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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

West Side Story: A Gritty and Pretty Great Sight

West Side Story, based on a conception by Jerome Robbins, Book by Arthur Laurents Music by Leonard Bernstein, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin, Choreographed by Sergio Trujillo
Featuring Chilina Kennedy, Paul Nolan, Stephen Russell

The story: On New York City’s west side, Tony and Maria meet at a dance, and it is love at first sight. But Tony is a former Jet, and Maria’s brother is leader of the Sharks, and the teen gangs’ bitter rivalry is a wedge between the two lovers. They nevertheless dream of being together, but when the Jets square off against the Sharks for final control of their turf, their battle turns fatal, and has a heartbreaking consequence.

West Side Story may be one of the greatest musicals of all time. It was made into a film in 1961 with Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, and it is regularly revived on Broadway.

Now, forget all that, because the Stratford production of West Side Story is like nothing you’ve ever seen, and is almost the antithesis to the Hollywood movie.

First of all, the Festival’s huge thrust stage has been extended to its maximum limit, putting the audience thrillingly close to the action: the cityscape set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, overhangs part of the audience, and one design element swoops in from overhead with “illuminating” results.

Next, the original Jerome Robbins choreography – copyrighted as part of the show – was specially adapted to the thrust stage, and the choreographers now throw in a few modern martial-art moves that Mr. Robbins may have wished he’d invented. The dancers also climb, hang, perch and flip off of parts of the set in near acrobatic fashion (try not to let your jaws hit the floor – it distracts the actors).

The costumes, designed by Jess Goldstein, are terrific. It is a shame that the show’s house program has only rehearsal photos, because those Jets and Sharks jackets are great (maybe they’ll sell reproductions in the Theatre Store?), and the girls dresses are sizzling, especially in the “Dance at the Gym”, “America” and “Cool” numbers.

Then there are the individual actors. Jennifer Rias as Anita brings her own brand of heat to the show, both fiery and affectionate. She is especially sassy in the dance numbers and the “Tonight” quintet. Brandon Espinoza and his Jets may try to maintain their “Cool” before the rumble but it’s no good – their dancing is just too hot.

The "adults" of West Side Story are supposed to be out of touch with the teens, but Stephen Russell as Doc strikes the best note – ironically in a non-singing role – as the one adult who at least tries to help; when he rescues Anita from the increasingly violent Jets, Mr. Russell’s baritone, pained roar sends shivers down one’s spine.

As the maturing but still naïve Tony, Paul Nolan exudes all the optimism, courage and romantic nature of the character, and out-does any Romeo with great leaps onto Maria’s balcony. And while he has a wonderfully expressive singing voice, and is well-paired musically with her, he himself is bested by his leading lady.

Chilina Kennedy is stunning as Maria. Sparkling, animated and petite, she may look like a demure girl in love, but Ms. Kennedy’s Maria is anything but shy and retiring. She is Latina to the core: eyes snapping, she smokes a cigarette, slaps Anita full in the face, and turns the hum-able but odd “I Feel Pretty” number into one of bold dissembling – sharing her secret with us but hiding it from her friends. Ms. Kennedy just sells every moment, every song, every nuance, and nearly steals the show.

Director Gary Griffin certainly upped show’s grittiness: there is no doubt what would have happened to Anita if Doc had not appeared, there is no doubt that the lovers share a night of premarital sex, and there is no doubt about the brutal natures of the law-keepers in this world. But in the end Mr. Griffin punctuates the show tenderly: it is Anybodys, the tom-boy Jet, gently placing her hard-won gang jacket over the shoulders of the grief-stricken Maria, who demonstrates true compassion and understanding.

When it was first unleashed on audiences West Side Story changed forever how musicals were performed. Go see this production and feel that transformation for yourself – splurge on the best seats or not, just go - and bring tissues. West Side Story continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 31

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Bartholomew Fair: Bandits and Bilkers and Bawds, Oh My!

