It should have kept me laughing and watching to see who was coming on stage next. Instead I found myself questioning costume choices, and checking the Indiglo. I refer to Stratford's production of The Alchemist which opened Wednesday at the Festival Theatre.
The play, written in 1610 by Shakespeare's contemporary, Ben Johnson, is a classic farce treating greed and gullibility with a wonderful sense of irreverence.
Johnson opens with a prologue which sets the scene. The master of the house has gone to the country to escape the plague, and his servant, Face, is in charge. Face, a con artist, has brought in pals Subtle and Dol Common to help him dupe a variety of the populace.
A client needs some profitable advice for his new shop, another wants the Philosopher's Stone so he can turn metal into gold. Another wants to be able to fall in love, and another, the gift of reason. To achieve these ends Subtle (Keith Dinicol) and Face (Benedict Campbell) work as a master servant team in which Face takes the money and Subtle performs the miracles, sometimes with the help of Dol (Diane D'Aquila).
This prologue is muddied by a well choreographed chorus which has the unfortunate effect of distracting the audience from the story teller. The audience had their collective heads together, wondering what had just been said. For some, the confusion lasted until the intermission. What's going on? Where are we? Who's so-and-so? And so on, and so on, and so on.
The plot isn't difficult to follow but it does take a little concentration to get past the opening. That's why Johnson put in such a nice feisty fight scene right after the prologue. The audience has a chance to get used to the language, the characters and the plot. But the confusion that arose early in this production was further exacerbated by the fact that the costumes were chosen for the need of the character rather than for the need of the play.
Subtle's cape of green has a mystifying and defensive quality, Face has a few costumes. He's an army captain and a wretched furnace worker. The two characters share a similar time frame. But Dapper (Damien Atkins) wears a suit and tails, Mammon (James Blendick) wears a luxurious fur coat and Dol wears strawberry wigs, feather robes and silky teddies. Kestril arrives in colourful Scottish tartans. All that's missing is the oatmeal.
In such a production it is not very productive to criticize the costume or the set. The director/designer have what they want and that's all there is to it. Either you like it or you don't. It is important that you understand the reasoning for it though.
haracter-directed costuming (I'll give it a name I've just made up) helps clarify, even exemplify character. Dapper, for example in his neat coat and tails, represents what many would claim to be the most elegant of ages. The same may be said for Mammon and his elegant fur coat, or even for Kestril, described in Johnson's cast of characters as 'the angry boy'. The effect it has on the audience is not so immediate. They see seventeen different time frames and they don't necessarily know how to compute the confusion.
Well in that case you have to follow the plot or enjoy some
of the character work. Aside from the principals watch for Michael
Therriault's 'Chaplin-esque' Drugger and James Blendick's 'Big
The Alchemist runs to October 30, 1999 . . . For Art's Sake.
If Dracula were playing on Broadway this year I think there'd be a few awards given out. The Gothic favourite opened at Stratford Wednesday night and it was the first version of the story I've seen that has made any artistic sense. And it was certainly the best.
Richard Ouzounian wrote the book and lyrics and Marek Norman
wrote the music. Its an adaptation that University of Waterloo
English prof, Eric McCormack, says would likely please Bram Stoker
the most. Stoker wrote the original version a hundred years ago,
and though he tried to adapt the story for the stage, he was never
happy with the results. Principally because he wanted Sir Henry
Irving to play the role and he never did. Sir Henry who? He should
have seen Juan Chioran.
Chioran succeeds masterfully. He commands a total and completely unapologetic arrogance. He replaces pretend. He is Dracula.
Chioran toys with the range of his own voice. You can hear him enjoying its capabilities. It is rich, it is fearless, it is seductive, it dares to sound Transylvanian.
Chioran looks Transylvanian. Designers Douglas Paraschuk and Alix Dolgoy dress the fiend in traditional tall black coats, red waistcoats and virgin white shirts. His hair has the prerequisite widow's peak, his eyes shine red. Chioran is everything you'd expect of Dracula and through it all he rises above parody. And then he sings.
If Ouzounian's lyrics tell the tale, than Norman's music gives it powerful character. It reaches from the dungeon to the battlements, treading on every stair between. It even calls for falsetto and Chioran delivers. Audience applause for his first number, ADreams of Darkness@ almost stopped the show.
It followed that of Roger Honeywell (playing Jonathan Harker)
whose commanding AJourney to the Castle@ was already fresh in
their minds. Honeywell's lower range sometimes dropped out of
audibility but there's too little of it to count.
And speaking of count, I suppose some of you will want to know a bit about the story.
It is a tale of the 'undead' Count Dracula and of his habit of seducing lovely young women, biting them in the neck, drinking their blood and keeping them for his undead bride. He's been doing this for the last five hundred years and can only be stopped by a stake being driven through his heart.
