's skeletal set conjures up the atmosphere of a dilapidated church with Mick McDonald's video projections of early 14th-century frescoes to place the play's fictional fresco in context and to emphasize thematic elements in the play. Sharp's costume design is extraordinarily detailed. What she captures especially well are the various levels of tackiness of a recently Communist country where clothes are worn because they are thought to look expensive or fashionable not because they actually are. It's a difficult style to create without mocking the characters who wear it, but Sharp manages to do it with great precision. On the negative side, Robert Thomson's lighting seems mainly oriented towards those in the centre section. Audience members in the side sections may find that the glare from certain lights in the voms makes it difficult to see the stage clearly.

“Pentecost” feels like a breath of fresh air at Stratford. For once, outside the musicals, everyone on stage seems to know exactly what they were doing and why. For once there is a real sense of ensemble and unity of purpose. For once, too, a modern play does not deal in platitudes but with the knottiest contemporary problems in art, politics and religion. If Edgar's play ultimately disappoints in its second half, the Stratford cast and production do not. The show gives us an exciting glimpse of what Stratford productions could be like when an insightful director inspires his actors and demands, and knows how to get, the very best from them.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Summer and Smoke

by Tennessee Williams, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 6-October 27, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Smoke but Not Fire"

Surprisingly enough, “Summer and Smoke” is the Shaw Festival's first foray into Tennessee Williams. Let's hope it is the first of many. Except for a couple of casting problems, this is a fine production and highlights the Festival's chief treasure--its ensemble acting.

“Summer and Smoke” (1948), Tennessee Williams' first play after “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947), is not often revived. One reason is that the play moves towards paradox rather than tragedy. Another is that the play requires a complex set capable of depicting at least three major playing areas. Yet another is that Williams adds eleven minor characters to what is essentially a two-character struggle. Despite this, the work is a must for all Williams fans since it presents his favourite characters, the Southern belle and the ne'er- do-well male, in their most archetypical form.

The central character is shy, overly self-conscious Alma Winemiller, who has always loved the boy next door, John Buchanan, Jr., the son of a doctor now training to follow in his father's footsteps. His return to Glorious Hill, Mississippi, in 1913 reawakens a desire that years of propriety as a reverend's daughter and shame in caring for a mentally disturbed mother have locked away. John respects Alma but seems intent on throwing away his life in gambling, whoring and liquor. As her allegorical name suggests Alma is the soul, spirituality and moral purpose, while John is the body, sensuality and practical skill. As symbols each needs the other. As people, both must overcome mental constraints to realize this need.

Neil Munro directs with his usual precise attention to detail. The one flaw he cannot overcome is the miscasting of Nicole Underhay as Alma. I have enjoyed Underhay in many other productions but here she is simply too robust and vital an actor to portray Alma convincingly. She conveys Alma's tendency to talk too much as nervousness, but not the sense of making a fool of herself that should accompany it. Her movement and gestural language are appropriate to an assured, lively character, not someone who makes up excuses to visit the doctor just for companionship. Underhay is best in her interactions with Sharry Flett as her mother, where Underhay conveys the stress, irritation and sadness of having act as a parent to one's parent.

The rest of the parts, with one exception, are all well cast. Jeff Meadows is excellent as John Buchanan, Jr., a young man whose loss of faith has sent him on a path of self-destruction. Meadows shows that John is in the painful position of knowing what he is doing and knowing he can do nothing about it as if he is watching himself slide into the abyss. His natural charisma makes the attentions he draws from all women, including Alma, self-explanatory. As John's father Guy Bannerman is stern and gruff, perplexed but ready to forgive. Peter Hutt gives a fine performance as Alma's father Reverend Winemiller, who seems incapable of dealing with his wife's mental illness by leaving the difficult work to Alma. Jay Turvey provides a subtly comic portrait of Roger Doremus, Alma's only potential love- interest aside from John. He is as awkward and shy as Alma is and seems so tied to his mother's apron strings we have to feel there is no hope there for her.

Among the women Sharry Flett stands out for her eerie portrayal of Alma's mother. Mrs. Winemiller's dementia has turned off her inhibitions leading to childish behaviour and embarrassing statements in public. Flett's eyes flit between vacancy and mischievousness making the woman's intractability all too believable. Nicola Correia- Damude manages to keep Rosa Gonzales, John's hot-blooded Latina “girlfriend” from being a caricature. Brigitte Robinson as the snooty Mrs. Bassett, Melanie Janzen as a geeky Rosemary and Chilina Kennedy as the young but unthinking Nellie Ewell rounds out the cast. It's a pity that Jonathan Gould as travelling salesman Archie Kramer ruins the final scene of the play. He seems merely like a wide-eyes tourist happy to see the sights rather than the slimy fellow he should be ready to take advantage of the first woman he meets.

To emphasize the spiritual aspects of the drama, Peter Hartwell has created a set that from the back of the theatre looks like the outlines of a wooden church. The two side-aisles are the Buchanan house stage right and the Winemiller house stage left. The centre aisle is represents the town park and its water fountain, which when not in use upstage looks like an altar and baptismal font. Close up this pattern is unclear and the set looks more like a forest of dead trees. Christina Poddubiuk has created attractive period costumes and thankfully makes Rosa's father look like a wealthy businessman rather than the Mexican bandito seen in other productions. Lighting designer Alan Brodie captures the effect of living in a world where blinds are mostly closed against the outside world.

The best Canadian production of “Summer and Smoke” remains for me the Theatre Plus production in Toronto in 1991 with Kate Trotter as Alma and Patrick Galligan as John. Trotter gave us an Alma so fragile that she seems to holds herself together only by force of will. Tom McCamus was the travelling salesman of the final scene and his callousness gave Alma's fall from grace devastating impact. The Shaw production may not quite hit the mark, but so much else is right I hope the Festival will enrich future seasons with more of Williams' works.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Hotel Peccadillo

by Georges Feydeau, adapted & directed by Morris Panych
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake June 16-October 7, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Vacancy"

It used to be that the Shaw Festival knew how to produce farces. One remembers “One for the Pot” by Cooney and Hilton that played at the Shaw in 1985 and later at the Royal Alex in 1996. But it has been a long time since then. Feydeau's “Something on the Side” was a disappointment in 2005, as was “Three Men on a Horse” in 2004 and “Passion, Poison and Petrifaction” in 1998. Other companies have done no better. Stratford's production of Feydeau's “A Fitting Confusion” in 1996 didn't work and neither did Soulpepper's attempt at Feydeau's “A Flea in Her Ear” in 2001.

This year the Shaw is presenting the premiere of Morris Panych's adaptation of “L'Hôtel du Libre-Echange” (1894) by Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallières under the title “Hotel Peccadillo”. It would be more honest if the Shaw said that “Hotel Peccadillo” was a new play by Panych suggested by an idea of Feydeau, since as he did with his “adaptation” of Gogol's “The Government Inspector” for Soulpepper last year, Panych has basically chucked the original plot and dialogue and substituted his own. All Panych's version and the original now have in common is the introduction of several characters in Act 1 with some names retained, whom we meet again in various coupling in Acts 2 and 3 in a disreputable hotel, followed by an Act

4 where they try to explain to each other what happened. In the original Pinglet and Paillardin are two friends working on a building project. In Panych they are psychiatrist and patient. In the original Paillardin's wife seeks revenge on her inattentive husband. In Panych it is Dr. Pinglet's idea to seduce Paillardin's wife. With so many changes it can hardly be said to be the same play. Panych even introduces the character of Feydeau himself (ignoring poor Desvallières) as a kind of narrator and commentator. This isn't such a bad idea in itself except that Panych used this trick before in his version “The Government Inspector” in which we discover at the end that Gogol has written himself into the play as the supposed title character.