Bartholomew Fair, by Ben Jonson
Directed by Antoni Cimolino, music by Stephen Page
Featuring Jonathan Goad, Tom McCamus, Trent Pardy, Lucy Peacock, Christopher Prentice, Cliff Saunders, Brigit Wilson

The Story: A group of Puritans go off to the raucous Bartholomew Fair with various motives in mind, in particular to uncover criminal activities, only to be robbed and manipulated into being criminals themselves. Having been bettered by the wily stall-keepers at the fair, the Puritans confess their hypocrisy and join the crowd for a feast.

Pickpockets, shysters, prostitutes, and pimps with the dialogue to match - this comedy is not set in any ethereal forest. Ben Johnson set his plays in the seedier side of London life than Shakespeare did, and in no play is that more apparent than Bartholomew Fair. A sprawling play with an urban setting and at least 25 distinct characters, it is an ambitious play to be sure, and it was very ambitious of Mr. Cimolino to stage it at the Tom Patterson Theatre, where it threatens to overpower the smaller stage – it even spills over the edges and into the audience from time to time.

Other than being somewhat overwhelming to those used to more staid productions, Bartholomew Fair is sheer pleasure. Deemed “the Conservatory show”, as the younger actors from the Birmingham Conservatory get to cut their teeth alongside Stratford veterans, there are so many impressive moments it is impossible to relay them all. So, in no particular order…

For total hilarity, there is Lucy Peacock as Ursla, proprietress of the pork-stall. As befitting the central carnie around whom all the others revolve, she is bedecked in a colossal fat-suit, and she obviously revels in its grotesqueness – and if she goes over-the-top just a tad, in this case it just adds to the merriment.

As the naïve Bartholomew Cokes, a fellow with the attention-span of a gnat, Trent Pardy abandons himself to the character, just as the character abandons himself to the excitement of the fair. Mr. Pardy carries the audience into his tide of enthusiasm, a fervency which cannot be broken – not even with the loss of his money, sword, jacket, gloves, hat, marriage license, and finally fiancée.

While the first half culminates in a musical number that encapsulates a fair atmosphere – singing, dancing, stilt-walkers, acrobats, ribbons and flags flying, with even the more reserved gentility finally absorbed into the fun – the second half is nearly stolen by Cliff Saunders as Lantern Leatherhead, a puppeteer who performs the play-within-a-play. As his cohort Joan Trash, Kelli Fox looks and acts just wretched the crippled gingerbread seller, but she has a deliciously sly secret. And Jonathan Goad moves around the stage and audience taking it all in as Quarlous, a puppet-master of his own making.

As Dame Purecraft, Brigit Wilson is the prettiest Puritan that ever graced the Fair, and of the four characters who repent near the end of the play, only she and Tom McCamus as Justice Overdo find the time to properly convey how foolish they have been – the confessions of the other two, Waspe and Zeal (Brian Tree and Juan Chioran), get lost in the action and are easily missed, though their overall performances are equally comical.

The children in the play, Abigail Winter-Culliford, Christopher Van Hagen and Dawson Lott each play a child of a different class – but once they find each other in the midst of all the other action, they become fast friends, far faster than the adults around them accept each other. This small detail may go unnoticed, but it speaks volumes to the underlying theme of the play.

Opinions will differ regarding this play, and descriptions will vary wildly, but there is only one adjective that truly suits its resulting kaleidoscope: FUN. Watching this production of Bartholomew Fair is akin to riding a Tilt-a-Whirl at the mid-way: its fast-paced story is accompanied by a myriad of memorable characters, all of whom are distinctively and, in one notable case, enormously dressed. The story may be a little convoluted to follow as it moves at break-neck speed, but that is the program notes are a great assistance. A little advice: sit back, let go, and relish the enveloping chaos – it is the best way to enjoy such a ride.

Bartholomew Fair continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 2, 2009.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Back in Print

Reviews by Robyn has been picked up by The Stratford Citizen, a weekly paper serving Stratford and the surrounding area. My reivews will still be published here, but only after they have been published in the Stratford Citizen, each Thursday. Look for a review of Bartholomew Fair next Thursday, June 19.

