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Thursday, 31 July 2008

Haunting Dennehy in Hughie / Krapp's Last Tape

Hughie, by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Robert Falls
Featuring Brian Dennehy and Joe Grifasi

The title character Hughie – a former night clerk in a run-down New York hotel - never makes an appearance. He died about a week before the action takes place. His chief mourner (to hear him tell it) is Erie Smith, a rumpled, boozing, floozing old gambler, played by Brian Dennehy, who has been on the booze since Hughie’s funeral. Coming home, he is surprised at the presence of a new night clerk – last name also Hughes, played with dead-pan melancholy by Joe Grifasi. Erie is tickled by the name coincidence and immediately tries to engage the ‘new Hughie’ with stories of the old.

Except, the new night clerk has pretty much checked out. Sitting under a clock so dusty no one could tell the time, he vaguely reacts only to the city sounds: a passing subway, a dog barking. He does not listen to Erie at all, just making the appropriate nods when it seems they are expected.

But Erie reveals a lot about Hughie, and Mr. Dennehy’s natural performance also reveals a lot about Erie. Relating the stories he told Hughie, Erie is a larger-than-life character, but in front of this audience his physical self belies him: the tired gait, the too-eager, too-loud laughter, the yellowed-linen suit and scuffed shoes, and the disillusionment, the uncertainty and even the harsh edge that Mr. Dennehy allows to creep into Erie’s voice from time to time.

Hughie seemed a decent guy, probably the only friend Erie had and definitely the only one who helped Erie see himself as he wanted to be. Getting the new Hughie to give him the same substantiation is uphill work, but Erie gets there in the end - a connection is reached when the new Hughie realizes that all this time, Erie has been referring to gambling. New Hughie likes to gamble, it seems. The new Hughie might not be as decent a guy as the old Hughie, but it’s good enough for Erie. The audience almost sighs with relief to know that at least in his own eyes, Erie is going to be ok, and that too, is good enough for Erie.

Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Featuring Brian Dennehy

Many people come to feel that their lives didn’t go according to plan, and wonder where they took a wrong turn – which decision, which action or inaction formed their present situation and circumstances? In Krapp’s Last Tape we have a man who, though he may not realize it, has captured his moment of wrong-turning in a recording – and with morbid fascination keeps listening to it, over and over, relishing the memory and also relishing being haunted by it. It begs the question – is it better to know, to have a physical manifestation of this fatal turning point, or is it better not to know, to wonder, but retain the potential to step past it?

It will take a better philosopher than I to figure it out.

In this bleak little play about life’s decisions and memory’s power, Brian Dennehy’s portrait of this man Krapp is as soul-stirring as it gets. When the single white light illuminates him at his shabby desk there is a quick intake of breath from the audience - his transformation from the hearty, bluff Erie Smith is so complete it is like looking at a completely different actor. He is slumped, unkempt, unshaven, severely short-sighted, and has arthritic hands. He is deflated. For the first few minutes he stares at something in the distance of his mind as his gaze slowly turns to rest on the audience, seeing them but not seeing them. As silent as he is, he commands the audience’s silence. No rustling, no coughing; just watchful waiting. He finally heaves a sigh, shuffles around the desk, rummages in the drawer for something - presumably one of the tapes from the p! lay’s title. But instead he brandishes a banana – that ubiquitous symbol of comedy that lets the audience relax. A little. Krapp carefully peels it, deliberately drops the peel on the floor. He toes the peel, amusing himself, toying with the idea of slipping on it and is surprised when he succeeds. Then he gets down to business, listening to his tapes.

We and the older Krapp listen to the thirty-years-younger Krapp with something akin to indulgence. Krapp laughs at his own arrogant voice at 39 describing how arrogant he was at 29, and the audience wonders if he is still arrogant; he is more distracted by the fact that he cannot recall what “viduity” means than the fact it was used to describe his dying mother. But it might be more accurate to use the modern term “arrested development”, arrested at the point at 39 when he dismissed a certain possibility.

