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Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Learning Love's Labours

Love’s Labours Lost
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Ian Lake, Alanah Hawley, Peter Donaldson, Steven Sutcliffe, Brian Tree, John Vickery

The Story: After swearing off women and other “frivolous” pursuits in favour of acadaemia, the King of Navarre and his friends belatedly realize they are expecting a visit from the lovely Princess of France and her pretty friends. Secretly in love with the ladies, each of the lords try to keep the others from discovering their affections, lest they be accused of breaking their vow, while the old Spaniard Don Armado has his own dilemma – he too has taken the vow but finds himself unexpectedly in love with the country girl, Jaquentta. He sends the fool Costard to give Jaquenetta a love letter, but Costard gives her the one lord Berowne meant for the lady Rosaline, and soon the lords are trying to keep faith with their vow while still managing to court the ladies.

Hooray for the return of a “young company” show, to showcase the talents of the theatre stars of tomorrow. This production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is given to the most recent graduates of the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre Training. The eight actors play the eight ‘leading’ roles of the Lords of Navarre and Ladies of France, with members of the veteran acting company generously taking a supporting role. This is something that the Festival has done in the past under artistic director Robin Phillips, and since one tends to learn more by doing rather than by watching, this is an exciting opportunity for these young actors to stretch their wings.

That being said, they could be stretched a great deal further than they as yet show. Of the eight, two actors stand out, that of Ian Lake playing Berowne, and Alanah Hawley playing the Princess of France. They are easy to watch, clear in their delivery and where Ms. Hawley had a commanding presence reminiscent of Seana McKenna, Mr. Lake exudes the charm seen in other recent BCCT graduates like Gordon S. Miller (appearing in this production in the supporting role as a Forester). Even though Rosaline is a great part for a young woman, Dalal Badr does not yet have the strength of voice to match her counterpart (Mr. Lake), and likewise Trent Pardy (playing the King of France) is overshadowed by his counterpart (Ms. Hawley). It is true that the other lords and ladies parts are not as challenging, so it is often quite easy to overlook them, but they are performed in such a safe approach that they became regrettably forgettable.

So even though the young company bears the main story, the veterans end up stealing the show with the subplot. As the loquaciously inefficient Don Armado, Peter Donaldson’s entrance is ripped from the book of Brian Bedford, and he continues to generate delighted laughs throughout the play until his sudden, dignified turn at the end. Abetting him in the fun is his co-star from last season, 11-year-old Abigail Winter-Culliford. Moving from southern accent to Shakespearean speech is a hard task for any actor, but she has obviously worked very hard, and is just as obviously having a great time as the impish and tantrum-throwing Moth. Furthering the mirth is Steven Sutcliffe as a very saucy and dapper Boyet, a barely recognizable Gareth Potter as Nathaniel, John Vickery as the pompous (and in this case, windy) Holofernes, and the inimitable Brian Tree as Costard, who may have written the book on comic timing.

The seasons change in this production (as evidenced by the luxuriant costumes, lighting and music, by Charlotte Dean, Michael J. Whitfield and Stephen Woodjetts, respectively), and as the characters find their labour of love lost in autumn, they look to the following spring to renew their hope of a happy future together. The audience can hope that the more inexperienced actors will soon grow into their parts and steal the limelight back to the main story.

Love’s Labours Lost continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 4th. For tickets call 519-273-1600.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

The Trojan Women: Can You Feel Their Pain?

The Trojan Women
By Euripedes; translation by Nicholas Rudall
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Martha Henry, Seana McKenna, Kelli Fox, Yanna McIntosh

The Story: It’s the end of the Trojan War, a campaign waged on Troy by the Greeks that has lasted 10 years. Mourning their ruined city, the defeat of their homeland, and the deaths of their heroes and husbands, the women of Troy lament their gods’ indifference, cast blame on the beauteous Helen as the war’s cause, and fearfully wait to hear what fates their captors have in store for them.

Think about military conflict - any military conflict – and you can pretty much guarantee that its history will be written by the victors, and those victors will take the spoils. Perhaps Euripides first illustrated this in 415BC with this play, and these two truths are reasons why The Trojan Women still resonates. In seeing it, we come face-to-face with war’s powerless victims and we are forced to think about the atrocities they confront even today.