Monday, 8 June 2009

2010 Season Rumours

Buried in a column by Richard Ouzounian last week was the following prediction for Stratford's 2010 season:

It's that time of year at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival again, when the rumours of next season's shows start tumbling over the heels of the opening nights of the current year.
The musicals are always the prize choice for speculation and I have it on reliable authority from within the organization that the two tuners for 2010 will be Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita.

Kate was last performed by the festival in 1989, starring Victor A. Young and Jayne Lewis. The Lloyd Webber rock opera has never been performed there.
The only name being rumoured as a possible director so far is John Doyle, the magician who turned shows like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street into triumphs where the cast played their own musical instruments.

Sounds like a good move if Stratford is really being as cost-conscious as it claims this season.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Three Tender Sisters, One Superb Play

Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov, adapted by Susan Coyne
Directed by Martha Henry
Featuring Dalal Badr, Kelli Fox, Lucy Peacock, Irene Pool, Tom McCamus

The Story: The three aristocratic Prozorov sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, feel trapped in their small provincial town and long for their brother Andrei to take them back to their beloved Moscow. When Andrei marries a local girl who slowly pushes them out of their own home, each sister falls into a mundane pattern of life that threatens to overwhelm their very souls.

One cannot accuse Chekhov of being too light-hearted, but we can praise Martha Henry for a deft, gentle touch with a play laden with existential angst. That is not to say the subject matter is not taken seriously, but rather that in her hands one of its dimensions is a layer of warmth that helps insulate the audience against the play’s inherent sorrow.

Every aspect of the production emphasizes this approach. The new adaptation by Susan Coyne mixes in contemporary phrases which invite the audience to chuckle more readily. The set (designed by John Pennoyer) is a cozy clutter of furniture, softly lit. Even in the second half, when the clutter is all moved upstage to evoke the sisters’ shrinking world, the red and brown-toned fabrics are snug and inviting. Composer Marc Desormeaux’s music opens with an echoing balalaika or mandolin amid swirling dappled lighting, like a dream of remembered Muscovite concerts, and then swiftly changes to a folk dance with a lighter tempo to suggest a rural town.

The actors themselves embody this warmth. Doctor Chebutykin may be a doddering, indifferent old man on paper, but James Blendick presents the doctor’s suffering in a way that allows the audience to both condemn and pity him. Peter Hutt plays Masha’s neglected husband Kulygin as both foolishly deluded and helplessly devoted – the way he holds and inhales the scent of his wife’s gloves is an almost-missed gem. Even the odd Solyony is a bit less scary as played by Juan Chioran, who establishes very early his attraction for Irina (albeit in a slightly creepy way), and gives Solyony an element of OCD that makes him less ridiculous. And as Baron Tuzenbach, a somewhat naïve man, Sean Arbuckle gives a compelling performance as he not only exudes optimism in his speech, but also hope, fear and longing in expression, even when death is staring him in the face.

Irene Poole gives a highly sympathetic portrayal as Olga, the eldest sister; one gets the feeling that her headaches are not only a result of her longing for “home”, but also as a result of carrying the burden of work and family responsibility – it is she who has the most run-ins with the usurping Natasha, played by Kelli Fox. Ms Fox gives Natasha all the peaches-and-cream sweetness of a gold-digger, with all the grace of a battleship, making her fun to hate as Andrei’s henpecking wife, played by a haunted-looking Gordon S. Miller.

Olga also protects and advises her sisters, played by Dalal Badr (Irina) and Lucy Peacock (Masha). Dalal Badr could be accused of holding back on us in the first half of the play: her Irina is sweet-tempered, idealistic and naïve, but strangely calm amid everyone else’s turmoil. It is not until the third act that Ms. Badr lets go – Irina’s strain, her panic, her misery all come pouring through, drawing the sisters closer together.

The warmth of the other characters turns up to a scorching heat with Lucy Peacock as Masha, and Tom McCamus as Lieutenant-Colonel Vershinin. As the two unhappily married characters find each other, their attraction is not only clear, it is electric. They have one love scene in which they barely touch, and another from opposite sides of the stage – it takes real masters to create that much erotic tension while still fully clothed. At their inevitable parting their anguish – particularly Masha’s - is so real, one can almost hear their hearts shatter.

