Thursday, 21 August 2014

Crazy Percussion

I was "Bidin' My Time" until seeing Antony and Cleopatra tomorrow night, and came across this video posted by the Stratford Festival sometime last month. It's a behind-the-scene glimpse of life in the orchestra loft, and it's "Crazy" percussionist. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Flirty Fun: The Beaux' Strategem

The Beaux' Strategem
by George Farquhar
Director: Antoni Cimolino
Designers: Patrick Clark (set / costumes), Robert Thomson (lighting), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound)
Cast: The Beaux' Strategem. Photo: Michael Cooper

We may have to excuse playwright George Farquhar for never editing his last play so that the long and tedious first half would match the quick playfulness of the second - the man died a mere two months after it was first staged. He himself apologized for an faults the audience may detect in the script, as he wrote it in sickness, literally on his death-bed.

As is the case, then, with Christina the Girl King, in this production of The Beaux' Strategem we have a cast and director that out-performs the material.

As befitting a restoration comedy, the set and costumes are quite beautiful; but this being a late restoration comedy, some care is taken with not being too beautiful.  It is set in the country, after all, where the higher-born are beginning to mix with the middle and lower classes - so instead of an out and out farce, the plot has a bit more meat on its bones. That it also has some holes may therefore - almost - be forgiven.

It stands thus - two formerly wealthy young men, going by the names of Archer and Aimwell, have come into the country in order to seduce women out of their fortunes. However, each has their affections snagged, one by the lovely Dorinda, and the other twice - once by the innkeeper's daughter Cherry, and once more by the unhappily married Mrs. Sullen. There are more strategems going on than the Beaux' can handle - after all the seductions, the robberies, the injuries and the cures, Aimwell and Dorinda will marry, the Squire and Mrs. Sullen are vaguely but happily divorced, Cherry has conveniently disappeared, and Archer is free to have his merry way with Mrs. Sullen. Or vice versa.

Evan Buliung as Count Bellair.
Photo: Michael Cooper
Colm Feore as Archer.
Photo: Michael Cooper

Trust me on this, be patient with the first half because the second is tremendously rewarding. 

Not only do Colm Feore and Mike Shara have a natural "buddy-movie" vibe going, complete with Mr. Feore's quick-as-lightening dialogue and Mr. Shara's physical comedy, there are a thousand memorable moments delivered by nearly everyone else - Bethany Jilliard and Sara Farb break out of their sweet-as-pie molds with a bit of sass from Ms. Jilliard and brass from Ms. Farb, and Gordon S. Miller makes Scrub the-Sunday-butler a meatier part that the author intended (as he always manages to do, whatever role he plays).  
Gordon S. Miller as Scrub, with Colm
Feore as Archer. Photo: Michael Cooper

Lucy Peacock as Mrs. Sullen.
Photo: Michael Cooper

The true scalywags of the plot  - Boniface the innkeeper, Gibbet the highwayman and Foigard the French-Irish-German priest - are brought to hilarious life by Robert King, Victor Ertmanis and Michael-Spencer Davis, and Evan Buliung's foppish Count Bellair has the audience - and even an opening night cast-mate - in stitches. 

As for Lucy Peacock, playing Mrs. Sullen, she appears to be having a whopping good time, as does Martha Henry, playing Lady Bountiful. And why wouldn't she? In what other part would a septuagenarian bring down the house while wielding a broad sword? Or a cucumber? (I told you to trust me.)
Mike Shara as Aimwell and Bethany Jilliard as Dorinda.
Photo: Michael Cooper.
Or rather, trust the director, Antoni Cimolino, whose firm hand is on the rudder of this production. He knows the material, he knows how to use the thrust stage, he trusts his actors, and it is obvious that they trust him. 

The Beaux' Strategem continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 11.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Review: Christina, the Girl King

Jenny Young as Christina; John Kirkpatrick as Descartes.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Christina, The Girl King
by Michel Marc Bouchard, Translated by Linda Gaboriau
Director: Vanessa Porteous
Designers: Michael Gianfrancesco (set, costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Alexander MacSween (composer and sound)
Featuring: Jenny Young, Graham Abbey, Claire Lautier, John Kirkpatrick, Rylan Wilke

For a biographical account of Christina of Sweden's life, read Christina, Queen of Sweden, by Veronica Buckley. For a story that uses Christina as a fulcrum for political, anthropological and philosophical discussion, see the production of Christina, the Girl King on stage now at the Stratford Festival. One does not necessarily follow the other.

This is hardly new, of course - the Bard himself played somewhat loose with facts when he nosed a better story, and Bouchard has done the same. What is more problematic is the very modern, very liberal filter which has been placed on a 17th century context. The resulting play has elements of international, gender and family politics, plus an ongoing debate between religious philosophies. So while Bouchard has crafted a highly engaging play, the story itself lacks focus and the audience is left feeling rather ambivalent towards the play's title character. 

This is not the fault of the director and her cast, who appear to have the focus the story itself lacks.  Ms. Porteous' debut is solid - she and her designers use the small thrust stage of the Studio well, making it appear more epic than it really is.