Audiences may prefer the play Hughie, because it ends on a slightly positive note. Instead, it is Mr. Dennehy’s performance as Krapp that will haunt them: the tiny changes of expression, the torment, defeat, or sudden spark in his eyes. Unfortunately I do not have a tape to let me relive his performance, but I am thinking that might be a good thing. Too much Beckett might be dangerous for the sanity.

Hughie and Krapp’s Last Tape continue as a double-bill in repertory at the Studio Theatre until August 31. This is a tour-de-force that you should regret missing, because even the additional performances have been sold out. Happily, there is a waiting list….

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

My Favourites So Far

It seems when you review things people begin to believe you are an expert in that field, so I'm getting asked - a lot - what I recommend seeing at the Festival. I don't like to recommend any one thing because there are many reasons why I choose to see a particular play - I may like the story, or the director, or the cast, or even the composer - and theatre-going is such a personal, subjective experience (for me, anyway).

So my short answer is: See everything you can.

Even if you've seen Hamlet 50 times before, every new cast and director will plumb its depths with fresh eyes and attitudes and that will reveal utterly new things about it - it's like learning something new and tittilating about an old friend. Even if you've never heard of Fuente Ovejuna, go see it because it is unfamiliar and you'll invariably catch a glimpse of drama from another culture. If the thought of sonnet poetry makes your eyes roll, you've never heard it properly - I never had - but Simon Callow's There Reigns Love will correct that. If you think the film versions with Liza Minnelli and Robert Preston just can't be topped, I think you'll be surprised - and perhaps shocked - with both stage versions of Cabaret and Music Man.

I see everything on stage during the season and I invariably come away with favourites that I return to see later on. But asking me to choose a favourite or to recommend just one show? I can't! But I will tell you that even though I did my honours thesis on Taming of the Shrew, Peter Hinton's production made me feel as if I didn't know the play at all, and that Cabaret made me weep uncontrollably the last time I saw it. But I've already seen others a second time, and I'll be coing back for seconds and possibly thirds on yet more.

I can't be more specific than that - but I hope you enjoy and are moved by whatever shows you choose to see.


The Love Affairs of There Reigns Love

There Reigns Love
Devised and performed by Simon Callow
Commissioned and premiered by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival
Directed by Michael Langham

There are four love affairs present in Simon Callow’s one-man entertainment called There Reign’s Love.

The first love affair is that of a poet and a beautiful young man to whom he writes a great number of the poems about love and beauty. The second is that of the poet and his “Dark Lady of the Sonnets”; the third is the affair that occurs between that same dark lady and the beautiful young man. Those affairs form the story possibly hidden in the background of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, revealed most clearly when they are reordered as proposed by a psychoanalyst by the name of John Padel.

The fourth love affair present is that of Simon Callow’s evident love of Shakespeare’s poetry, and the idea that in this reordering – perhaps the order in which they were actually written - the sonnets appear to be autobiographical in nature, thus perhaps revealing an intimate bit of the enigmatic Bard’s life. It is an intriguing idea - tantalizing even - and although Mr. Callow cautions the audience to treat everything he says with the utmost suspicion, his enthusiasm is infectious, and his ‘performance’ of most (but not all) of the sonnets brings alive those with which we are all familiar, and more importantly, makes sense and illuminates those that are less known.

Mr. Callow has invited patrons to sit on the stage during his performance, so do not be surprised to see audience members lounging comfortably on cushions downstage while Mr. Callow appears upstage. (The only quibble one may have with this production is that this obvious desire for intimacy with the audience may have been better suited for the cozy Studio Theatre; but then, Mr. Callow would not have had use of Tanya Moiseiwitch’s lovely balcony, incorporated as it is at the Tom Patterson Theatre into Charlotte Dean’s warm set.). Mr. Callow explains Mr. Padel’s theory and then begins to animate the sonnets: at first subtle movements and steady voice, growing more enlivened as the story heats up. All the while Mr. Callow’s beautiful, precise diction gives no doubt for his passion for speaking the sonnets; it shines through with each crisp word.