I don't mind that Panych's version is not set in 1894. He happily refers to Viagra, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, gluteal implants, Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, Michel Foucault and the torture of Iraqi prisoners. But why has designer Nancy Bryant clearly set the action in the 1960s before any of those ideas were known and why does the programme itself concentrate so heavily on the ‘60s? Clearly, something radically changed between the version Panych planned to write and the one now in performance.

None of this would matter much if Panych's version worked well on stage, but his does not. His jokes are strictly hit and miss with misses far outnumbering the hits. Panych sets up several potentially comic situations but doesn't follow them through. Why, when Dr. Pinglet dressed as a stewardess arrives at his secret rendezvous with Mme Paillardin, does she make no remark on his peculiar attire? Why does no one in the finale notice that Dr. Pinglet is wearing women's shoes and hose? What is the point of introducing the pilot Mathieu and his three stewardesses since they have no influence on the action? Why cast Ludmila as a chaperon to the stewardesses if we never see her in that function? Why mention repeatedly that Mrs.

Pinglet in having her husband followed by a young man and never once show this happen? In Panych's “Hotel” there is none of the escalation of errors compounding errors, people repeatedly being discovered with the wrong people at the wrong time -- which makes farce funny. The conclusion, like what has preceded it, is simply careless and sloppy. Paillardin's troubles with his wife are not solved.

Pinglet inexplicably has no reaction when he discovers his wife is having an affair or when his nephew runs off with the woman he told him to avoid. It's as if the show ends simply because two hours are up whether loose ends have been tied up or not.

Ken MacDonald is usually an inventive set designer, but in this case his design works against what little coherence Panych has given his story. Using an extremely forced perspective MacDonald presents us with a corridor with five doors on each side, each drastically smaller than the next, with a sixth door just around the corner in front. Panych's best visual jokes involve having the cast deal with entrances or exits through the smallest doors as if the play were about MacDonald's set. It is true that French farces are famous for their multiple doors, but what Panych and MacDonald fail to recognize is that the humour in farce is precise and mechanical and that we the audience must know exactly who is behind every door when. In total contravention of this rule, Panych treats the twelve doors as if they all opened into the same shared back space, so that we never know who is where when. Actors repeatedly enter in one door only to exit from another. Because of this, the central part of the play when lovers hunt for each other in various rooms is completely devoid of tension, excitement or sense.

Despite working with a poor script and poor direction, some actors still make a good impression. If it were not for Patrick Galligan's performance as Dr. Pinglet, the whole show would fall apart. His doctor's vain attempts to appear cool when flustered are always funny and as are his attempts to explain his own and others' bizarre actions with a logorrhea of psychological jargon. Jeff Irving is painfully geeky as Pinglet's nephew Maxime and Mike Nadajewski is sweetly innocent as a bellboy from the country surprised by the odd activities in a city hotel. Panych could have made much more of both roles. Trish Lindström has a fine comic turn as Pinglet's hopelessly myopic secretary Victoire, who seeks to rival her employer in psychiatry, and Laurie Paton is hilariously cast against type as a hideously dowdy chaperon for Russian stewardesses with a shaky command of English.

Sadly, under Panych's direction, or lack thereof, the otherwise superb Shaw company give performances one might rather expect at amateur theatricals. People like Benedict Campbell as Paillardin and Goldie Semple and Pinglet's wife fall back on clichéd bluster. David Leyshon as Pinglet's friend Mathieu, Charlotte Gowdy as Paillardin's wife and William Vickers as Inspector Boucard seem half asleep. Lorne Kennedy in ghastly makeup as Feydeau intones the relentlessly unwitty lines Panych gives him with a would-be world-weariness that comes out simply as weariness.

What should liven up the proceedings is the presence of a live six- piece band under Ryan deSouza, but Panych makes no use of their potential. They merely accompany and no one on stage acknowledges their presence, an odd oversight since Panych is trying so desperately to be postmodern. All in all, the two-hour sojourn at “Hotel Peccadillo” is two hours wasted.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Shakespeare's Will

by Vern Thiessen, directed by Miles Potter
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford July 7-September 20, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Thiessen's Anne”

Little is known about the life of William Shakespeare. Even less is known about his wife Anne Hathaway (1556-1623). Therefore, when Albertan playwright Vern Thiessen writes an 80-minute-long play, “Shakespeare's Will”, in which Anne reflects on her life, we have to be aware that Thiessen is dealing pure speculation. If you hope learn more about Shakespeare or Hathaway from the play, you won't.

Director Miles Potter claims in the programme that “you could change the character's name and you'd still have a good play”. In fact, Thiessen's play is not all that interesting and trades on the character's name to attract interest.

Thiessen imagines Anne just having returned home from her husband's funeral. She is haunted by a snide remark that Shakespeare's sister Joan has made about how Shakespeare has treated Anne in his will.

Anne has the will in her hand but for unknown reasons can't bring herself to look at it. Thiessen uses this artificial delaying tactic to allow Anne to meditate in generally chronological order on how she met Shakespeare and how their married life progressed. Far be it for a contemporary Canadian playwright to suggest that Anne might be an ordinary woman of her times. In a typically academic politically correct manner, Thiessen shows us that it is Anne who is ahead of the times in her beliefs while her famous husband is narrow-minded and vindictive. What is known is that Anne was pregnant when she married. She was 26 and Shakespeare only 18. From this fact, Thiessen pictures an Anne with a healthy sexual appetite who frequents village fairs to pick up men, not for money, just for pleasure. Her literal roll in the hay with Shakespeare gets her pregnant and leads to their marriage against her father's wishes.

She notices that Shakespeare seems a bit distant and divines that he may have a greater hankering after boys. Advanced in her thinking, she tells him, to use Thiessen's phrase, that she's “fine with that”, and she and Shakespeare make a pact that though married they will each be free to do as they wish and not encumber the other.

Anne's main test comes when Shakespeare seeks success in London and remains away from Stratford throughout the more than twenty years of his theatre career with only infrequent visits to Stratford, thus leaving her to raise their three children, Susannah, and the twins Hamnet [sic] and Judith, on her own. Thiessen decides that Anne's father was a sea captain in order to give her an overwhelming longing for the sea and, metaphorically, freedom, though Anne's family home is so far inland this scenario is hardly likely. It does allow Thiessen to set Anne up as a kind of heroine and invent the idea that when the plague reaches Stratford, Anne takes the children on the arduous journey to England's west coast to save them.

The title of Thiessen's play refers to one of the few documents written by Shakespeare that is not a poem or a play, i.e., his last will and testament written in 1616. What some people find odd about the will is that Shakespeare has a long passage detailing what he plans to give to his eldest daughter Susannah, including the house where he and his family lives, and how it should pass on to her male heirs. Thiessen's modern-minded Anne, of course, belittles this as patriarchal. About Anne, the will says only: “Item I gyve unto my wief my second best bed with the furniture”. Following James Joyce and others, Thiessen has Anne view this a punishment. To do so ignores the fact that a household's best bed would have been reserved for visitors so that the “second best bed” would have been their marriage bed and rather more indicative of sentiment than punishment. Thiessen wants us to think that Shakespeare's will turns Anne out of house and home causing her to create a new life for herself. But this ignores the assumption in 17th-century England that the children would take care of their parents. Giving the house to Susannah, contrary to Thiessen's misconstruction, actually ensures that Anne will not be forced into homelessness.

What then do we make of a play based on very little historical information that intentionally ignores what is known of the common practices of the period? “Not much”, I'd say. Director Miles Potter says of the play that “it could be about any woman whose husband is away work”. And so it is. Thiessen has clearly used the cachet of Shakespeare's name to draw people to a by-the-numbers revisionist fantasy of Anne Hathaway that has no value as history and little as drama.