Jenny Young, starring as Christina, has both the frenetic energy and vulnerability of a young girl in emotional turmoil, and the outward haughtiness of an ambitious queen. The commanding presence felt when Ms. Young takes the stage would hold even footing with her more experienced colleagues Ms. McKenna or Ms. Peacock, should we ever be lucky enough to see such casting.

The entire cast is quite good, in fact. Rylan Wilke and John Kirkpatrick are memorable as Karl Gustav and Descartes, respectively; Mr. Wilke takes a rather affable sad-sack Karl and morphs him into a compassionate man with royal presence, and Mr. Kirkpatrick presents a philosopher with fire in his eye and caution in his words.
Claire Lautier as Countess Ebba Sparre; Jenny Young as Christina.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Claire Lautier, who plays the object of Christina's affections as Countess Ebba Sparre, does so with great sensitivity - and an edge of disquiet that gives a great deal of weight to Sparre's ultimate disavowal of her feelings for the queen. Oppositely, Graham Abbey gives a truly hilarious turn as the narcissistic Count Johan, but gives the audience an even greater gift in a single speech meant to be a litany for the successful rule by a political leader. To hear Johan tell it, not much has changed in 400 years.

The cast member who ultimately chewed up the scenery, however, is Patricia Collins as Christina's mother, Maria Eleanora. The original ice-queen, and paired with an eerie-looking albino (Elliott Loran), her performance as the anti-mother would leave Joan Crawford whimpering in a corner.

So while the cast is great and the direction clear and consistent, at play's end the audience may be left with more questions than resolutions, and this is the play's problem.  Neither a comic nor a tragic figure, Christina spends the rest of her days in self-imposed exile.  Monarchs who abdicate their thrones are not regarded as historical heroes. If that was Bouchard's intent, he needed to choose a different aspect or period of Christina's character on which to focus - that, or play with the facts just a little bit more. 

Christina, The Girl King continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 21.

Jenny Young as Christina.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: Peter Sellar's Chamber Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play
by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Peter Sellars
Featuring Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom and Mike Nadajewski

From left to right: Sarah Afful, Mike Nadajewski, Trish Lindstrom
and Dion Johnstone. Photo by Michael Cooper
Reviewers whose homes are blogs of their own design and making were not granted media tickets for the opening of Peter Seller's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, so I am under no obligation to review it, even after snaffling a freebie ticket on for a performance this past weekend.

And yet...

Something compels a response. Not because the Chamber Dream was so profoundly moving that it shakes one to the core, in fact, just the opposite. It is hard to feel anything for this production.

Ok, that is not quite true, at first one feels respect for the hard work that went into crafting this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. But that is quickly replaced by boredom. Then frustration, and finally sheer aggravation at being trapped in an audience given no graceful avenue of escape.

The point of the piece and the director's intentions are clear in the program's notes: to get at the heart of the play by condensing the text and having a mere four actors quadruple up on the roles, their lines delivered by whispers or shouts with mic'd voices - to reveal layers in the text not normally heard and seen. Relationships overlap, intentions are muddied, a throwaway laugh becomes sexy, a vicious invective feels like silk.

But why is anyone who frequents theatre at all surprised by this? Corporate consultants are paid ridiculous amounts of money each year to tell businessmen a simple fact that every actor inherently knows - that 70% of all communication is non-verbal. Tone and pitch of voice, inflection, emphasis, body language - each one of these things factors into the meaning of any line or sentence when spoken aloud, and in theatre it goes miles in creating subtext .

So about twenty minutes into the performance when it became obvious this Dream is a master-class in non-verbal communication, it becomes boring. The actors explore the plays' relationships by changing the natures of the characters; the audience ceases to care. It would have been more interesting to read this version of the play, not witness its desiccation.  I do not use that word lightly - for all of Mr. Sellars' enlightened intentions to get at the heart of the play, he only reveals - relentlessly so - the dark, lustful, anguished side of the play's core emotion, love. There is no gentleness, no humour, no forgiveness... even at plays' end the characters do not seem convinced that the worst has passed and there is happiness to come.

Were the performances brave and powerful? Yes, if you like your points made with a jackhammer over an hour and forty-five minutes with no interruption. Was it an audacious production? Yes, it is lovely to see the Stratford Festival taking such risks - and  for the sake of their financial health it is good they did not try it in a bigger venue.

But  theatre should not just be about presenting a play in a "clever" new way, it should also be about connecting with the audience, and this the Chamber Dream fails to do on any emotional level.

Well, except for making some of us so irritated it was hard not to scream at the characters "SNAP OUT OF IT!" so we could all go home.

