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Friday, 31 July 2009

Set Change-Over

Ever wonder how a repertory company changes its sets so quickly between matinee and evening performances? Check out this video below, provided by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, of a change-over between 2008's Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet.

The men taking small steps all over the stage are unlocking the pieces of the floor - held together with coffin locks.

The entire process only takes about 2 hours, but the time-lapse video lasts only minutes.

Wilde No More: Brian Bedford presents Ever Yours, Oscar

Ever Yours, Oscar
Compiled by Peter Wylde, from the letters of Oscar Wilde
Performed by Brian Bedford

The imagination behind the gothic horror story The Picture of Dorian Gray, the acute observations of society behind Lady Windermere’s Fan, the tenderness behind The Happy Prince and the quick wit behind The Importance of Being Earnest all belong to the same man, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.

That’s Oscar Wilde, to you and me. He of the Aesthetic Movement who became the “art for art’s sake” spokesman, the dandified dresser who proudly wore the green carnation, and the brilliant mind behind those excellent drawing-room comedies, stories and fairy tales. But that is just the stuff at the surface.

As Brian Bedford dramatically reads a selection of Wilde’s letters, the veneer of this artiste begins to crack, and a different person begins to shine through.

It may surprise you to learn that Oscar Wilde toured Canada and the United States as a lecturer, famously stating that California is “a little Italy – without its art”, and that his Mormon audiences were “very, very ugly”. That in Kansas he witnessed the auctioning off of the belongings of the just-executed Jesse James, and in Leadville, Colorado, he had a lode of silver named after him after he out-drank the local miners.

Would you be surprised to learn that Oscar Wilde – the man infamously imprisoned as a sodomite - was also married and had two sons to whom he was devoted, and his letters to them are tenderness itself? That, as an inmate, he was appalled at the cruel treatment of children and to anyone who showed them the tiniest bit of compassion, and tried to change that brutal system in a letter to The Daily Chronicle?

Oscar Wilde, the man, is revealed more through his letters than his plays, and Oscar Wilde, the human being, is exquisitely revealed by Brian Bedford as he perceptively reads from them. Some letters are full of the witticisms and quips that we associate with the playwright, others are gentle love letters to not only his wife but to “Bosie”, his lover, and yet others expose his growing unhappiness and troubled days. Mr. Bedford realizes each letter with great nuance and empathy, and makes one regret Oscar Wilde’s untimely passing at 46 years of age.

Ever Yours, Oscar continues in repertory only until August 29th at the Tom Patterson Theatre. (Tip: to get the best value of the season, choose a $10 seat – on the stage – and share the limelight with Mr. Bedford!)

Thursday, 16 July 2009

No shadow for Feore: for him, the applause in Cyrano

Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmund Rostand, translated and adapted by Anthony Burgess
Directed by Donna Feore
Featuring Colm Feore, Mike Shara, Amanda Lisman

The story: Marching to the beat of his own drummer, Cyrano de Bergerac is a daring soldier who fears only that he shall never earn the love of the beautiful Roxane because of his excessively large nose. He instead chooses to use his talent for poetry to help Christian - a handsome but helplessly inarticulate soldier – to win Roxane’s affections. However, the jealous Compte de Guiche sends them both to war, where Christian learns of Cyrano’s deep love for Roxane and insists that she be told, but Roxane will lose them both before she learns the truth.

Cyrano de Bergerac is stage swashbuckling at its very finest. Seventeenth-century period gowns, capes, and bucket boots designed by Santo Loqasto, bold, romantic musical scoring by Leslie Arden, and enough intricate and well-executed sword-play to make Errol Flynn proud. With all the clashing rapiers, director Donna Feore’s set gets very busy at times, but even though one needs to shield one’s eyes against the flash of the booming canons and cracking muskets, the cacophony adds to the sheer excitement of its action, and gives the calmer moments even more distinction than they naturally contain.

Colm Feore brings Cyrano to life with all the panache that the character claims for himself. This is Mr. Feore’s show, plain and simple. His comic timing, emotional delivery and speech rhythms (even in French) are as sharp as his sword-work, and while he does not carry the show – that would be unfair to the other actors, some of whom turn in very fine performances – Mr. Feore’s power is a few notches stronger than anyone else on stage, and audiences know it. Whether it be for his portrayal of a man in the anguished throes of unrequited love, or as a man refusing to conform to society’s conventions, only those with hearts of stone will be unmoved by Mr. Feore’s performance.

Amada Lisman is effervescent as the clever Roxane – lively and beaming, one can almost feel her inner joy emanating from the stage. Her performance only lacks in one aspect in that she remains too buoyant in the second part of the play, where Roxane should gain some maturity or gravity. As such, she does not meet Mr. Feore on the same level in this half, particularly in Cyrano’s dying moments, which decreases their poignancy together.