The reason for anyone to see the show is to see Seana McKenna, but she plays Anne with an abundance of poise and wit that might rather be appropriate to a lady-in-waiting at court than a ordinary country lass who has lived all her life in a small town. The script gives McKenna the chance to display her talent for mimicry in imitating at least ten other characters in Anne's life from the snooty Joan and taciturn Shakespeare to all three of her children. Why Anne speaks in a contemporary Canadian accent is, I assume, an attempt to help the audience to relate to her and suits Thiessen's anachronistic take on her. Peter Hartwell supplies a modern minimalist steel set, but it would almost be better if there were none since Kevin Fraser's is more adept at evoking the past times and places Anne recalls. The temptation to see such a fine actor as McKenna solo and up close should be weighed against the fact that the show she is in is so annoying and pointless. Both McKenna and we deserve better.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Cassilis Engagement

by St. John Hankin, directed by Christopher Newton
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake June 15-October 5, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"An ‘Engagement' Not to Be Missed"

In 2001 and again in 2002 the Shaw Festival had a major hit with “The Return of the Prodigal” (1905) by St. John Hankin (1869-1909). This year the Festival brings us a second Hankin play, “The Cassilis Engagement” (1907), that deserves as much success as the first. As with “Prodigal” former Shaw Artistic Director Christopher Newton is at the helm of an impeccably acted and designed production. Now having seen two of Hankin's five plays, we can understand more fully why Hankin's contemporaries felt his early death was such a blow to British drama.

The two plays complement each other--“Prodigal” subtitled “A Comedy for Fathers”, “Cassilis” “A Comedy for Mothers”. As with “Prodigal”, “Cassilis” shows that Hankin's style of comedy is very special, halfway between the brittle wittiness of Oscar Wilde and the social satire of Shaw but shot through with the kind of melancholy one finds in Chekhov that gives the comedies unexpected depth. In “Cassilis”, Hankin takes the typical structure of comedy and turns it upside down. The usual plot of comedy shows how a young couple defies their parents' objections to get married. Here the play begins with the engagement of a young couple from different classes but whose parents seem to support their decision. The action, though still comic, then works from engagement to breakup.

Young Geoffrey Cassilis, the widowed Mrs. Cassilis' only son and heir to a vast country estate and fortune, has fallen in love with Ethel Borridge, a lowly shop girl he met during an omnibus accident in London. Mrs. Cassilis' friends and relations in the country around the family seat at Milverton are appalled both at the engagement and at Mrs. Cassilis' seeming approval of it. “Seeming” is indeed the key word. Mrs. Cassilis is afraid that if she were to let her true feelings of opposition be known and object openly to the engagement, Geoffrey might marry the girl out of spite. Instead, Mrs. Cassilis' strategy is to invite Ethel and her mother to stay with them in the country to see if the lowborn city girl can really stand the dull kind of life her fiancé will live.

The excellent cast finds Goldie Semple in superb form as Mrs. Cassilis. She shows a steely strength of will both when feigning unconcern before friends and relations and when lavishing kindness on Ethel and her mother. Semple never allows her performance to slip into cheap irony. Instead, she subtly communicates the mounting toll such extended pretense takes on Mrs. Cassilis. As Mrs. Borridge, a mother with a different agenda, Mary Haney is hilarious as a fish who doesn't seem to realize that she is out of water. This role, too, could be grossly overdone, but Haney keeps her character from ever turning into a caricature. She is, as always, adept at physical comedy, and the scene where she silently strives in vain to feign interest in a Schubert Lied sung in German is comic acting at its highest level. In an amazing turnabout at the end, she reveals so much rage and bitterness in the character that this person who had been such a source of comedy suddenly becomes a source of pathos.

In her best-ever performance at the Shaw, Trish Lindström shows us a young woman who, like Mrs. Cassilis, devotes all her energy to maintaining appearances. Ethel has been to a finishing school and Lindström carefully distinguishes between the high-class accent Ethel uses with Geoffrey and his family and the low-class accent she uses when alone with her mother. Slipping accidentally into the wrong accent only shows the strain such pretense is taking on her. With great nuance Lindström shows how Ethel's the highly ambiguous attitude we see at first gradually hardens into one that no one can control.

David Leyshon could easily have made Geoffrey into yet another of the many British twits he has played over the years, but, significantly, he does not. His Geoffrey is authentically in love with Ethel and love, not dimwittedness, blinds him to the growing evidence of how ill suited she is to his kind of life. Hankin seems to have written the role of Geoffrey's aunt, the Countess of Remenham, as an homage to Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell, and Donna Belleville plays the character as if she had simply stepped from “Earnest” into this play with all the immense self-importance and spouting of poisoned aphorisms one would expect. Patrick Galligan has an important cameo as the Countess's dissolute brother Major Warrington, whose first

name “Algernon” must also be a deliberate allusion to “Earnest”. Since he is known to frequent the lowlife of London, he immediately recognizes Ethel for what she is and encourages her to be herself. This is the handsome Galligan at his suavest and he carries off the part beautifully. Charlotte Gowdy, as Lady Mabel Venning, the Countess's daughter, like everybody else except the Countess, practices dissembling, but in her case it is more poignant. We see from Gowdy's subtle body language that Mabel has always loved Geoffrey even when she directly denies it. Laurie Paton as Lady Marchmont, Mrs. Cassilis' sister and confidante, makes the role interesting by showing how the initially indignant character gradually gets caught up in her sister's game. Lorne Kennedy is an intentionally dull rector and Wendy Thatcher his scatterbrained wife.

Newton captures exactly the right tone by emphasizing that this is not a farce but a comedy of character. The play is an ensemble piece and it is hard to imagine a troupe better equipped that the Shaw company to make it run so smoothly and to get so much out of even the simplest lines. Newton is correct in ensuring that the ending of the play is disturbing rather than funny since Hankin's critique of class cuts both ways. William Schmuck's design reinforces Newton's approach. The set and the main furniture are made of white, square steel rods. This rigidity can be disguised various ways as indoor or outdoor furniture but we are aware through the cleverly choreographed scene changes that underlying all appearances is a structure that is both rigid and cage-like.

Again we are in debt to the Shaw for bringing an undeservedly forgotten work to light. We can only wonder if more Hankin is in the offing. Till then, this is an “Engagement” you won't want to miss.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Mack and Mable

by Jerry Herman, directed by Molly Smith
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake May 12-October 28, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Singing Silents"

The Shaw Festival is currently presenting the first fully-staged Canadian production of the Jerry Herman musical “Mack and Mabel”. It flopped badly on Broadway in 1974 and only after its book was revised in 1995 did it achieve a more respectable run in London. The Shaw Festival is renowned for rediscovering unjustly neglected works, but this is not one of them. This is not even top-drawer Jerry Herman, who wrote “Hello, Dolly!” (1964), “Mame” (1966) and “La Cage aux Folles” (1983). Even with the revised book it does not tell its story clearly accurately and its entire second act and finale are limp. Yet, it does provide a fine vehicle for the actors playing the title roles and Shaw production itself is a pleasure.

“Mack and Mabel” purports to tell the story of the decades-long on- off relationship of director/producer Mack Sennett (1884-1960) and actress Mabel Normand (1892-1930) set against the boom in silent

movie making in the 1910s and ending just after the advent of sound. Michael Stewart's book as revised by Francine Pascal gives such a heavily fictionalized version of the events that one can't expect actually to learn anything about the characters or the period from the musical. We see how Sennett makes a star on the spot out of a deli delivery girl. (In fact, they met when both were acting in movies.) We see how he turns newspaper boy Frank Capra into a writer. (In fact, Capra gained his background in university.)

Contrary to the musical, Capra had nothing to do with the script “Molly O.” that he tries to tempt Mabel with. We see how Normand becomes the greatest comedienne in silent movies and becomes addicted to drugs to keep up the hectic pace of filming. True, she made 228 films in 1910-27 years. But oddly for the 1970s (or 1990s) the book is intent on depicting Normand as totally dependent on men, first Sennett, then William Desmond Taylor, for her success, and never suggests, for example, that she was one of the first female directors in silent movies with sixteen films to her credit. The book shows how the pride of both characters keeps getting the way of a relationship, but in the end it does not really make us care about either of them.