So, if you go see the Chamber Dream, here are three pieces of advice:
  1) Carefully read the other reviews over there to the right  - Lynn Slotkin's and Kelly Nestruck's are particularly helpful.
  2) Be as familiar with the plot and as many of the characters of the original so it is easier to follow as the actors switch roles (Sarah Afful plays Helena, Hippolyta, Flute and Puck; Dion Johnstone plays Theseus, Demetrius, and Bottom; Trish Lindstrom plays Hermia, Lion, Wall and Titania; Mike Nadajewski plays Oberon, Lysander, and Peter Quince).
  3) Get a seat in the rows E, G, J or L for the best shot at an unobstructed view. It is a very small stage.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play continues in repertory until September 20th at the Masonic Concert Hall.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Stratford Festival extends 2014 season: Performances added for five productions

[Media Release] July 11, 2014

Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and Executive Director Anita Gaffney are pleased to announce that the Stratford Festival is extending the 2014 season. King Lear and Crazy for You will run for an extra week in October, and the three productions at the Tom Patterson Theatre, King John, Mother Courage and Her Children and Antony and Cleopatra, will run for an extra week in September. 

“It is very rewarding to see such strong demand for our Shakespeare offerings, alongside the work of Brecht and the Gershwins,” says Mr. Cimolino: “proof that our audiences are actively seeking a full range of theatrical experiences.” 

“The response to the 2014 season has been extraordinary. Sales for King Lear and Crazy for You have been through the roof since they opened to such enthusiastic reviews at the end of May,” says Ms Gaffney. “The three productions at the Tom Patterson Theatre have been selling well for months – in fact this is our second extension of Antony and Cleopatra. By extending these shows, we are able to enhance the variety of offerings available to our patrons in September, which is becoming an increasingly busy month for the Festival.” 

Mr. Cimolino’s production of King Lear starring Colm Feore was hailed as a triumph, with the Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian saying: “If you have been longing to encounter greatness in the theatre, it is waiting for you at the Stratford Festival.” The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones was taken with Mr. Cimolino’s “rigorously humane take” on the play, describing it as both “deeply compassionate” and “heart-wrenching.” The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck called Mr. Feore’s Lear “unforgettable,” a sentiment shared by critics and audiences alike. 

Crazy for You, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore and starring Josh Franklin and Natalie Daradich, opened to rave reviews. The Tribune’s Mr. Jones described it as “an expansive, alive, visually splendiferous and very entertaining production notable for its lively and fresh choreography.” Said Mr. Ouzounian: “In one very important way, Crazy for You is exactly like King Lear: both shows demonstrate that whatever the Stratford Festival is doing these days, it does it as well as it possibly can.” 

Martha Henry’s production of Mother Courage was called “the season’s must-see production” by the Detroit Free Press. It stars Seana McKenna, “an ideal leading lady” in the words of Mr. Nestruck. Notes Mr. Ouzounian: “Seana McKenna is truly the Mother of all Brechtian heroines and this production she stars in is worthy of your attention.” 

King John, directed by Tim Carroll, stars Tom McCamus in what the National Post’s Robert Cushman calls “a daring performance.” Mr. Carroll’s recent productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III took Broadway by storm, winning eight Tony nominations. Like those two shows, Mr. Carroll used original practices in his direction of King John. Notes the Chicago Tribune’s Mr. Jones: “If ever a production made the argument for doing Shakespeare as first done … then the sublime King John is that show.” 

Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Gary Griffin and starring Geraint Wyn Davies and Yanna McIntosh, starts previews on August 3 and opens August 14. In February the Festival announced it was adding performances to the schedule to keep up with demand for the production. Additional performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play were also announced at that time. 

Tickets for the following performances go on sale Saturday, July 12: 

King Lear 

  • Tuesday, October 14, at 8 p.m. 
  • Wednesday, October 15, at 2 p.m. 
  • Thursday, October 16, at 2 p.m. 
  • Friday, October 17, at 8 p.m. 
  • Saturday, October 18, at 8 p.m. 

Crazy for You 

  • Tuesday, October 14, at 2 p.m. 
  • Wednesday, October 15, at 8 p.m. 
  • Thursday, October 16, at 8 p.m. 
  • Friday, October 17, at 2 p.m. 
  • Saturday, October 18, at 2 p.m. 
  • Sunday, October 19, at 2 p.m. 

Mother Courage and Her Children 

  • Tuesday, September 23, at 2 p.m. 
  • Saturday, September 27, at 2 p.m. 

Antony and Cleopatra 

  • Tuesday, September 23, at 8 p.m. 
  • Thursday, September 25, at 2 p.m. 
  • Sunday, September 28, at 2 p.m. 

King John 

  • Friday, September 26, at 2 p.m. 
  • Saturday, September 27, at 8 p.m.

The 2014 season of the Stratford Festival runs until October 19, featuring King Lear; Crazy for You; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Beaux’ Stratagem; Man of La Mancha; Alice Through the Looking-Glass; Hay Fever; King John; Mother Courage and Her Children; Antony and Cleopatra; Christina, The Girl King; A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play; and more than 200 events in the Stratford Festival Forum. To order tickets, contact the box office at 1.800.567.1600 or visit 



I'm a freelance reviewer of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, in Stratford, Ontario (and the odd show elsewhere). I'll also provide links to other national reviews along the side, for those who don't agree with me and who want to know what other people have said. (My apologies if the links stop working - their rules, not mine.)

Here's to a great season of theatre!

P.S. I delete anonymous comments. If it's worth saying, it's worth knowing who said it.

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