Can you imagine anyone creating believability with a scenario like that? This cast does.
Designer Paraschuk sets the main action of the tale between the glossy black marble walls of the castle of Dracula. The walls close to form a dungeon, they slide aside to let in a bed, they open to an invasive set of stairs. By simply walking up them and turning around, the actors create a catacomb. The dungeon of Dracula's prisoner Renfield (Benedict Campbell) is aflame with laser light. They befit the song Campbell sings about the spider and the fly, a song which would suit the music hall of Stoker's time.
If there is a fly in the Dracula web it might be that the songs
Ouzounian gives the women to sing (June Crowley as Mina and Amy
Walsh as Lucy) seem not to soar as grandly as the songs he gives
the men to sing. Shawn Wright, as Jack Seward, and Michael Fletcher
as Van Helsing, complete the contingent of male voices.
Ouzounian directs his own show, Norman acts as his own musical director, and Kevin Fraser lights it with colour and vivid imagination.
The standing ovation was the very least expression of gratitude
the audience could offer this brilliantly entertaining show.
Now let's see if it gets to Broadway. Then let's see some awards.
Your comments are always welcome! Here's what one of YOU had to say...
"Barring the scenic
splendor supporting the production, Dracula, by Richard Ouzounian
and Marek Norman, offers little for the audience at the Stratford
Avon Theatre. From the opening scene to the final curtain, Norman
bears forth a consistantly unremarkable, undistinguishable collection
of tunes which
"The noticable influence from grandiose musicals such as the Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables is wasted in the consistantly dark music accompanied by dark lighting which hides much of the scenery and lack of action. Norman's lack of variety in music is matched only by the utter non-existance of staged movement by the cast. Admittedly the Avon Theatre offers small room for expressive direction, but as each of the two characters verbally challenges and duels with the other, a la Javert and Valjean, without so much as looking toward his opponent or stepping from the two-foot circumference of his spotlight, what could be a tension-filled episode quickly lulls the audience back into the stupor achieved by a lengthy first act.
"The talented cast is utterly wasted in this musical
which needs to be reworked and rethought. More serious readings
and re-examinations of this piece are demanded before any more
discussions of Broadway and especially
"Awards? For what? Making the most of a dismal situation?
I can't imagine how anyone convinced this cast that this was
a good project for any of them. The music was barely passable,
with a couple of notable exceptions; "Journey to the Castle"
was okay, most of Dracula's solo stuff
Even setting aside the boring sets, the projections on the cyc, and the insipid lyrics, it is depressing to listen to a quartet sung in unison. There's no harmony in this score, even when the melodies (and the singers) cry out for it. Counterpoint pops up once in a while (although not as often as its poorer cousin, call-and-echo), but songs like "I Will Shelter You," with four fine young singers belting the same notes in parallel octaves, are a waste of the audience's time and the cast's considerable talent. Only Juan Chioran as Dracula and Amy Walsh as Lucy Westenra have anything interesting to sing, and not much of it. In short, it needs work. ---email@example.com
The trouble with Shakespeare's canon is that it is limited. Well, obviously. But what that means to the fine folks at the Stratford Festival is that every few years they come back around to something they've done, usually well, pretty recently. The challenge, then, is to come up with something different and interesting, that will get people in the theatre who can still remember intricate details of the play last time it was put up. Sometimes it works -- 1996's As You Like It was every bit as charming, though not quite as grand, as 1990's -- and other times -- 1998's Julius Caesar and 1997's Romeo and Juliet spring to mind -- it doesn't.
The current production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, running at the Festival Theatre until November 5, is quite good, even stacked up against the delightful 1993 production with Lucy Peacock and the much-missed Colm Feore as Titania and Oberon. This year's treatment relies heavily on slapstick, but oddly, the four young lovers (Melinda Deines as Hermia, Michelle Giroux as Helena, Graham Abbey as Lysander and Martin Albert as Demetrius) are merely adequate; they ham it up obligingly as set-up players, then give way to the real comedians: the mechanicals.
Nick Bottom is often thought of as one of two main roles in this play -- Puck is the other, and Jordan Pettle does a fine job -- and with Brian Bedford playing the part, one supposes there's no more question about it. Adding a Liverpool accent to his usual repertoire of head-cocks and takes to the audience, he brings half a focus to all the mechanicals' scenes; the finishing work is done by a very capable Steven Sutcliffe as Peter Quince. Probably mimicking every nervous director he's ever had, Sutcliffe gets more laughs than Bedford, and deserves every one of them.
Rounding out the cast is Seana McKenna as a great Titania; Juan Chioran as Oberon, warbling a little for some reason but otherwise good; Jonathan Goad as an arrogant young Theseus; Diane D'Aquila (taking a break from carrying the show) as Hippolyta; and some fairies, bouncing around the place and looking spritely. All in all, it's a solid effort; there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple of hours.