The production of American director Molly Smith has both strengths and weaknesses. The book has Sennett act as the narrator of his own story, at least in Act 1. If Smith could make it clear that what we're seeing is warped by Sennett's perspective or that it is somehow his formulaic film version of what happened, that would help explain and even make interesting the show's historical inaccuracies and idealized ending. But Smith does not do this. She gives us the idea that the show is set on a sound stage, but not necessarily on the sound stage of Sennett's mind.

Her most remarkable achievement in coordination with designer William Schmuck and lighting designer Jock Munro is in suddenly turning colour scenes before us into the shaky, black-and-white silent movies they become. We first see this when Sennett and company arrive in Los Angeles as a parade is taking place. Sennett decides to use the parade as part of one his so-called “instant movies” with Mabel in it. As soon as she enters the scene the entire procession and Mabel become drained of colour and seem to become a silent film come to life--a real coup de théâtre.

Smith directs the spoken and purely sung scenes with vigour and drive, but Baayork Lee's choreography is never inventive enough. This is especially noticeable in the big Keystone Kops dance number when Lee never makes full use of its massive comic potential. There is also a crucial miscalculation from Smith when in the midst of the big tap number “Tap Your Troubles Away”, she shows projections on either side of the stage of newspaper headlines blaring accusations against Mable and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle accusing them of involvement in separate murder incidents. We need to know this information to understand subsequent events in the show, but reading headlines naturally distracts us from watching the dancing.

Herman's score has highs and lows. “I Won't Send Roses” is a great song for Mack and Mabel's “Time Heals Everything” could be a cabaret standard. On the other hand, “Also Called Mack and Mabel” and “Hit ‘Em On the Head” are poor in both music and lyrics and “When Mabel Comes In the Room” is an obvious attempt to recreate the “welcome back” scenes of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame”.

The cast is excellent. Ben Campbell has sung before but here his vocal strength and fullness of tone are truly impressive. He is just the right person to play the blustering, driven character of Mack. Glynis Ranney is also an ideal Mabel, combining the pertness of a comedienne with the fragility that leads to her downfall. Her character has the greatest emotional arc tin the musical and Ranney makes every moment believable.

Of the secondary characters only one, Lottie Ames, Sennett's secretary is given a chance to shine. Gabrielle Jones does the trick and picks up the saggy second Act 2 with the perky pseudo-‘20s number “Tap Your Troubles Away”. Neil Barclay is a good Fatty Arbuckle but the book oddly gives him little chance to show why Arbuckle so renowned as a silent film comic or why he and Mabel were paired in so many films. Jeff Madden is an intense Frank Capra, Jay Turvey and William Vickers are Sennett's semi-comical backers Mr. Kessel and Mr. Bauman. Peter Millard first plays an archetypal Simon Legree-style villain before becoming the supercilious William Desmond Taylor, whom the musical accuses of hooking Mabel on cocaine. (In reality, he tried to cure her of her addiction.) Shaw musical stalwart Patty Jamieson has the thankless role of Ella, who spends more time accompanying scenes on the piano than singing. Of the eleven-person ensemble, special mention should be made of Kawa Ada and Devon Tullock, who burn up the floor with style and precision on either side of Gabrielle Jones in the big tap number.

Paul Sportelli, as usual, leads his own arrangement of the score, this time for a band of thirteen. He puts so much energy into Herman's pastiche, you can't help wishing he were conducting an authentic score from the 1920s. The conclusion of “Mack and Mabel” has the two walk off into the distance together when we expect Mack to return as narrator to comment on the woman he outlived by thirty years. The “happy ending” (literally called that in the final song) feels tacked on and false just as all forced happy endings do. Here as elsewhere I wish the musical would face up to the facts. The Shaw Festival mandate includes the Golden and Silver Ages of operetta plus the rise and the Golden Age of the American musical--everything from Gilbert and Sullivan to Rodgers and Hammerstein. With all this bounty, why is the Shaw spending its resources on recent, resounding Broadway flops like this and last year's “High Society” when there are so many great works to revive?

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Circle

by W. Somerset Maugham, directed by Neil Munro
Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 10-November 11, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Rollercoaster in the Drawing Room"

In 2005 the Shaw Festival had great success with the Somerset Maugham comedy “The Constant Wife” (1926). This year the Festival is presenting another Maugham comedy, “The Circle” from 1921. This is one of the rare cases where the Festival is giving a non-Shaw play a second production. There may be some lucky enough to have seen the Festival's first production in 1967, but for most people the current production will be their first encounter with this fascinating comedy.

St. John Hankin's “The Cassilis Engagement” (1907) and Maugham's “The Circle”, both on this year's playbill, are both plays that stretch the notion of comedy to its limits. Maugham's play does not turn the structure of comedy on its head as does Hankin's, but it does lead to a conclusion that is comic only in its rueful commentary on human beings' inability to learn from the past.

What makes our response to “The Circle” so complex is that Maugham continually undermines our moral stance in judging the characters. Elizabeth has been married to Arnold Champion-Cheney, M.P., for three years but, despite his position and wealth, she feels trapped in a loveless marriage. Indeed, Arnold seems to be more preoccupied with an 18th-century chair he has recently purchased than he is with Elizabeth. The play begins with a to-do over the fact that Elizabeth has invited Lord “Hughie” Porteous and Lady Catherine “Kitty” Champion-Cheney for a house party thinking that Kitty's ex-husband, Clive Champion-Cheney, would have already ended his visit. The difficulty is that Clive and Catherine are Arnold's parents. When Arnold was five, Catherine ran away with Lord Porteous, who then was Clive's best friend, creating a great scandal that has clouded Arnold's life. Neither Clive nor Arnold has seen the couple for thirty years. Meanwhile, another houseguest, Edward Luton, confesses his love for Elizabeth and asks her to run away with him to Malaya. Will the past repeat itself in the younger generation as the play's title suggests? Maugham keeps us on tenterhooks until the play's very last moments. And by then, Maugham has added so many plusses and minuses to the question “Should they or shouldn't they?” that you may find yourself debating the ending long after the play is over.

The cast, direction and design are basically flawless. The play depends on the characters' creating very strong first impressions which greater familiarity with them forces us to revise. Clive seems to be the moral voice of the play, the injured party from the past who wants to make peace with those who deceived him. But then we hear about the peculiar way he spends his free time in London and we wonder whether he has deliberately stayed on to meddle with his daughter-in-law's life. Lord Porteous and Lady Catherine cut a ridiculous figure when we first meet them, dotty and quarrelsome, completely unlike the romantic picture that Elizabeth has of them. Yet, even though they adhere to no conventional moral code, we begin to wonder whether they are not truer to their own ideals than anyone else is.

David Jansen shows Arnold as obsessive-compulsive, constantly worrying about the exact position of his prized chair, and satisfied that by having married a beauty he has settled all the all his obligations in life. His Arnold is so reserved we crave to hear something emotional from him and are relieved when we finally do.

Moya O'Connell, a new face at the Shaw, creates a totally involving portrait of Elizabeth, torn as she is between a world of duty and stability and one of romance and the unknown. O'Connell's intensity makes all of Elizabeth's crises and changes of heart easily believable. Gray Powell, also new at the Shaw, is well cast as the dashing Luton, whose strong point is his unshakeable sincerity.

The counterparts of these three in the older generation are all plum roles. David Schurmann is always adept at playing the wise counsellor, but here there is a twist as he gradually allows Clive's self-satisfaction to show through and undercut the seeming disinterestedness of his comments. Imagine Antony and Cleopatra as elderly British aristocrats gone to seed and they would be much like the Lord Porteous and Lady Catherine of Michael Ball and Wendy Thatcher. Husband and wife in real life, the two paint a hilarious

but realistic portrait of the once-scandalous couple. Hughie is mutters to himself through ill-fitting false teeth while Kitty rattles on in trivial free association without letting anyone else get a word in. At one moment they're blaming each other for ruining their lives; at another they're making up. Underneath it, though, Ball and Thatcher let us see that despite ravages of age a real passion for each other still rules their lives.

