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Saturday, 30 August 2008

R&J take two

After seeing Casar and Cleopatra and noting with some glee that Nikki M. James' had found a voice strong enough to last against Christopher Plummer (see review next week), I decided to go back to see Romeo and Juliet again. Unfortunately, strangely, you still can't hear her as Juliet. It may be that she just doesn't have the rhythm of the Bard down pat yet, and it can take years to get that right. But I'm afraid the show hasn't improved with age overall - Peter Donaldson still commands the stage as Friar Lawrence, Gordon S. Miller elicits great sympathy as Benvolio and Lucy Peacock is a wonderful prattling nurse. John Vickery's performance as Capulet did capture more of my attention on my second viewing, but overall, meh. I'm going to blame the director, since it's obvious that the cast members (Evan Buliung and Gareth Potter in particular) are capable of more oomph. Many of them are lost on that gargantuan, noisy set. In a season where shows like Hamlet and Cabaret leave the heart soaring, the tragedy of these young lovers has remained bogged down.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Dancing up a storm in Moby Dick

Moby Dick
Based on the novel by Herman Melville, adapted and directed by Morris Panych
Choreography and movement by Shaun Amyot and Wendy Gorling
Featuring David Ferry, Shaun Smyth, W. Joseph Matheson and Marcus Nance

The Story: A young sailor Ishmael and his new friend Queequeg find work aboard the whaling ship Pequod. As they get under sail their captain is nowhere to be seen; however once they are at sea Captain Ahab appears and reveals the ship’s mission – to find and kill the great white whale, Moby Dick, whom Ahab believes to have malevolently and deliberately injured him in their previous confrontation. Ahab’s obsession troubles Ishmael and the first mate, Starbuck, as it quickly becomes obvious that not even the safety of his crew will stand in the way of Ahab’s quest.

If you will pardon the obvious pun, transforming the 135-chapter novel of Moby Dick into 100 minutes of theatre was the leviathan of undertakings, not to mention doing so in movement and dance rather than in text and straight acting. However, Canadian playwright Morris Panych was undoubtedly the right man for the job. Not as abstract as a ballet by any means, Panych has used the music of Claude Debussy as inspiration, in particular La Mer, and he and his choreographer and movement coach (Shaun Amyot and Wendy Gorling), have developed a clearly illustrated abridgement of the tale of a man’s obsession and our relationship to the natural world.

The little dialogue in the production comes from pre-recorded snippets from the book, Ishmael’s thoughts that echo and reverberate like the action of waves on words. Starting with a statement from the novel’s last chapter, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”, the movement also starts with the end of the story: the actors slowly file on stage and one by one become men who have drowned, suspended in the sea. The echoing words slowly become clearer towards the end of the play, as if Ishmael’s memory of events are catching up with him, and the production ends with the first words of the novel, the only words actually spoken on stage, “Call me Ishmael.”

But how does one convey a whaling schooner, storms, and a great white whale on a tiny stage? In this case, very, very cleverly. I almost hate to give it away, the effects are so cunning – three ladders, and a number of actors with loose shirts transform into a three-masted tall ship. Actors heaving a canvas sail on the floor and a siren with a model ship become a very effectively-portrayed storm-tossed vessel. As for the unseen whale, it envelops the audience in sound that is felt as much as it is heard, courtesy of a great design from Wade Staples.

Actor David Ferry is as charismatic as his haunted character, Captain Ahab, and the way that he and Shaun Smythe’s Ishmael observe each other forms one of the most interesting relationships of this production. Another interesting contrast is formed between Starbuck (W. Joseph Matheson) and the enigmatic Fedallah (Shawn Wright) as they suspiciously regard one another. If I have one quibble with this production it is that the tolerant and respectful character of Queequeg (Marcus Nance) is sketched a little too lightly when he should be a direct contrast to the more narrow-minded members of the crew, although Mr. Nance and Mr. Smythe make it very clear that Queequeg and Ishmael greatly value their friendship.