The problem with this production is that for some reason, the audience does not empathize with the women on stage for part of the performance (it is only 90 minutes long, so every minute counts). If we have to remind ourselves that this play is still current, there is something wrong with the way it is being done – we should feel the women’s building horror, anger and despair and feel a deep connection to current events immediately. Yet we do not. In between the truly moving performances of Seana McKenna, Yanna McIntosh and Martha Henry, the women wait to hear news of their fate, and the audience waits for them to get on with it. The angst of the chorus feels superficial, and instead of feeling their pain we instead lose focus and begin to wonder: if they were in such despair why didn’t they hang themselves as an alternative to being slaves or concubines to the Greeks whom they despised so much?

That, of course, is missing the point of the play: that despite the ruin of their lives, these women must, and do, endure. But it does not follow that the audience should endure lapses in what should be an entirely poignant portrait of a society in tatters. It is uncertain whether this is the fault of the acting or direction or the new translation by Nicholas Rudall. The military costumes worn by the Greek soldiers are also distracting: designer John Pennoyer may have meant to illustrate hand-me-down uniforms that have been cobbled together over a ten-year war, they have the unfortunate result of being reminiscent of the gear worn in Mad Max movies. (However, the burka-like robes in muted blues and browns worn by the Trojan women are timeless – they could be Biblical, or they could be what women in desert countries still wear today.)

In between these lapses are some excellent performances. As the constant bearer of bad news, Sean Arbuckle is a compassionate herald Talthybius. Ms. McIntosh as Helen of Troy is beautiful -- and beautifully -- garbed while her peers are in rags. She could be a litigator in the way she defends her actions, but rather than argue like a whiny ninny, she speaks softly, and smoothly seduces the audience as easily as she does Menelaus, her former husband. Opposing her is Ms. Henry as Hecuba; strong despite her age and broken body, scathing in her derision of Helen, yet able to comfort her daughter-in-law Andromache with great gentleness. She is especially touching in her attempt to aid her truthful-but-never-believed daughter Cassandra, who reveals the fates of the odious Greeks (superbly done with feverish, twitchy tension by Kelly Fox). The production’s most heartrending scene belongs to Ms. McKenna as Andromache, whose pain is completely palpable. Her small son is literally torn from her grasp to be killed – for no more reason than that it is feared he will grow up to avenge his father’s death – at which point the soul-piercing wail that Ms. McKenna unleashes will reverberate in your heart for days to come. Go to see The Trojan Women for this scene alone, and bring plenty of tissues.

The Trojan Women continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 5th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Terrific Cabaret - In Both Senses of the Word

Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Amanda Denhert
Featuring Bruce Dow, Trish Lindström, Sean Arbuckle, Nora McClellan and Frank Moore

The story: Struggling American novelist Cliff Bradshaw arrives in Berlin, New Year’s Eve, 1929. It’s a time of hedonistic attitudes, fully embraced by the members of the Kit Kat Klub, a cabaret where Cliff meets English chanteuse Sally Bowles, and where the enigmatic Emcee holds court. Cliff and Sally have a great time partying while their landlady Fräulein Schneider grows close to her friend Herr Shultz. However the creeping presence of the Nazi party gradually makes itself felt, putting all their lives - and their way of life - in danger.

From the very first glimpse of the set you realize this is not your grandmother’s musical. Broken windows, crumbling stone, rusted iron stairs the set designed by Douglas Paraschuk looks like a tetanus infection waiting to happen. Yet the characters that live in this seedy world do so – for a while – to the fullest, grabbing at love and life where they can. No wonder Cliff becomes seduced by this life.

The audience can share his enthusiasm – director Amanda Dehnert brings to life a production that is tantalizing, comical, seductive, horrific and sad – all in a good way. It has two hearts, Bruce Dow as the Emcee and Sean Arbuckle as Cliff Bradshaw. The Emcee and his company lure Cliff into their world, and watch as his own story unfolds. As Cliff becomes aware of the political situation in Germany, he also becomes aware of the watchful Emcee, and this development is fascinating to view from the floor.