While it may feel like more of a lecture than a performance in places, I’ll say this: if we had all had teachers like Simon Callow, not only would we have learned a hell of a lot more, but we would never dream of yawning at the Sonnets and poetry in general ever again. Grab your chance to see this once-in-a-lifetime production with one of the foremost Shakespearean actors in the English-speaking world before it ends on August 3rd.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Exhilerating Fuente Ovejuna

Fuente Ovejuna
By Lope de Vega
Translation and directed by Laurence Boswell
Featuring Sara Topham, Robert Persichini, Jonathan Goad, Scott Wentworth and James Blendick

The Story: Based on true events from medieval Spain, Fuente Ovejuna is the story of a small village whose tyrannical overlord, Fernán Gómez, took whatever he wanted, including the women of the village. Fed up with his cruel despotism, the town revolted. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella found out, they sent interrogators to the village to find what happened but no one in the town would confess, instead all saying “Fuente Ovejuna did it”. Faced with such solidarity the king and queen pardon the town, who then pledge loyalty to these far fairer rulers.

The story is an old one, and so is the author – Lope de Vega was Shakespeare’s Spanish contemporary and the people of Spain know his works like Westerners know Shakespeare’s. Set to wonderfully harmonizing music by Edward Henderson, this play’s new translation is from its director, Laurence Boswell. Truth be told, something is lost in the translation, because it is certain Lope De Vega never used terms like ‘information overload’ and ‘let’s do it’. While this attempt to make an old play sound new is valiant in theory, it is very obvious and the play really does not need this artifice since it is such a good story – it could have been performed in Spanish and it still would have been completely understood.

This is due not only to the director but to the powerful cast. The play really belongs to two characters, the first being Laurencia, played by Sarah Topham. She transcends her usual solid performance to present a character that ranges from spunkily sweet to fiercely enraged: as the object of Gómez’s pursuit, Laurencia escapes his imprisonment and shames the wavering men of the village into revolt, before leading the women in their own offensive strike. Ms. Topham not only portrays the clever, teasing but innocent Laurencia well, but also delivers an impassioned, knock-out speech, and sells the ensuing fight scene extremely well.

The other outstanding performance comes from Scott Wentworth as the odious Commander Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, the governor of the village. Gómez is a master manipulator, and Mr. Wentworth plays him with a mean, paranoid edge (with a bit of a Napoleon complex mixed in) that makes as dangerous a villain as ever seen on Stratford stages. At the horrifying moment he breaks a staff over the elderly Esteban’s back the audience’s loathing is palpable, but Mr. Wentworth never goes too big with the act either. It is a truly outstanding performance.

The entire cast (of nearly 30) deserves praise – it is a first-rate ensemble. As the town’s elder and Laurencia’s father, James Blendick is stately, dignified and jovial, and nearly everything Gómez is not. Robert Persichini is brilliant as the village clown Mengo, to a point where you really do not know if he will or won’t confess under torture to his role in the revolt. The friendship portrayed between his character and that of Nigel-Shawn Williams as the poet Barrildo is sweetly deeper than at first glance. It is terrific to watch Jonathan Goad’s hesitance to be both suitor and hero as Frondoso, and to see Lindsay Thomas’ range as the victimized Jacinta. As Gómez’s henchmen, Stephen Russell is a swaggering “just following orders” kind of guy, while David Keeley provides a touch of hero-worship in his admiration of Gómez that is both sweet and kind of appalling. And although their time on stage is short, Geraint Wyn Davies and Seana McKenna are able to portray why Ferdinand and Isabella are the better leaders, worthy of being followed with just a few subtle motions.

Aside from the one little quibble about the insertion of modern-day colloquialisms into the text (and a detestable slow-motion mob scene), this play is a top pick for this season’s sleeper hit for its excellent performances, complementary sets and costumes and sheer story-telling power. Watching it come to life is gives one a thrill like discovering a long-lost portrait by Velázquez. Do not wait to see it, as tickets will soon be hard to get. Fuente Ovejuna continues in repertory until October 4th. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600 or click here.