Designer Christina Poddubiuk has created a lovely, highly detailed Georgian drawing room for the set that lives up to the characters' frequent praise of it. She does give it a sense of being a bit too perfect which suits the obsessive nature of Arnold, who is supposed to have designed it. Her costumes also express the characters' natures from Arnold trussed up in his three-piece suit to the free-flowing tunic for Elizabeth to the slightly outré gowns for Kitty. Louise Guinand's lighting is quietly unobtrusive.

Neil Munro has directed the play with great insight into its ironies and ambiguities and allows so much tension to build up concerning Elizabeth's decision that he has you on the edge of your seat right until the end. If you think of drawing-room comedies as staid, think again. In the hands of Maugham and Munro it becomes an exhilarating intellectual and emotional rollercoaster ride. Don't miss the thrill.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Tristan

by Paul Sportelli & Jay Turvey, directed by Eda Holmes
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 28-October 6, 2007
Review by ChristopherHoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"An Exquisite New Musical"

Anyone who has despaired about the state of the musical in general or of the Canadian musical in particular should head down to the Shaw Festival to see a show that will restore your faith in both. “Tristan” by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey, currently in its world premiere run, is a lovely gem of a musical, beautifully crafted and beautifully presented. At a time when musicals seem to be either parodies based on bad movies or stitched together from rock groups' back catalogues, it is a relief to find a musical that deals with a complex subject with equally complex but gorgeous music of many moods.

Sportelli and Turvey take their story from the German novella “Tristan” by Thomas Mann first published in 1903. Heinrich Kloterjahn, a businessman from the Baltic port of Rostock, brings his young wife Gabrielle to Einfried, a sanatorium in the German Alps, in hopes of a cure for diagnosed disease of the trachea. There she joins in the strict regimen of the eccentric inhabitants. In particular, she is drawn to a handsome young writer Detlev Spinell, who is not ill but is oddly moody. He, in turn, falls madly in love with Gabrielle but doesn't know how to deal with his feelings. Though their own regard for propriety and the ceaseless surveillance of others keeps them at a distance, Spinell finds that a love of music unites them and he begins a projects to release the creative soul in Gabrielle that he feels has been stifled by her bourgeois life as a wife and mother.

The themes of art and love find echoes among Einfried's inhabitants. Fräulein von Osterloh, the sanatorium's nurse and general factotum, longs for the attention of Dr. Leander. A Russian couple, the painter Natalia Brodyagina and her husband Vladimir, live a bohemian life that happily weds both love and art. Even a philistine busybody like Frau Spatz has her needlework, and the mysteriously silent Frau Hohlenrauch will occasionally break into song or dance. At the same time, the elderly General is a reminder of an unhappy life devoted to duty alone.

The climax of the piece comes when Spinell encourages Gabrielle to play the “Liebestod” from Wagner's opera “Tristan und Isolde” on the piano and both are transformed by the ecstasy of the music. To some it may seem a problem that the climax of a musical should focus on music from an opera, but such an objection ignores Thomas Mann's goal in the novella. One could easily ask why Mann would write a novella set in his own period that refers back to the famous medieval epic by Gottfried von Straßburg that was also the source for Wagner's opera. As in his novel “Dr. Faustus”, Mann is interested in uncovering the survival of mythic structures in contemporary life. One could say that Sportelli and Turvey have chosen just the right genre; just as Mann's modern novella is to the medieval epic, so is this modern musical to Wagner's opera.

In any case, Sportelli and Turvey's musical language is so sophisticated, especially when involving Gabrielle and Spinell, that the transitions into and out of the Wagner passage is masterfully done and Wagner's “Tristan” motifs serve as “leitmotifs” in the musical itself. Just as the two lovers feel separate from the other inhabitants of Einfried, so the long soaring lines of their songs like Spinell's “One Face” in Act 1 or Gabrielle's “Isn't It Strange?” in Act 2 contrast with the generally jaunty tunes of the others. The group's introductory song “Einfried” and the following gossipy number “I Heard” are very much in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan with witty polysyllabic rhymes to match. Sportelli and Turvey reflect Mann's point that a grand passion can arise in the midst of ordinary even comical surroundings.

It's possible that the production would be stronger if the cast was composed entirely of fine singers, but that might not reflect so well the contrast of the extraordinary with the ordinary. One blessing of the production is that no one is miked. Glynis Ranney and Jeff Madden give wonderfully focussed performances as Gabrielle and Spinell. Both are characters much more complex than one ordinarily finds in musicals. Gabrielle appears fragile when we first meet her, but gradually Ranney shows how she gains in physical strength through interaction with others at Einfried and how she begins to glow with passion under Spinell's influence. Madden is superb as Spinell. He maintains the ambiguity of the character, someone who doesn't fit in and whose project of liberating Gabrielle's creativity is not completely altruistic. Nevertheless, he, too, is a kind of innocent who doesn't really understand the ways of the world. Madden's singing of the musical's most excerptable song “One Face” is hauntingly powerful.

To maintain balance in the piece, the role of Gabrielle's husband Heinrich is given to Mark Uhre, a singer with an operatic voice and full ringing tone. His introductory song “My Life” bespeaks the strength and power of a life of work, so unlike the artificial world of the “rest cure” at Einfried. To some extent Sportelli and Turvey side with Spinell in viewing Heinrich as the villain of the piece because of his narrow views when, in fact, it should be clear that he loves Gabrielle so much he has sought out the best treatment for her. The musical should really show the conflict between realism and idealism as more evenly balanced.

Patty Jamieson paints a comic but sympathetic portrait of the devoted but over-worked Fräulein von Osterloh. Graeme Somerville is no singer but has the right authoritative demeanour for Doctor Leander and copes as well as he can with the music. Donna Belleville is a finely comic Frau Spatz and her non-singer's voice suits the character. As the General, Neil Barclay sings very well and makes his character's short song “Happy” quite moving. Gabrielle Jones, a singer, and Peter Millard, a non-singer, are well paired as the life- and art-loving Russian couple. Jane Johanson, who is primarily a dancer, has the unusual ability to make the mostly silent Frau Hohlenrauch an unforgettably intense presence.

The Festival has in no way stinted on the production. William Schmuck's costumes especially for the women are well conceived as indications of character from the restrictive drabness of Frau Hohlenrauch to the overelaborate lushness of the Natatia Brodyagina. Judith Bowden has created a highly imaginative set that under Kevin Lamotte's magical lighting conjures up a world of ice and snow through whites and greys and steel. Particularly effective is the use of lucite for the back columns, a candelabrum and the piano. The latter two light up from within lending an otherworldly sense to the piece's musical climax when Gabrielle plays Wagner for Spinell. Eda Holmes's direction easily shifts between comic and serious moods and subtly builds up tension as the work progresses. It is very wise of her to abandon realism altogether in the climactic Wagner scene to focus our attention on the psychological effect of the music on Gabrielle and Spinell.

The absolute commitment of the actors and musicians to the piece shines through at every moment. Here, at last, is a new Canadian musical worthy to be ranked with the best works of the post-Sondheim generation. This is a real triumph for Sportelli and Turvey and for the Shaw Festival that commissioned and nurtured it.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

Kooza

written and directed by David Shiner
Cirque du Soleil, Grand Chapiteau, Cherry & Commissioners Street, Toronto
August 9-October 7, 2007
Reviewed by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“'Kooza' -- Another Word for ‘Unforgettable'”

“Kooza” is one of the best Cirque du Soleil shows to visit Toronto in years.  Written and directed by David Shiner, “Kooza” premiered earlier this year in Montreal.  It attempts to return to the origins of Cirque du Soleil by placing greater emphasis on a narrative to provide a context for its sequence of fantastic circus acts.  Besides the unified production values, original score and banishment of animal tricks in favour of amazing feats of human ability, what set the first Cirque shows apart was the presence of an overriding story about the transformative power of the theatre.  That story is what has caused the very first Cirque show I saw, “Le Cirque réinventé” in 1987, to stay with me all these years.  “Kooza” will surely to do the same.

