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Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Breath of Kings - Rebellion and Redemption: Ambition pays high dividends

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption
Richard II, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II, Henry V by William Shakespeare
Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey
Directors Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman
Designed by Anahita Dehbonehie (set), Yannick Lavrivee (costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Debashis Sinha (composer and sound), John Stead (fight), Brad Cook (movement)
Featuring Tom Rooney, Graham Abbey, Geraint Wyn Davies, Araya Mengesha

Graham Abbey as Henry IV and Araya Mengesha as Henry V in
Breath of Kings: Redemption. Photo by David Hou
Graham Abbey has spent the better part of a decade distilling Shakespeare’s 2nd tetralogy, also known as the Henriad, down to what is now known as Breath of Kings. Taking Richard II, the first and second parts of Henry IV and Henry V and giving them roughly the same amount of performance time (~75 minutes each) to be viewed in two different sittings; Rebellion frames Richard II and Henry IV part one, while Redemption frames the latter two.

Condensing the plays suggests that Abbey has created a Cliff’s Notes version of them all, but this is unjust – a certain depth of feeling remains intact, despite the extraction of many scenes in which characters and relationships are developed. This keeps the pace clipping along at cinematic speed, and may just be the ticket to opening new (read: teenage) audiences to the charms of the Bard… with the hope that as their fascination grows so will their desire to examine the plays more fully. In fact, the abridgment of some scenes - i.e. the Salic Law speech from Henry V - should be considered by directors far more often. (I love Shakespeare, but oy does that Canterbury like to talk…)

Tom Rooney as Richard II in Breath
of Kings: Rebellion. Photo by David Hou.
The first part of Rebellion is the story of Richard II, a complex character who both arrogantly believes in the divine right of kings and comes to see that a king is still just a man whose crown can be taken away. Tom Rooney alternately hits notes of pride, fretfulness, sorrow, and philosophical resignation. He deadpans Richard’s most heinous moments of callousness and makes the audience laugh out loud, but the laughter turns to dust – Richard’s conceit is very Trumpish, and therefore contemptible. His first foil John of Gaunt (Richard’s uncle, Bolingbroke’s father) is given great voice by Stephen Russell who delivers the excellent “sceptred isle” speech like one fevered and brokenhearted – and yet fails to move the coldhearted King.

Geraint Wyn Davies as John Falstaff, with members of the company
in Breath of Kings: Rebellion. Photo by David Hou
Abbey himself plays Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper, and brings more pathos to the role than usually seen – this Bolingbroke is sorta kinda sorry for the circumstances leading to his taking the crown. He is still going to take it, of course, but Abbey shows Henry IV to be less a political opportunist and more a victim of circumstances. I do not necessarily agree with this interpretation, but it remains consistent through the next two quarters of the tetralogy, which is one of the reasons it is enjoyable to see Rebellion and Redemption one after the other.

In the second half of Rebellion, Henry IV squares off against his former supporters, now rather ticked that he took the crown (and possibly murdered Richard II), instead of simply reclaiming his Lancastrian lands, like he said he would do. Beside these woes, Henry is worried about his eldest son and heir, Henry (aka Hal or Harry), who tends to carouse much with is buddies and one John Falstaff.  As the life-affirming Falstaff, there cannot be anyone better than Geraint Wyn Davies to play the part – never a buffoon, always calculating and clever, and sometimes actually sweet. At the end of the first half of Redemption when Hal casts Falstaff away so cruelly, it reveals that Hal never understood how much the old knight loved him… and Falstaff actually dies of a broken heart.

Araya Mengesha, as and like Hal, has highs and lows. He is at his best when swaggering with his mates, has an incredibly moving scene with Graham Abbey as Hal and his father Henry IV are reconciled (one of the best in the two productions together); however, he treats the audience to a superlative St. Crispian’s Day speech (wonderfully staged as well) in the second half of Redemption, chronicling the events of Henry V.

Araya Mengesha as Henry V with members of the company in
Breath of Kings: Redemption. Photo by David Hou.
With 20 company members playing the over 70 parts in the tetralogy, there are wonderfully dextrous performances from the wardrobe attendants doing all those quick-changes. Also from Carly Street and Irene Poole who each had 6 roles (I think, I lost count) and all of them forceful; from Randy Hughson as York and Pistol; from Parker Merlihan as Davy Gam – that was heartbreaking – and Jonathan Sousa as a truly hotheaded Hotspur.

It is not strictly necessary to see both Rebellion and Redemption, as either stands finely on its own; though if pressed for time I might recommend seeing Rebellion simply because it is the only version of Richard II to hit Stratford stages in almost twenty years, and Tom Rooney is such a fine actor in it.  But to get the full dividends from the efforts of this ambitious adaptation, its directors and its excellent, nimble cast, try to see them both, and in order.