Wishing It Were All Well

All’s Well That Ends Well
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Marti Maraden
Featuring Daniela Vlaskalic, Jeff Lillico, Martha Henry, Brian Dennehy and Juan Chioran

The Story: Helen, the daughter of a famous doctor, cures the King of France and is rewarded the husband of her choice. Unfortunately her choice is Bertram, Count of Rossillion, who wants nothing to do with her. Forced to marry Helena by the King, Bertram immediately runs off to war, vowing never to honor Helena as his wife until she meets certain impossible conditions. However, through various stratagems Helena manages to meet these challenges, and Bertram comes to understand the sort of woman he has married.

This play is a bit of a wink on Shakespeare’s behalf, because well-performed or not, the story does not end satisfactorily for most of the characters, the characters themselves not being very likeable. Bertram is probably the worst, for ditching his wife and trying to seduce another woman while at war, but Helena resorts to lies and dirty tricks to get him back. The clown Parolles is a braggart and a coward who is unmasked at the end, the seemingly honourable Lord Dumaines have some skeletons in their closets (as revealed by Parolles), and even the Countess of Rossillion and King of France put their pride above consideration for others. Neither tragedy nor fully a comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well is a tricky play to enjoy at the best of times.

Unfortunately, this is not one of those times. Introduced by prim piano music reminiscent of Hagood Hardy (specifically Anne’s Theme), the production is stiff from the very start. The set has steely-looking flying buttresses and illuminated scrims at the back of the stage that must look magnificent to anyone sitting along aisle five of the theatre, but the effect is lost on anyone sitting past aisles four or six. The costumes designed by Christina Poddubiuk are gorgeously crafted works of art, but as they are late Victorian (the production is set in 1889), one wonders if the starched formality of the silhouettes hinder, rather than enhance the actors’ interpretations of their roles.

Daniela Vlaskalic and Jeff Lillico are not able to elicit sympathy at all for the characters they play. Ms. Vlaskalic is a little too earnest and moony as Helena, and Mr. Lillico a tad too juvenile as Bertram, like the adolescent caught sneaking out rather than a grown man committing adultery. Leah Oster is a shade too cool as Diana, the object of Bertram’s seduction, and Tom Rooney is so dead-pan as the clown Lavatch that his many witticisms are nearly lost. There are several moments when he enters, stares out at the audience, and then leaves again. The first time is slightly amusing, and then it is just odd. Martha Henry looks unhealthily grey in her mourning black costume, and her performance as the Countess Rossillion lacks her usual panache.

The strongest performance comes from Juan Chioran who clearly enjoys playing Parolles, and understands how to make him as endearing as he is laughable. The scene in which he is being interrogated by his own regiment disguised as “enemy forces” is easily the highlight of the production, although the banter he shares with Stephen Oiumette as Lafew is a close second. Brian Dennehy plays a King resigned to his illness but with startling moments of intimidating power: at different points he grips Helena’s arm and gets in Bertram’s face as if daring them to cross him. Although they have little to do, Fiona Reid is worth watching on the sidelines as she makes the most of the Widow’s comic potential, and Ron Kennel, Ins Choi, David Leyshon and Bruce Godfree provide much-needed giggles as some over-eager young lords.

A problematic play that needs something extra to make it memorable, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well regrettably does not live up to the title, nor up to the standard of other productions on stage this season. It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre just until August 23, 2008. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

Shrew's blocked blocking

The one quibble I have with the production of Shrew is that some of the blocking (where an actor stands/sits during a scene) actually blocks the audience's view of what's happening centre stage. It wouldn't normally be a problem, but Mr. Hinton's production has a raised platform downstage, on which actors periodically stand, backs to the audience, while something else is going on centre or upstage. It was very aggravating, both times I watched it, from different areas of the theatre. Why the actors weren't instructed to sit, crouch, slouch, kneel, or lie down at these times is a mystery known only to them and the director. If anyone knows, please enlighten me. I haven't seen it yet from the balcony loevel, perhaps from up there it does not make a difference. From the orchestra level, it certainly does. ~RG

Thursday, 3 July 2008

I didn't forget the men

I really hate being limited to 650 words (or so) per review, especially when there is so much going on. For instance, Patrick McManus takes the character of Biondello - normally a bit of a twit - and turns him into an Elizabethan Steven Cojocaru - the fashion guy from ET! He's the best-dressed fellow on stage and makes the most of it comepletely.