But the audience does audience is not protected behind the fourth wall for this show. An actor swings out over the front rows, Kit Kat dancers appear in the aisles, the Emcee speaks directly to us and when Nazi sympathizers suddenly rise out of the audience to join in a grotesque parody of the formerly sweet ballad “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in their loud, harsh voices, we become as trapped and helpless as the characters on stage. It is a heart-thumping moment: only Cliff acts to kill the lights with a sharp clang, plunging all of us into darkness and stunned silence.

The performances are as dazzling as the direction. Known for his jollier roles, Bruce Dow evolves his version of the Emcee from a cheekily sinister imp into a sort of chorus, and then into a sort of muse, intent on drawing Cliff nearer to fulfilling both their needs, to remember and write about the life of the Cabaret. Sean Arbuckle paints Cliff as a perceptive and realistic optimist, and is and movingly expressive when he sings “Don’t Go”. Trish Lindström brings the appropriate joie de vivre to the appealingly selfish Sally Bowles, and shows a hard, glittering defiance in the title number as she makes her self-destructive choice. Nora McClellan and Frank Moore are unforgettable as they bring wistful tenderness to their roles as the pragmatic Fräulein Schneider and the Jewish Herr Shultz who refuses to comprehend the growing danger that the Nazis represent.

With its gritty costumes and memorable music, this production of Cabaret is terrific in both senses of the word -- it evokes the terror of the era but superbly so. Every second is nail-bitingly tense or sad and there isn’t a single moment when you can really relax. Parents considering bringing their children or teens should be prepared to answer questions afterward – the play contains themes important to our collective history and memory, but they are explored a very dark and sometimes explicit manner.

Cabaret continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 25th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Super Music Man Opens at the Avon

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man
Book, Music and Lyrics by Meredith Willson
Story by Meredith Wilson and Franklin Lacey
Directed by Susan Schulman
Featuring Jonathan Goad, Leah Oster, Fiona Reid and Christopher Van Hagen

The Story: It is 1912 and a traveling salesman calling himself Professor Harold Hill is out to hornswoggle an insular little Iowa town into buying band instruments for its children whom he promises to teach to play – but he plans to get out of town once he has their money because he cannot play a single note! His patter easily wins over the stubborn school board and ladies’ auxiliary, but he finds he has to work much harder at convincing the mayor and lovely librarian, who is also the town’s music teacher, with whom he alarmingly finds himself in love.

Known to recent audiences as a Shakespearean actor, Stratford veteran Jonathan Goad stretches his vocal chords in the title role of The Music Man this year, and his easy charm and charisma make him an excellent choice for the sweet-talking Harold Hill who can more easily conduct people than a marching band. Apart from doing a great job with the speedy patter of ‘Ya Got Trouble’, and the rousing ‘Seventy-six Trombones’, Mr. Goad also deftly illustrates Harold’s inner struggle when suddenly confronted by a selfless act that could save his hide from a tar and feathering, and the sudden lack of confidence when forced to lead a marching band that cannot play a true note. He is a wonderfully human swindler, this Harold Hill.

Harold’s foil, Marion the Librarian, is sweetly played by Leah Oster, whose voice swells to giddy heights on the beautiful ballads, like ‘Till There was You’. Although she could certainly overpower him, Ms. Oster tones it down to meet Mr. Goad’s softer voice on their few duets with wonderfully romantic results. Marion’s journey is not as clearly defined in her portrayal as Harold’s is in Mr. Goad’s, but they compliment each other so nicely that one barely notices their differences. They are obviously having a great time in their roles, and it simply radiates into their spell-bound audience.

The expertly deadpan Fiona Reid plays Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn (in a perfectly lurid violet gown), with hilarious support from Christina Gordon, Shelley Simester, Stephanie Roth and Sarah Topham as the “dance” committee (those pantaloons are priceless). They are routinely serenaded by the school-board-turned-barbershop-quartet, consisting of Shawn Wright, Laird Mackintosh, Jonathan Munro and Marcus Nance. Eddie Glen is adorable as the reformed salesman-huckster Marcellus Washburn, as he quickly returns to his old habits as Harold’s abetting sidekick, and Michelle Fisk puts another healthy comedic kick into Marion’s mother, Mrs. Paroo. The dance corps is excellent, and their library number is especially delightful, as they act out an impromptu (and abridged) version another play on stage this year. It is both clever choreography and very funny.