The name “Kooza” is supposedly inspired by the Sanskrit word “kósa” that means “box”, “chest” or “treasure” and is perhaps a cognate to the English word “casket”.  It was chosen because one of the concepts for the production is the idea of a “circus in a box”.  I'd like to think is was also chosen because “kósa” is also the word used in Vedanta philosophy for the three sheaths or cases that envelop the souls, the first of pleasure, the second of intellect or will and the third of basic nourishment.  I mention this because Shiner's inventive scenario appeals to all three come in its merging of acrobatics, storytelling and clowning.

The show begins with an entertaining as soon as you enter the iconic blue-and-yellow Grand Chapiteau at its new location in Toronto's Port Lands where Cherry Street meets Commissioners Street.  The very funny loose-limbed Canadian clown Gordon White acts as House Manager trying in vain to maintain order during the antics of two other clowns while an interloping clown keeps trespassing on the stage only to be chased off by what seem to be two New York policemen.  We may think this is merely the audience warm-up, but soon enough we realize that these characters are integral to the show, the first in a series of re-evaluations that make “Kooza” not merely enormously entertaining but also intellectually interesting.

Once the House Manager succeeds in dimming the lights with his powerful remote control, the show proper begins when we meet a childlike character called the Innocent in a wonderfully wistful performance by Stéphane Landry.  His unsuccessful attempts to fly a kite are interrupted by the arrival of a deliveryman with a large parcel that turns out to be the magic box of the title.  The Innocent of course pries open the lid and suddenly out like a life-sized jack-in-the-box clad in a swirl of colours pops the Trickster (the feline acrobat Jason Berrent) ready to initiate the Innocent into a fantastic new world.  One “coup de théâtre” follows the next as the Trickster wielding his magic wand causes a three-storey pavilion, both beautiful and whimsical at once, gradually to appear and glide onto the stage.  This pavilion clearly represents the kingdom of the theatre or of the circus.  Its first storey has an old-fashioned proscenium stage, the second contains the live band and singers and in the third we find the former House Manager now crowned as King with the two principal clowns of the warm-up (Christian Fitzharris and Joshua Ryan Zehner) as his lackeys.  We're now in a world that doesn't follow the normal order of things.  The King, like a M. Hulot with too much power, controls this world with a oversized remote control (harking back to the House Manager's) with a bewildering array of functions and a combination light sabre and cattle prod that paralyzes anyone who contradicts him or, sometimes, himself.  Paralleling the Trickster's wand and the King's remote, Shiner neatly makes the clown sequences a comically chaotic echo of the acrobatic wonders on display.

And these are wonders.  Each act gives a fillip to a familiar circus act to make is special.  Instead of a single contortionist, there are three (Julie Bergez, Natasha Patterson, Dasha Sovik) for whom touching the back of the head with the bum is the easiest thing imaginable.  That certain “ick” factor associated with contortion is offset by the real beauty of the living sculptures they create.  Unicycle sales will certainly go up after audiences see Russian Yury Shavro, who is so at home on his vehicle he can also lift and manoeuvre acrobat Diana Aleshchenko while peddling away.  The first act closes with not just one tightrope but two, one above the other, and with a fantastic team from Spain clad as sultans whose act builds from tightrope dancing to a stunningly impressive finale. 

Act 2 begins in a way that is totally unexpected though related to the King's mishaps in the clown scenes.  The Innocent finally wrests control of the magic wand from the Trickster, but, as with the Sorcerer's Apprentice, does he know how to use it?  What he conjures up is not the colourful kingdom we first met but its dark opposite, a kind of macabre Las Vegas floorshow of the dead wittily choreographed by Clarence Ford, with skeleton showgirls dancing for the pleasure of Death himself, clad in what seems a cloak of living rats.  This sequence is so startling you have to remind yourself that you are watch live theatre, not cinematic CGI.

As if Act 1 didn't already have enough oomph, Act 2 is calculated to blow your mind.  First up is the incredible Wheel of Death, well named since the bizarre apparatus does not allow the two Columbian artists (Jimmy Ibarra Zapata and Carlos Enrique Marin Loaiza) to use safety harnesses.  Never has Cirque du Soleil presented an act like this before.  The 1600-pound “Wheel” looks like a gigantic pair of opera glasses without the lenses.  Part of the fun of this apparatus is that even when you first see it you can't figure out how the two artists will use it.  Then, even when the artists set it in motion, you can't imagine what amazing things Ibarra Zapata and Marin Loaiza will do with it.  When you find out the wonder grows and grows.  It's simply breath-taking.  I was pressed right back in my seat from the thrill of it.

After a clown interlude featuring the light-fingered interloper clown (Michael Halvarson) to help our heartbeats return to normal, comes another fantastic act.  American juggler Anthony Gatto, clad like a human disco ball, has won eleven juggling competitions and has earned the title the “greatest juggler in the world”.  Balls, Indian clubs, rings are the familiar items he uses, but you have never seen anyone juggle them with such incredible speed or in such amazing quantities or combinations.  Not only that, but the aerial patterns he creates are so beautiful you can easily forget the immense human effort and precision that has produced them.  After such kineticism the intense concentration and strength of Zhang Gongli, who does one-handed handstands on 23-foot tower of chairs, comes as a welcome change before the riotous teeterboard finale.

As director, Shiner has unerringly paced the show by balancing movement with concentration, thrills with comedy, all the while using the acrobatics and clowning to move the surrounding story of the Innocent and Trickster forward.  I have two quibbles.  I would like to have seen more clearly both how the nightmare world the Innocent conjures up in Act 2 comes to be replaced by the previous circus world and what precisely the Innocent does to deserve his reward at the close.  The ending would work better for me if the nightmare scene were a kind of trial that the Innocent has to overcome in order to learn more about himself and the world. 

As one might expect from Cirque du Soleil, the production values are absolutely top-of-the-line.  The Sanskrit-derived title allows the creative team to give a Bollywood flavour to the show from Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt's exquisitely fanciful costumes to Jean-François Côté's rhythmically exciting music so seductively sung by lead vocalist Tara Baswsani to Martin Lebrecque's fabulous lighting that often encompasses the whole interior of the tent.

In short, David Shiner's attempt to bring Cirque du Soleil back to its origins is an enormous success, for using the circus to tell a story is what the Cirque is all about.  For more information visit the Cirque website at www.cirquedusoleil.com and choose “Kooza”.  Don't miss it.     

©Christopher Hoile  / Photos ©Olivier Samson Arcand

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Odyssey

by Derek Walcott, directed by Peter Hinton
Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford
August 8-September 28, 2005
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

“Journey to Nowhere”

People who think they might like to Stratford’s current production of “The Odyssey” should make sure to read Homer’s epic and perhaps a handbook of Greek mythology before attending the show. Playwright Derek Walcott assumes the audience is so intimately familiar with
Homer’s work that they will be able to appreciate his changes to it.
That’s fine but director Peter Hinton ensures that the story is so confusingly presented that even those who know the story will have trouble figuring out what’s going on.