Randy Hughson is quite disarming as Hortensio/Litio, especially as he and the Queen have a little something going on between the lines of text that is enchanting, and Juan Chioran makes a perfectly silly Gremio, using his um... costume to the fullest extent and the fullest laughs.

Seeing Shrew again soon, and I expect even more to be revealed.

Women Rule in Taming of the Shrew

Taming of the Shrew
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Peter Hinton
Featuring Irene Poole, Evan Buliung, Lucy Peacock, Barbara Fulton

Because he mines the a play so deeply, a Peter Hinton production often turns the text inside out and backwards until you feel like you never knew the story at all. The result is rich, absorbing theatre, and to get the full benefit of what he creates, the trick is to see his productions at least twice.

First of all, Mr. Hinton begins his production of Taming of the Shrew with the use of the folk songs of John Playford to punctuate the story superbly; second he retains the induction. Often cut completely from other productions, the induction involves the drunken tailor Christopher Sly being tricked by a real lord into thinking he is also a lord of importance. It is a little odd, because part way through the second scene he disappears from the text entirely. However, it creates a framework for the other play, and it shows a true slice of daily life as Shakespeare knew it. This is especially important as the production is set in Elizabethan England, with as close a replica of an Elizabethan stage as you will get on this side of the Atlantic. Designed by Santo Loquasto, it resembles the old wooden Globe, has smoky, greasy lanterns (look closely for the decaying corpses), rudimentary mechanical cogs and a fully functional dunking stool for the shrewish ladies in the crowd. Oh, and it has Queen Elizabeth I, herself.

Yep, in this production, the real lord is turned into Queen Elizabeth I, who remains on stage for a good portion of the play. In this way the audience is kept aware of the framing device, and where other productions this season have cut holes in the fourth wall, this device keeps the audience firmly behind it. Played by a very elegant Barbara Fulton, Elizabeth is clearly enthralled with the romance between Bianca and her many suitors (who cannot hope to wed her before her elder sister, the shrewish Kate, is matched). Her Royal Highness eventually joins the fun when given the part of the widow for the final scene. She and the secretly wanton Bianca (played by Adrienne Gould) form a sort of partnership in the end, just as Kate and Grumio do.

With the further re-casting of Lucy Peacock in the traditionally male role of Grumio, Petruchio’s servant, the dynamic between master and servant changes completely. It is clear that the pair have a history, possibly sexual, which alters the dynamic between the servant and new mistress as well. Even if she is not centre stage, do not forget to watch Ms. Peacock; it is fascinating to see how each relationship is subtly revealed and transformed.

The shrew Kate is played by Irene Poole as a woman who not only wants her father’s love, but also his respect. From a single line in the text, Mr. Hinton has given Kate a limp, which adds to both her vulnerability and fierceness. It also reveals Petruchio’s sensitivity (as played by very disarming Evan Buliung – he appears to be the only man with courage in him); when they reach the turning point in their relationship he almost unconsciously supports her. Ms. Poole remains firey even during Kate’s infamous last speech, but instead of becoming either submissive or sarcastic, Ms. Poole simply reveals what is expected of both husband and wife, and reminds the other women not to forget it. It is a surprisingly but completely believable treatment of the speech.

For purists, this production of Taming of the Shrew is likely not going to be a favourite, but history buffs will love a glimpse into the gritty world of Elizabethan England, and feminists should be pleased at Mr. Hinton’s examination of the various roles of women of this time. For fans of theatre in general, this multi-layered and cunning production is sure to create a high that will leave you wanting more.

Taming of the Shrew continues in repertory until October 25th. For tickets call 1-800-567-1600.

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