The familiar abounds in the production; the River City set designed by Patrick Clark (who also designed the costumes) bears a remarkable resemblance to Stratford’s own downtown core, and even young children in the audience will see peers their own age trodding the boards. Aveliegh Keller plays a precocious Amaryllis, and Christopher Van Hagen steals the show the moment he suddenly appears centre stage to enthusiastically “thing in hith little lithp” in ‘The Wells Fargo Wagon’. All of the children appear as professional as their older counterparts, and boy do they look sharp in those bright red and white band outfits!

Although it might seem an old-fashioned bit of American apple-pie, this fast-paced musical about a couple of outsiders who find their hearts is a show of great family fun. That’s fun with an F that rhymes with S (sort of) which stands for a super show.

The Music Man continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until November 1. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Webcasts and YouTube videos

For those who want behind the scenes knowledge of plays, actors and stage direction, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has been conducting live webcasts which are archived here and on YouTube here.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Ben Carlson leads stellar cast in Hamlet

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Adrian Noble
Featuring Ben Carlson, Geraint Wyn Davies, Adrienne Gould

The story: Prince Hamlet of Denmark is visited by the ghost of his father the late king, who reveals that Claudius, the king’s brother, murdered him to gain his crown and wife. Already disgusted by his mother’s quick remarriage to Claudius, Hamlet vows to seek revenge for his father, taking him – and others - down a dark path.

The intermission for Hamlet comes two hours into the play, but it takes less than two minutes to become so enthralled by Ben Carlson’s performance that you want to take the play in huge gulps, impatient for next moment’s speech or action. Even fully knowing the story, it is hard to predict how it will unfold, what will be revealed about Hamlet. Mr. Carlson’s intuition in mining the character, his charisma that draws the audience to him and his uncanny skill in speaking Shakespeare’s words with such clarity is so astonishing that the end of the play comes far too quickly. In the soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” a ferocious challenge is thrown at a suddenly flinching audience, as if we were somehow complicit in causing his pain.

The connection to the audience is emphasized in some clever staging. Actors disappear up the aisles while spotlights are thrown on them and the audience; the pointed set protrudes near the front row, alarmingly near when Claudius dies on that spot. While it does not break that fourth wall, it certainly puts a thrilling crack in it.

Exceptional staging accentuates many strong performances. Geraint Wyn Davies, Bruce Godfree and Adrienne Gould form a solid and affectionate family unit as Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia that sharply contrasts the dysfunction of Hamlet’s family. Hamlet obviously loves Ophelia in this production and in the ‘nunnery’ scene Ms. Gould and Mr. Carlson produce a relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet that is deep, many layered, and remarkably touching. In Ms. Gould’s portrayal we see an Ophelia who is optimistic and hopeful that her love for Hamlet is not unrequited. We see an Ophelia who desperately wants to help Hamlet but does not know how, and has been forbidden by her father – she must disappoint one of the men she loves. This scene is also very intriguing. Does Hamlet know that he is being spied on at this point or doesn’t he? The answer is “yes” to both questions, and the result is both sad and terrifying.

However this production is not all grim. Alongside Mr. Wyn Davies’ pitch-perfect Polonius, humour is used to wonderful effect in parts not traditionally funny. The audience is allowed to relax and laugh, and these brief respites make the ensuing tragedy all the more terrible. A fine example is Ophelia’s mad scene, where Ms. Gould grotesquely mirrors her earlier scenes: a beloved treasure box has become a doll’s coffin, and a tender piano duet played earlier with her father is perverted when she plays it with Claudius.

There are imperfections – Maria Ricossa does not produce an especially warm, motherly Gertrude, although that appears to have been the intent. As Claudius, Scott Wentworth illustrates the growing burden of his guilt well enough, but is strangely quiet, as if he does not want to audience to intrude on Claudius’ thoughts; next to Mr. Carlson’s delivery the difference in clarity is very noticeable. For such central characters one hopes that both these things can be attributed to opening night jitters and will smooth out in later shows.

But the strong far outweighs the weak, and other characters that are formidably drawn include Tom Rooney’s concerned Horatio, and Victor Ertmanis’ First Gravedigger, among others. For those who remember Peter Donaldson’s Timon of Athens (2004), this production is of the same diamond-cut calibre, and should not be missed.

Hamlet continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 26th. 1-800-567-1600 for tickets.

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