Some of the most memorable characters in this play are not actually in the book, these being the sirens as performed by Kelly Grainger, Alison Jantzie and Lynda Sing. In grey-green, flowing garments designed by Dana Osborne they look and move exactly like one would imagine the mythical sirens should. They became turbulent oceans, seagulls, small whales, and of course temptresses. More to the point, they became the embodiment of the sea itself, as Ishmael describes in the novel: “These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Audaciously conceived and impressively drawn, this commissioned production of Moby Dick continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 18.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The rumour mill runs rampant for the 2009 season

Rumour has it...
- that Seana McKenna will play the lead in Phedre, which will then travel to San Francisco
- that Brian Bedford will be playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest (just like William Hutt did)
- that Donna Feore's husband, Colm Feore, will be returning to Stratford's stages in Cyrano or Macbeth

No casting has been officially announced as of yet.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival Announces 2009 Season

In a press release on August 18, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival announced it's 2009 playbill:

Macbeth by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre, Directed by Des McAnuff
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare, at the Festival Theatre, Directed by David Grindley
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare at the Avon Theatre, Directed by James MacDonald
Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess, at the Festival Theatre, Directed by Donna Feore
The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Directed by Martha
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, at the Avon Theatre, Directed by Brian Bedford
And a companion piece, Ever Yours, Oscar, a one-man performance compiled by Peter Wylde from the letters of Oscar Wilde, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Directed by and featuring Brian Bedford
Phèdre by Jean Racine, in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker (World première), at the Tom Patterson Theatre
The Trespassers by Morris Panych (World première), Directed by Morris Panych
Zastrozzi by George F. Walker, Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Rice Boy by Sunil Kuruvilla (no director as of yet)
West Side Story based on a conception of Jerome Robbins, at the Festival Theatre.
Book by Arthur Laurents, Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Gary Griffin, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, at the Avon Theatre. Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Directed by Des McAnuff, Choreographed by Wayne Cilento

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Delicate Balance of Palmer Park

Palmer Park
By Joanna McClelland Glass
Directed by Ron OJ Parson
Featuring Dan Chameroy, Kelli Fox, Yanna McIntosh, Nigel Shawn Williams

In 1967 there were race riots in 59 cities in the United States, the worst of which were in the Detroit civil rebellion, or the 12th Street Riot. Shortly thereafter over 100,000 Caucasians left the city in an exodus dubbed “white flight.” As a result, property values plummeted. As funding for school boards was tied to property taxes, schools and their students soon suffered from overcrowding and under-funding. However, some upper-middle-class districts had been succeeding in racial integration in both their neighbourhoods and schools: Palmer Park is the story of one such neighbourhood that tried – but ultimately failed – to uphold this ideal.

The story is much more complicated than this brief introduction, and Joanna McClelland Glass’ play does not gloss over the very real, very volatile issues of this era. No solution is offered, no happy ending is tied off in a sweet red bow. The events preceding the play are still very much retained in the memories of a living generation, and Ms. Glass deftly navigates the issues without judgment, pity or moralizing.

That being said, every person in the audience for this play will hear and see something different, depending on their own experiences. For me, white and born after the events, it is a revelation of my own naivety; for someone with memory of the events themselves it may evoke all the emotional turmoil of the time; for someone who is black, it may stir up a lot more than that. During one monologue by Dan Chameroy, who plays the white Martin Townsend, I suddenly realized that his reasonable, impassioned plea for the ideal of integration would sound completely different – and possibly arrogant – to someone with less pasty skin than I, who was overworked and whose children were suffering in an under-funded school. As such, it is a powerful piece of theatre.

Mr. Chameroy and Kelli Fox play the idealistic and naïve Townsends with just the right amount of nervous confidence and compassion as they learn more and more about the realities their neighbours, the African-American Hazletons, must endure discrimination on a day-to day basis. As the Hazletons, Yanna McIntosh and Nigel Shawn Williams are both outstanding as they (mostly) patiently explain to their new friends the lay of the land – for instance, that unless blacks are well-dressed, they will not be seated in road-side restaurants. The look of incredulous pity on Ms. McIntosh’s face as this is explained to Kate Townsend is heartbreaking.

Also living in the neighbourhood of 65% whites and 35% blacks are the Rifkins (Brad Rudy and Severn Thompson), the Marshalls (Kevin Hanshard and Lesley Ewen) and the Lamonts (David Keeley and Jane Spidell). Kevin Hanshard doubles as the beleaguered Alvin Wilkinson, who is determined to ship the extra students from a poor nearby school to the relatively wealthy Palmer Park school; his just rebuttal of Martin Townsend’s plea is firm and leaves the audience wondering: how was such a dilemma ever to be solved fairly?