In 1992, the same year in which Trinidadian poet Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Royal Shakespeare Company presented Walcott’s stage adaptation of “The Odyssey” in Stratford- upon-Avon. Walcott is best known for numerous books of poetry and his great epic poem “Omeros” (1990) not for his few plays. The reason for this is quite evident in “The Odyssey”. It overflows with characters speaking verse to each other but is not actually dramatic. Homer’s “Odyssey” is both narrative and episodic. Simply staging a series of episodes from the poem does not create dramatic tension. In fact, though people tend to think of “The Odyssey” as an
adventure story, the poem is just as much about delay and waiting.
Odysseus has already been away from his home in Ithaca for ten years while fighting in the Trojan War. After leaving Troy, Odysseus and his men are blown off course by storms. They receive a gift from the wind-god Aeolus, but Odysseus’ men, thinking it is treasure, open it and they are swept away even further away from home. It takes Odysseus ten more years to return. Meanwhile, his wife Penelope is besieged by one hundred suitors who try to convince her that Odysseus is dead and that she should remarry. When they threaten to kill her son Telemachus he flees to safety. Penelope says she will remarry only when she is finished weaving a shroud but every night she unravels what she weaves to buy time as she waits for her husband’s return.

Walcott’s adaptation is highly literary. Characters usually appear
without introduction so that we often have to guess who they are.
Unless you know your mythology you will not know that the old man in drag in the Underworld speaking to Odysseus is the prophet Tiresias because the name is never mentioned. Walcott also sometimes refers to characters by their epithets alone, so that you will have to know that the “grey-eyed goddess” is Athena because Walcott doesn’t tell you. You will also have to know that Hyperion and Apollo are the same god, not different ones. To add to the confusion the goddess Athena takes on three different guises, two of them male. The Homer- like narrator Blind Billy Blue stays in the same costume but is referred to by different names since he stands in for any singer in a land Odysseus visits. Besides this, all the actors except for Nigel Shawn Williams who plays Odysseus take on anywhere from two to four roles. In Hinton’s production it is not always clear when an actor
takes on a new role versus when a character takes on a new disguise.
It would help if costume designer Katherine Lubienski clearly distinguished the actors’ various roles but she does not. It helps that all of Penelope’s suitors wear tuxes, but as Odysseus’ crew they all have individualized costumes of historical periods ancient to modern so that when we meet these actors later in different costumes we don’t immediately know whether they are crew members or new characters.

Hinton’s unfocussed direction exacerbates the confusion. First of all, he doesn’t seem to have decided whether he is presenting the work in a universal or specific setting. It would make sense given Walcott’s background to set the play in the Caribbean. Under Hinton, sometimes it is, sometimes not. Some actors use Jamaican accents throughout (as if that were the only Caribbean accent), some like Odysseus do not and some switch back and forth with no clear reason why. The confusing costume design reinforces the impression of sloppy direction. The Phaeacians are clearly contemporary Caribbeans, but the islands of the Cyclops and of Circe are excursions into cheesy science fiction. The Underworld seems to have become the London Underground, while in Ithaca the women, except for Odysseus’s Jamaican nurse, wear classical Greek tunics and the men modern formalwear. “Why is Athena dressed as a Western cowboy when she is supposed to be a “shepherd”?” is only one of innumerable such questions that arise.

Hinton occasionally decides to “improve” Walcott’s text. In the original Walcott manages Odysseus’ slaying of the one hundred suitors with a stage direction. Not Hinton--he actually counts off and names all one hundred as each is slain while Odysseus, Telemachus and Eumaeus have to mime both shooting the deadly arrows and being struck down by them as suitors. It’s hard to imagine a more foolish or tedious addition to a play that is already three hours long.

Not only this, Carolyn M. Smith’s set is a disaster. Whether the play is set in the Greek islands or in the Caribbean, all the travel referred to is by boat. Why then does a burnt-out car occupy the stage throughout the show so that when Odysseus’ crew sail from one island to another they have to sit on top of the car and mime rowing? Only once when Telemachus needs a “chariot” is the car used as a car. Not only is it thoroughly inappropriate but it also severely limits the use of the stage space. It is equipped with a mast and but the “sail” on it is never unfurled during Odysseus’
travels. It is only unrolled when it represents Penelope’s shroud.
Why miss the opportunity to parallel the two? Then, at the very end, when you think the show’s imagery could be not more confounded, the shroud is revealed to be the Canadian flag! The show has the effect of taking a handful of contraindicated medicines in the hopes at least one will work.

Hinton’s direction consistently emphasizes the visual over the verbal, but Robert Thomson striking lighting and use of a wide range
of gobos is the only consistently successful visual element.
Otherwise, the design is incoherent the underrehearsed verbal side is not there for support. Walcott’s poetry is wonderfully rich and muscular, but very few of the actors are able to make it sound
natural much less beautiful or even to have it make sense.
Fortunately, Nigel Shawn Williams who plays Odysseus is one of those few. He revels in Walcott’s mouth-filling words and clearly depicts
Odysseus ageing and growth in insight through his long travails.
Jeremiah Sparks as Blind Billy Blue is also always easy to understand
although all his lines are sung and vowels lengthened with melismas.
Walter Borden as Eumaeus, a Philosopher and Tiresias also has a good handle on Walcott’s language. Among the women Barbara Barnes-Hopkins speaking a consistent Jamaican patois as Odysseus’ nurse Eurycleia is always a pleasure as is Joyce Campion as Odysseus’ British-accented mother Anticlea.

Allegra Fulton gives a moving performance as Penelope and is a satirically slinky Helen, but as Circe she unsuccessfully attempts a Jamaican accent that obscures all she says. In-Surp Choi delivers his lines as Telemachus with enthusiasm and vigour but not always with the clearest diction. This becomes worse when he, too, attempts a Jamaican accent as Odysseus crewmate Elpenor. Jennifer Morehouse has the important role as Odysseus’ divine protector Athena, but she doesn’t have sufficient vocal heft to make a convincing goddess. (It doesn’t help that her oversized helmet crest makes her look
ridiculous.) Sophia Walker is an enticing Nausicaa and a sullen Melantho. Steve Ross is the most consistently articulate of Odysseus crewmen.

It is praiseworthy for Stratford finally to delve into the world of Caribbean literature, but how much better it would be if “The Odyssey” had been staged by a creative team whose goal was to communicate the work as clearly and effectively as possible rather than becoming ensnared in a series self-satisfied quirks of design and direction. The production is so confused it seems determined to frustrate any enjoyment of Homer or Walcott.

©Christopher Hoile

 

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Kiltartan Comedies

by Lady Augusta Gregory, directed by Micheline Chevrier
Shaw Festival, Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
July 7-October 6, 2007
Review by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Two Miniature Masterpieces"

No one can study the history of modern Irish literature without encountering the name of Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932). She was a playwright, historian, folklorist, editor, translator and patron of the arts. She encouraged the Irish National Theatre movement that led to the founding of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. When it opened in 1904 one of her plays, “Spreading the News” was on its first playbill and she remained an artistic director of what became Ireland national theatre until her death.

We hear so much about her and her influence, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Shaw Festival to have given us a chance at last to see two of her most popular one-act plays--“The Rising of the Moon” (1907) and “Spreading the News” (1904). The Festival gives them the collective title “The Kiltartan Comedies” after the barony where Lady Gregory’s estate was situated. The two works are
miniature masterpieces of the genre presented as a lunchtime show.
Anyone interested in Irish literature, writing by women or simply a pleasant hour of entertainment should not miss them.

The first play is set by the quays in Galway where a nameless police sergeant and two policemen are looking for a dangerous Irish
Nationalist who they believe will try to escape by boat that night.
As the two policemen go off to paste up “Wanted” posters, the sergeant encounters a raggedy ballad-seller, who points out how the sergeant and the criminal, who have similar backgrounds, might easily have been in each other’s shoes if circumstances had been different.