Bleak as this sounds, these actresses create a tenderness in their losses, and this is best felt at the end of the play: their house no longer welcoming, Irina’s fiancée killed, and Masha’s lover gone, the sisters affirm each other and their will to go on – and they hold on to each other for dear, dear life.

Three Sisters is worth the cost of A+ seating, but bring tissues. It continues in repertory until October 3rd at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

An Earnestly Original Triumph

The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde Directed by Brian Bedford
Featuring Brian Bedford, Ben Carlson, Sarah Dodd, Sara Topham

The Story: Friends Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff reveal that they both lead double lives, and get into the habit of adopting the name Ernest as their alter-egos. Things get complicated however, when the ladies they love cannot be persuaded to love anyone by any other name but Ernest.

Brian Bedford-as-director had a tough job: how to put on an original version of a play his audience would know so well? Brian Bedford-as-actor had an even tougher job: how to play the gorgon Lady Bracknell and not come across as over-the-top, and keep the role unique in the minds of those who might have seen his late great colleague, William Hutt, perform the role in earlier productions?

In Oscar Wilde’s most beloved play, the witty, silly dialogue can easily afford moments of grandstanding, hamming it up and milking the laughter. It is a credit to Mr. Bedford-the-director that none of the cast members take that approach, and still are able to make the most of their characters.

In fact, the cast is so well balanced, so in tune with the dialogue, and so perfectly suited to their roles it is as if Oscar Wilde wrote the play just for them.

Take Robert Persichini, who plays Algernon’s butler Lane, which is a fairly small part. He is the first on stage, but immediately establishes his – and our - opinion of his master with a single, long-suffering look before even uttering a word, and the laughs just keep rolling from there.

Take Mr. Bedford-as-actor. In a small but dominating role, he nearly disappears as “Brian Bedford” and creates a completely believable haughty matriarch, one who has her own rules and will not be put upon, but one who is also surprisingly warm, and moved when the dénouement occurs. It will be a challenge for any actress – or actor - to top his portrayal after this.

Sarah Dodd channels some Maggie Smith as the prim governess, Miss Prism, and does it so well that the resemblance is both awesome and absolutely delightful. The stage-chemistry with her cohort, Stephen Ouimette (Rev. Canon Chausible) is palpable, and they are clearly enjoying their roles.

As the young women in the play, Cecily and Gwendolen, Andrea Runge and Sara Topham could not be better. Ms. Runge allows just a touch of pepper to show through Cecily’s sweetness, and one cannot miss a single thing if watching Ms. Topham’s expressive eyes – her comic-timing may even rival Mr. Bedford’s. Ms. Runge and Ms. Topham depict the most civilized cat-fight in theatre history.

As Algernon and Jack, Mike Shara and Ben Carlson are appropriately charming, roguish and irritating (Algernon) and elegant and slightly stuffy (Jack). Mr. Shara has perfected an ‘old boy’ upper-crust lisp, and pulls off being likeably aggravating with great ease. Mr. Shara and Mr. Carlson play extremely well off one another, and Mr. Carlson – last season’s very serious Danish prince – got one of the biggest laughs of the evening when, completely exasperated with the infuriating Algernon, he can merely squeak his retort in frustration.

There is one stand-out-star in this production, one that got applause every time the curtain opened on a new act – the set, designed by Desmond Heeley. A master of set magic, Mr. Heeley’s impressionistic design resembles a tinted black and white photograph. It becomes more lush in each act, as do the costumes, which by the third act are rich red, Kelly green, violet, pink and blue. It is a visual treat in and of itself, without ever overpowering the actors who play within it.

This is an intelligent-sounding play while being utterly foolish at its core, but it is directed intelligently, with a superb cast. The Importance of Being Earnest continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 30th, and is worth both the full price of admission, as well the as aching cheeks from laughing so much.