Palmer Park is not all about social issues – it is as much about the things these neighbours had in common as it was in exploring their differences: the way they grew as a community and in friendship. (The baseball scene is the most memorable example of this and is pure joy to watch – a mad three or four minutes of rapid-fire, hooting dialogue from the men as they cheer on the World Series winning Detroit Tigers of 1968). It makes their subsequent departure from the neighbourhood all the more poignant.

Although the characters discuss what it is to be prejudiced and they discover perspectives on race that they had never recognized before, Palmer Park never becomes preachy, for all the education it provides. It is an illuminating play, directed with sensitivity by Ron (OJ) Parson and is definitely worth the price of admission. Palmer Park continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 21.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Best Value in Shakespeare's Universe

Shakespeare’s Universe: Her Infinite Variety
Written and Directed by Peter Hinton
Featuring Peggy Coffey, Laura Condlln, Matthew MacFadzean, Karen Robinson, Michael Spencer-Davis and Dayna Tekatch

What a great way to spend an hour and a quarter: the warmth of the sun, a cool breeze bringing the scent of nearby roses, the chirrups of birds and squirrels in the rustling leaves overhead, relaxed laughter earned by good actors with a compelling story…

What’s that? Leaves overhead? In a theatre?

Oh yes. Perhaps you have not heard, or not been by Upper Queen’s Park lately, but there is now a fifth stage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an outdoor pavilion, nestled against a tree, surrounded by a screen designed to blend into the park. On the inside is an open stage, a second scrim with London’s image on it – a London that Shakespeare would have known - and in front of the stage, bleachers. And on the stage, one of the most fun, interesting pieces of live theatre on stage this season. It is Stratford’s version of Shakespeare in the Park, but better, because it has all the professional resources that are at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to support it.

Peter Hinton’s first foray into Shakespeare’s Universe gives us the history of women in Shakespeare’s time. According to the literature of the day (mostly written by men), women fell into four categories: the maid (an unmarried girl), a scold (a woman with a sharp tongue), the moll (any woman who worked for a living but often a prostitute), and the witch (any woman who was older, poor or deformed, usually a combination of the three). Mr. Hinton’s history lesson about how women lived and loved in Elizabethan England is more entertaining - and more memorable – than any history book, especially as delivered by the four actresses portraying these women.

Dayna Tekatch plays the maid sweetly but without being too coy, and sings “A Maid That’s Deep in Love” beautifully; Peggy Coffey is at her impish best as the scolding shrew – but is most moving when mourning for her loveless marriage. Laura Condlln is pitch-perfect as the cheeky moll Bess Bridges (she and Michael Spencer-Davis provide the best sword fight of the season) and Karen Robinson’s performance as the pitiable “witch” is startling both in its compassion and sudden eerie turn (although her poise while portraying the writer Amelia Lanyer is a particularly strong moment). The men, Matthew MacFadzean and Mr. Spencer-Davis, provide the necessary balance in this mini battle-of-the-sexes as the Puritan and the Poet: the writers, politicians, lovers and opponents of these women. They also provide the necessary tenor for harmonious renditions of songs like “Hedger and Ditcher” (a distinct crowd-pleaser). The music and songs that are worked seamlessly into the fabric of the storytelling adds the extra elements of mirth and wistfulness to play about brutal age – especially brutal for women – but throughout, Her Infinite Variety reminds us that Shakespeare, as evidenced by the way they are portrayed in his plays and sonnets, was ahead of the curve in understanding how women thought and what they felt. That ribbon of hope woven into the text is as bright as its music.

Some have questioned the professionalism of the pavilion: Is an outdoor stage in keeping with the spirit of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival? I think Tyrone Guthrie, the founding artistic director who started it all under a tent, and who insisted upon the very best in every aspect of theatre – I think he’d be pretty damned proud. Shakespeare’s Universe: Her Infinite Variety is the best value going this season: with the calibre of acting, design, writing and direction, it is worth a lot more than the paltry ten-dollar admission fee, even in its rained-out location of the Café Lobby (minus the swords). It continues until September 28.

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