The second play is set in the market square of the village of Cloon by the stand of the deaf apple-seller Mrs. Tarpey. It is basically as cleverly dramatization of the game of “Gossip”. Bartley Fallon, obsessed with his propensity for bad luck, accidentally knocks over his wife’s shopping basket causing an argument. Jack Smith comes by but rushes off to his field without taking his pitchfork. Mrs.
Fallon urges Bartley to go away and take Smith’s pitchfork up to him. Villagers seeing Bartley running after Jack with a pitchfork immediately assume the worst and report that he has committed murder. The case is soon brought before an English magistrate more familiar with life in the Andaman Islands than in Ireland.

The two plays make an excellent double-bill and director Micheline Chevrier has helped tie them together with the singing of Irish ballads. Though “Spreading the News” is the livelier work, “The Rising of the Moon”, which takes its title from an Irish ballad of rebellion, receives the best production. Both Douglas E. Hughes as the Sergeant and Patrick McManus as the Ragged Man give finely detailed, understated performances. It’s as much fun to watch how skillfully McManus’s character wins the Sergeant over to his point of view as it is to see how Hughes’s character struggle between is role of upholder of the law and his private sympathies. Harry Judge and Andrew Bunker do fine work in the smaller roles of the two policemen.

“Spreading the News” would benefit from the understated acting of “The Rising of the Moon” along with more precise direction. Douglas E. Hughes becomes more of a stereotype as the English magistrate, and so does Mary Haney as the ancient Mrs. Tarpey. Guy Bannerman, however, is very funny as Bartley Fallon, a man whose expectations that nothing will go right in his life become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brigitte Robinson is in fine form as the haughty Mrs.
Tully and Tara Rosling shows her flair for comedy as Mrs. Fallon, whom you think will be the most sensible person in the plaqy until events prove otherwise. Strangely, the cast’s Irish accents are not all up to speed with Jonathan Gould as James Ryan not fitting in at all.

Despite this, the play is still quite enjoyable and the two together
showcase the Irish ability to finding humour in morbid situations.
Deeter Schurig’s design is very simple with a large circular opening at the back suggesting a full moon in the first play and, covered with a curtain, representing a pastoral landscape. Julia Vandergraaf’s lighting is especially effective in the first play in suggesting a potentially danger-filled night. Lady Gregory wrote nineteen original plays and this tasty sampler whets one’s appetite for more.

©Christopher Hoile

Your comments and reviews are always welcome

The Ideal Husband

by Oscar Wilde, directed by Richard Monette
Stratford Festival, Festival Theatre, Stratford
August 11-October 27, 2007
by Christopher Hoile, Principal Reviewer for Stage Door

"Not So Wilde"

Oscar Wilde’s comedy “An Ideal Husband” is the last play directed by Richard Monette during his tenure as Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival. Many will heave a sigh of relief--not because the show is good (it isn’t) but it is the last. It serves as depressing testimony to Monette’s inadequacies as a director that have marred virtually every show he has helmed over the past fourteen years.

His production of “The Taming of the Shrew” back in 1988 was brilliant and made his name as a director. His “As You Like It” from 1990 set in Quebec was undervalued at the time but caught the melancholy air of that work beautifully. Who knew that he had only two good productions in him? From then on, serious plays he directed became tired and wan and comedies became increasingly jigged out in variations of the gimmicks first used in “Shrew”. The climax of the latter is his “Comedy of Errors” now playing at the Avon Theatre where Shakespeare’s play can barely be seen for the forest of shtick. “The Ideal Husband”, strangely enough, suffers from the listlessness he usually brings to serious plays.

“The Ideal Husband” is the first time that the Stratford Festival has
staged any Wilde other than “The Importance of Being Earnest”.
Though both plays appeared in 1895, “Husband” still retains certain trappings of melodrama from Wilde’s earlier plays that he did not totally expunge until “Earnest”. Unlike “Earnest”, “Husband”
presents a serious story set in the trivial but deadly world of epigram-spouting wits.

At the centre is Sir Robert Chiltern, an immensely wealthy, happily married Member of the House of Commons and Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Into his life steps the unscrupulous Mrs. Cheveley, who has returned to England after the death of her lover Baron
Arnheim. Mrs. Cheveley knows the dirty secret of Chiltern’s wealth.
Arnheim had persuaded Chiltern to sell a Cabinet secret and they made a financial killing in acting on this classified information. Mrs.
Cheveley plans to expose Sir Robert’s past if he does not drum up government support for a fraudulent construction scheme in which she has heavily invested. Since Lady Chiltern believes Sir Robert to be “the ideal husband”, a model of virtue in both public and private life, Mrs. Cheveley could destroy not only Sir Robert’s career but also his marriage.

Balancing Sir Robert’s moral dilemma is the ebullient amoralism of his friend Lord Arthur Goring, who may as well be an earlier avatar Algernon Moncrieff from “Earnest”. He is the prime dispenser of epigrams in the play including such gems as “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance”. The main question in this sibplot is whether Sir Robert’s sister Mabel can woo Lord Goring away from his life of irresponsible bachelorhood.

The task of a director is to make the two very different tones of the piece work together. Anyone who saw Duncan McIntosh’s production at the Shaw Festival in 1995 will know this can be done. The two wittiest characters are Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheveley, with the difference that Lord Goring’s amorality is only a pose whereas Mrs.
Cheveley’s is not. A good director could make much the Wildean theme of wit as a kind of mask. Richard Monette, however, does nothing at all to relate the two aspects of the play or even to encourage a uniform playing style from the cast. In fact, it seems that the actors have been free to choose whatever style they wish. This is a mistake in any play but in a play so concern with style as Wilde’s it is disastrous. After all, Wilde once said that in all important and unimportant matters, “style, not sincerity is the essential”. Here, we get neither.

Only a few actors--Sara Topham as Mabel Chiltern, Chick Reid as Lady Bracknell’like Lady Markby, Severn Thompson as the Countess of Basildon, Bruce Dow as Gorling’s butler Phipps and especially Brian Tree as Lord Goring’s father the Earl of Caverson--have any sense of the refined artificiality required in a Wildean comedy. Otherwise, Tom McCamus’s dour naturalistic style as Sir Robert clashes with it completely. Dixie Seatle makes Mrs. Cheveley about one hundred years too modern but she is the only actor who gives her character any life. As Lady Chiltern, Brigit Wilson is perfectly dreadful, without a clue how to make this idealist believable and given to the kind of wailing one might expect of a Sicilian peasant, not an English aristocrat. Monette directs David Snelgrove as Lord Gorling to deliver each of his witticisms directly to the audience from the
centre of Festival stage as if they nothing to do with the play.
Snelgrove makes Gorling so pleased with himself and so empty-headed he is hardly the powerful match for Mrs. Cheveley he has to be to make the play work. Such disparities of acting styles suggests no clear directorial point of view and the play, which ought to be fascinating, comes off as a tedious jumble of disconnected scenes.

The lack of a unified style is present in the unattractive costume designs of François St-Aubin. St-Aubin makes one of the more bizarre remarks ever to appear in Stratford programme notes. He claims that he did not design period costumes because “I have no choice: I live in 2007. We can’t make an actress of today look like 1890. She spends all day in flip-flops--and then has to play a countess. She will not walk in that type of corset .... We will have to create the costume so she can wear it.” Not only does St-Aubin confess to a fairly major deficiency in his abilities as a designer (others do manage to design period costumes, after all), but he also shows little knowledge of acting. The result is costumes in a mishmash of styles with some truly awful colour combinations for the women’s gowns. Add in the indifferent sets of Michael Gianfrancesco and the indifferent lighting of Kevin Fraser, and there is little on stage to intrigue the eye or ear.

With the cast thus left to its own devices by the director and designers, it’s no surprise that an air of pointlessness creeps into the production. No one seems to know why they are there or how their parts relate to each other. At least Monette’s gimmicky “Comedy of Errors” aimed to be fun. Here, Monette seems basically to have given up on the play. Obviously, if he has ceased to care about the work, something the performances and design certainly reflect, then why should we?

©Christopher Hoile

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