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Monday, 5 September 2016

Moving, but not heart-breaking: The Aeneid at the Stratford Festival

Saamer Usmani as Achates, Bahereh Yaraghi as Pyrgo, Gareth Potter as Aeneas
and Michael Spencer-Davis as Anchises. Photo by David Hou.
The Aeneid, by Oliver Kermeid; translated by Maureen Labonte
Directed by Keira Loghran
Designer Joanna Yu (set, costumes), Itai Erdal (lighting), Debashis Sinha (sound)
Featuring Gareth Potter, Karin Robinson, Saamer Usmani, Lanise Antoine Shelley, Rodrigo Beilfuss

Virgil’s Aeneid is about a man’s flight from war-torn ancient Troy and his founding of Rome. Oliver Kermeid’s adaptation is related to these events, but only tangentially, and unfortunately, this journey of a thousand miles begins with a few missteps.

It starts strongly – a packed nightclub of revellers dancing to an uplifting beat, unaware – despite the desperate warnings of a street prophet – that doom is imminent. Given recent events in Paris and Orlando an attack in a public place is a very good place to start, although in Kermeid’s play the motivations of the attackers are unknown. It’s when the action goes to slow-motion that one gets the sense that the production will not be as hard-hitting as perhaps it should.

There is poetry in the choreographed movement – refugees mimicking waves upon a shore, swirling robes to imitate a storm at sea – but it overshadows the poetry and strength of the text most of the time, which is a shame, considering the central plot is a shade of its former self in Virgil’s epic.

Karen Robinson as the Immigration Officer. Photo by David Hou.
This plot, in which Aeneas is forced to flee his home, loses a wife, his father, his friends and almost himself before regaining purpose, determination and finally a new home, is scattered among other tableaux of what it means to be a refugee. In most cases, these tableaux are more powerful than Aeneas’ story: a young woman facing maddeningly inscrutable red-tape of an immigration office, only to be threatened with sexual violence when she manages to free herself from it. A man who begs Aeneas to let his delusional, frantic wife keep his baby for the night, just so she can pretend for a time that it is her own lost child. A matriarchal woman who incites her own small community of refugees to fight a group of camp newcomers, afraid they’ll compete for scarce resources – only to lose her beloved son in the skirmish.

These all provide an insiders look at the trials refugees must bear – whether they be from internal struggles and conflicts within refugee communities themselves or from external sources like insensitive government officials, or the “rather not see you” attitudes of the privileged.

Unfortunately, the elements of Aeneas’ own journey seem forced by comparison. Even the haunting scene in the underworld in which Aeneas is reunited briefly with his dead father, is given over to a recitation of the countries from whom refugees have fled. It is a sadly long list, but ultimately not about Aeneas at all.

Perhaps in the biggest misstep of all, in the end Aeneid’s promised land looks very Canadian (polar fleece and a description of wheat fields) which is a little rose-coloured, given Canada’s history with refugees pre-World War II. Cynically, one wonders if Aeneas would have been so welcome if he had been any other colour than white.

Members of the company in The Aeneid. Photo by David Hou.
In short, the problem seems to be two-fold: in the text – it just does not have a whole lot to do with Aeneas, despite Gareth Potter’s intrinsically dignified performance; and in the direction. Instead of stylish choreography one feels that the director should have taken aim at people like me: privileged white and as unethnic as you can possibly get, and not just held a mirror up to us, but shoved it in our faces or smacked us upside the head with it. Veiling these people in symbolism makes them easier to ignore, or easier to pretend you don’t understand.

The Aeneid continues in repertory until Oct. 4 at the Studio Theatre.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Hypochondriac: proving laughter is the best medicine

Stephen Ouimette as Argan and Ben Carlson as Beralde.
Photo by David Hou.
The Hypochondriacby Molière
Adapted by Richard Bean from the literal translation by Chris Campbell
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Teresa Przybylski (set, costumes), Michael Walton (lighting), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound)
Composed by Berthold Carriere
Featuring Stephen Ouimette, Brigit Wilson, Ben Carlson, Trish Lindstrom

Shakespeare was not one to shy away from a good bawdy joke, but even he might be shocked at the rather baser toilet humour at play in this version of Molière's The Hypochondriac, on stage now at the Festival Theatre.

The play opens with Argan (the hypochondriac of the title) obsessing over his laxative bills even as he sits on a throne, attempting to have a b.m., which he then insists on examining (with a certain amount of fascination). It only goes downhill from there, with all manner of bathroom jokes – textual and physical – which may make balcony audiences glad they are not any closer to the stage. Let’s just say that the props department were at their realistic best for this one.

Stephen Ouimette as Argan and Brigit Wilson as Toinette.
Photo by David Hou.
Our hypochondriac is so obsessed with his bowels that he wants his daughter, the lovely Angelique, to marry a doctor, the unfortunately named Diafoirerhoea, just to have free medical care at his disposal. He is blind to the fact she loves Cleante, an apprentice in one of his shops. His obsession also blinds him to the fact that his doctors are all quacks and that his wife Beline would prefer him dead (with Angelique out of the way in a nunnery) so she can inherit all his wealth. It is up to the cheeky maid Toinette and Argan’s practical brother Beralde to get Argan to see the truth of these matters, which they do through a series of stratagems.

It was Molière's modus operandi to take the piss out of lawyers, aristocrats and in particular, doctors. In a bow to Molière's own life, director Antoni Cimolino has set his production within a frame of a play being performed for Louis the XIV, who himself sits front row centre and more than once appears flattered by the proceedings. The frame begins with players warming up before le Roi’s arrival, and ends with the onstage death of Molière himself – mirroring the playwright’s own death soon after the fourth performance of the play on which The Hypochondriac is based.

Shannon Taylor as Angelique. Photo by David Hou.
This framing device then, provides a sober ending to what up until then was a play mostly about poop and the idiocy of 17th century doctors of the academy. It might be the only misstep in a hilarious and biting satire – after guffawing for two hours at rectum jokes and at those who blindly follow celebrity health fads rather than sound science, is it any wonder that the character who asks “Is there a doctor in the house?” gets a huge laugh, rather than the stunned silence such a death warrants?

Mr. Cimolino once again assembled the best cast for himself (it’s nice to be king – or at least artistic director – sometimes). Stephen Ouimette is the hypochondriac with the hang-dog face, acerbic wit and dead-bed-pan delivery. He plays Argan as a man both shrewd and gullible – which can’t be easy – and as a man who delights in having enemas from machines that appear to be more suitable for checking King Kong’s prostate. That he does so without corpsing must be less easy still, and that goes double and triple for his foils Brigitte Wilson (Toinette) and Ben Carlson (Beralde). Ms. Wilson plays her pert part to perfection while Mr. Carlson calmly completes the crackerjack cadre.
Trish Lindstrom as Beline. Photo by David Hou.
The rest of the ensemble are equally delightful as they go slightly over the top to flesh out their more two-dimensional characters. Trish Lindstrom introduces us to her character Beline with a hissed and gleeful “Yes!” at the news her husband is having heart palpitations – it’s everything we need to know about her and we can happily look forward to her downfall. Shannon Taylor and Luke Humphrey are lovers again as Angelique and Cleante - they lead Shakespeare in Love over at the Avon Theatre too – and here they get to show off their talents a tad more.

The Hypochondriac, with all its mixed metaphors, bawdy and bathroom jokes and anal probing really is an excellent piece of theatre, if one remembers to listen and watch for the satire underneath the commode. It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 14th.

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