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption continues at in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24th

Friday, 8 July 2016

Griffin Delivers Big with A Little Night Music

Yanna McIntosh as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carslon as
Fredrik Egerman. photo by David Hou.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman
Originally produced and directed on Broadway by Haarold Prince
Director Gary Griffin; Musical director Franklin Brasz
Designed by Debra Hansen, Kevin Fraser (lights), Peter McBoyle (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Yanna McIntosh, Cynthia Dale, Alexis Gordon

It is hard to know where to begin in describing the pleasure that is the Stratford Festival’s production of A Little Night Music. 
Gary Griffin has taken this Sondheim musical and drawn it’s tapestry of intertwined relationships with delicate. There are pairings of new lovers, unrequited lovers, lusty lovers and mature lovers. The bare bones of the story would suggest a farce – at east three love triangles to untangle - yet there are shades of hope, longing and regret hanging over them all, and surprises in almost every performance.
Alexis Gordon as Anne Egerman and Gabriel
Antonacci as Henrik Egerman. Photo by David Hou.
Anne Egerman is a very young, very naïve 18-year-old, married to the middle-aged Fredrik; call her Fredrik’s mid-life crisis.  Both are played by actors able to infuse them with a layer of self-delusion. Alexis Gordon plays captures Anne’s naivety very well, additionally giving her a hair-brushing tic and tendency to talk really fast to hide her innate nervousness, and is fantastically funny when Anne is threatened by the more seasoned lover, Désirée (A Weekend in the Country). As the husband Fredrik, Ben Carlson plays him as a straight-man, oblivious to both Anne’s deep anxiety and to Désirée's wry observances (You Must Meet My Wife). That the young Anne should end up with the heart-sick Henrik (Gabriel Antonacci) is perfectly natural, her buoyancy (Ms. Gordon’s costumes are particularly flouncy) balancing out his tendency for melancholy. Will it last? Built on young love and lust, who knows? We are not meant to care, just be happy they are happy.

Cynthia Dale as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Juan
Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. Photo by David Hou.
By comparison, the Count and Countess may end up together but one wonders exactly how happy they will be. Juan Chioran plays the Count quite rigidly myopic, insensible of the hurt he causes Charlotte in speaking openly of his affair with Desiree. He makes the Count completely unlikeable, and Charlotte’s unwavering devotion to him somewhat hard to take, even though Cynthia Dale’s performance is touchingly moving. In Ms. Dale’s care, Charlotte is a woman whose despair is just underneath the surface of the bright laughter she uses to hide how brittle she is. If her husband had not rediscovered her worth (although one cannot be sure he really does), Ms. Dale’s Charlotte would surely have died of a broken heart (Every Day a Little Death).
Yanna McIntosh as Desiree Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik
Egerman. Photo by David Hou.
Yanna McIntosh, the queen of wry, is Désirée  Armfeldt. It is only natural – Désirée is the emotional centre of the musical, and in this role, Ms. McIntosh becomes a centre of gravity for all Désirée's relationships. There looks to be a real bond between Ms. McIntosh and Kimberly-Ann Truong, playing her daughter, Fredrika; likewise there is as much familial connection with Rosemary Dunsmore (Madame Armfeldt).  As he third couple, Désirée and Fredrik, Ms. McIntosh and Ben Carlson portray a mature relationship built on mutual knowledge and trust, the ability to laugh at themselves, to work together as a team. It may come late in their characters’ lives, but it will last. Ms. McIntosh gives a wholly rounded performance, showing a woman who is completely self-assured in all aspects of her life, as a career-woman, a mother, a daughter, a lover. Yet, Ms. McIntosh reveals Désirée's regrets in flashes of looks, movements and pauses, culminating in what must be one of the most sublimely rueful renditions of Send in the Clowns one will ever hear.
Sara Farb as Petra, with Matt Alfrano as Frid (background).
Photo by David Hou.
For all the characters in relationships, there is one who steadfastly refuses to be in one, preferring to grab life by the throat before she settles down – as Petra the maid, Sara Farb serves notice that she is ready to move on from playing 10 and 13-year old girls. Let this woman loose, please; let’s see what else she can do.
Add to this the sublime stage art inspired by Per Ekström – that is a guess, but it really does evoke the odd tension of an evening when the sun never quite sets (it is a truly peculiar thing, to live in the Arctic) - and the elegant designs by Debra Hansen that perfectly suit the complex but elegant three-quarter score of Sondheim, and we get a nearly transcendent evening of musical theatre. Sondheim is never very hummable, but if the strains from Weekend in the Country don’t follow you all the way home, you were asleep, my friend, and missed one helluva show.
A Little Night Music continues in repertory until October 23rd at the Avon Theatre.

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