Stratford Production Moving to Broadway

The Globe and Mail announced today that last year's Stratford production of Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape, starring Brian Dennehy, is moving to Broadway in the spring of 2010.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Full of Sound, but Little Fury in Gala Opening of Macbeth

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring Geraint Wyn Davies, Colm Feore, Dion Johnstone, Yanna McIntosh, Timothy D. Stickney

The story: Goaded by the predictions of three Weird Sisters and his ambitious wife, the soldier-lord Macbeth embarks on a murderous journey to gain – and attempt to keep - the crown of Scotland.

Given that the characters in Macbeth mention their country’s name is Scotland several times, not to mention that the play is superstitiously known as the “Scottish play,” one must wonder at the logic behind setting a production of Macbeth in “mythic mid-20th-century Africa”, as it is described in the house program’s notes.

The military campaigning of ancient Scotland still translates to today’s world of course, and there are still tyrants running countries as Macbeth becomes a tyrant in Shakespeare’s play – one particular African tyrant comes readily to mind. But these connections are not clearly made, and dressing some actors in African robes and underscoring a few moments with African drum-beats does not a good Scottish play make.

Why make the three witches into colourless, mundane Weird Sisters, when deliberately setting it in a continent where superstition is still prevalent and shamanism is still practiced?

Why is the set so starkly plain and black when it is supposed to be somewhere in a continent that has such a wide variety of climates, cultures and backdrops from which to choose?

Why not draw the parallel between the future leaders of Shakespeare’s Scotland and today’s tyrants? It would only take a small step to go from King Malcolm of Scotland and Rhodesia of the 1960’s to a future King Fleance of Scotland and future Mugabe of Zimbabwe.

Director Des McAnuff had ample opportunity to create layers of depth and texture in this production, but perhaps for a lack of commitment and imagination he squandered them on pyrotechnics. (His production notes from his 1983 production, as can be viewed in the Stratford Festival edition of the play, are remarkably similar to those of 2009.)

Several actors can be honestly applauded for their attempt to lift this Macbeth out of this no-man’s land. As King Duncan, Geraint Wyn Davies is very warm and amiable; his presence is missed after Duncan’s death. Timothy D. Stickney’s Banquo is completely believable both as a soldier and political rival of Macbeth – the way he carefully watches Macbeth at all times is both menacing and illuminating. Dion Johnstone is a wonderful Macduff, and his grief over the murder of his entire family is touching, heartfelt and extremely hard to witness. Tom Rooney is pitch-perfect as the drunk and disorderly porter, giving the audience some much needed (and deserved) comic relief as he devilishly welcomes various audience members into the hell that is Glamis Castle; and Gareth Potter creates a conflicted Malcolm, one who is innocent, fearful and strangely hopeful.

Perhaps the best of them is Yanna McIntosh as Lady Macbeth. Ambitious and manipulative, she shows a Lady Macbeth who can control her husband in a variety of ways, but is at a loss when his ambition outstrips her own. Her pivotal sleepwalking scene is creepy, far more than the Weird Sisters are at any point in the production. Ms. McIntosh reveals subtleties of Lady Macbeth’s character without being obtuse, and it is through no fault of hers that the passion that is supposed to be present between Lady and Lord Macbeth is more fizzle than sizzle.

Colm Feore portrays his Macbeth as an attention seeker, living fatalistically in the moment, solving his problems as they come instead of preparing for the consequences. This sounds more exciting than it appears on stage, although Mr. Feore’s customary brilliance shines through in clearly defined moments, such as the deadpan delivery of a particularly nasty double-entendre, his holding Lady Macbeth’s eye during the description of Duncan’s death, and a truly mesmerizing banquet scene. Aside from these moments when he seems electric, one gets the feeling that Mr. Feore is thinking the same thing as the audience: “I’m not buying this.”

In this case, his director has let him down. Des McAnuff should take a lesson from Barbara Gaines at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, who recently staged her own version of a modern militaristic Macbeth: If you are going to go out on a limb with a concept, you had better have the guts to see it all the way through.

Wait for cheap tickets for this one. Macbeth continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 31.

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