The best stage-chemistry is actually between Mr. Feore and Mike Shara, who plays the affable but tongue-tied Christian. It is most notable in their repartee which is very quick in both their first encounter and in the “balcony” scene, although Mr. Shara holds his own when meeting with Roxane alone: he creates a stilted, nervous suitor whose awkwardness would charm the socks off of any other woman. Yet Mr. Shara also gives the role a sense of grave dignity towards the end of the play, allowing the audience to grieve for Christian almost as much for Cyrano.

Living up to his surname, Wayne Best adroitly turns Le Bret, Cyrano’s close friend, confidant and foil, into a man both infuriated and awed by the soldier-poet – in a brilliant bit of staging the two share a quiet sub-text moment, where Mr. Best demonstrates perfectly the bond between the characters without saying a word. John Vickery is perfectly detestable as Cyrano’s nemesis, Compte de Guiche, with his haughty (and slightly lecherous) delivery, and rounding out the better performances is Steve Ross as the rotund baker-poet, Rageneau – it is Mr. Ross’s flustering panic near the play’s end that really sells how badly Cyrano has been injured.

There are two things one should know about this production when preparing to attend it. The text is poetry, and Ms. Feore has translated bits of it back into the original French. However, the rapid switching from English to French and back again never interrupts the flow of the play, nor does it impair one’s understanding of what is happening (not even for those of us who only have a “cereal box” level of understanding of the language). Another thing is the aforementioned thundering and utterly blinding canon blasts and musket shots in the second half - be prepared to plug your ears for the minute or so that it lasts.

Funny, romantic, adventurous and heroic, Cyrano de Bergerac has something for everyone, and is a must-see for the entire family. It continues in repertory until November 1st at the Festival Theatre.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Ooo, so close: Julius Caesar falls just short of excellence

Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare
Directed by James MacDonald
Featuring Geraint Wyn Davies, Ben Carlson, Tom Rooney, Jonathan Goad

The Story: Fearing Julius Caesar’s meteoric rise in power after his military victories, several noblemen conspire to kill him, rather than let him become Emperor. Although he loves Caesar, Marcus Brutus is persuaded to take part in the murder for the good of his country, but his noble qualities lead to his defeat by Marc Antony and Octavius Caesar.

As Shakespeare’s plays go, Julius Caesar is dull fare by today’s media standards. Political intrigue, blood spilled in the capital, civil war: we see it nightly on the news. So it takes a director with a deft hand, and actors that ooze charisma of their own, to make this play memorable. This team comes very, very close.

It starts with Geraint Wyn Davies as Julius Caesar. Mr. Davies plays the arrogant Caesar with more nobility than ostentation, giving us a Caesar that Brutus and Marc Antony really could loyally respect. As his wife, Yanna MacIntosh has not much to do in the small role, but she telegraphs so much of Calphurnia’s fear and anxiety that she is worth watching closely, even when she is not speaking at all.

Ben Carlson plays the logical, ethical Brutus, a character who is a real enigma. He is supposed to be the tragic hero of the play, and in this Mr. Carlson nimbly succeeds. He shows every facet of Brutus’ contradictions of burden and ardor in such a powerful manner that one actually believes in his otherwise questionable reasons for murder. His monologues are thoughtful, and his chemistry with Tom Rooney as Cassius is fascinating.

Playing Brutus’ manipulator, foil and friend Cassius, Tom Rooney elevates the character past the traditional sly fox into something more interesting: a sort of outsider looking in, wanting to be respected by Caesar who instead neglects him. So Mr. Rooney’s Cassius is resentful and distrustful, but also weighty and sorrowful, resulting in a very intense performance.

As the charismatic Marc Antony, Jonathan Goad brings a few unusual touches to the role, making Antony appear as inscrutable as Brutus. At first his Antony seems merely good-natured and likeable, but Mr. Goad morphs Antony into a man of unease, sorrow, rage, and eventually into a much different character – an ambitious lecher who manipulates people as easily as Cassius.

Director James MacDonald stages some brilliant moments, but falls short on others.

Brilliant: having Brutus face the fatal consequences of an ill-timed attack, the grave markers of his fallen soldiers. It is a poignant tableau, one sure to choke-up members of military families, especially with its solemn musical cues. Not-so-brilliant: actors in the aisles representing the mob. They may make the audience feel part of the crowd, but they also obscure sight lines and impair hearing.

Brilliant: having the conspirators treat their plot as a solemn ritual – each takes a dagger in turn, and salutes Brutus with their weapons over their hearts. It lends false legitimacy to their deed. Not so brilliant: having the all-important soothsayer deliver the ‘ides of March’ warning cry from off stage, then appear on a dolly as a cripple. He hard to see in the crowd onstage and his words then sound more ridiculous than menacing.

Brilliant: having the corpse of Julius Caesar begin to bleed when it is unveiled before the mob. It is spooky, gruesome and chilling. Not so brilliant: an overhead video projection of Antony and Octavius’ battle map of Italy. It may strike a high-tech contrast with the humble camp of Brutus’ forces, but the rule is, if there’s a television screen in the room, people will watch it, and not the actors. It is too distracting.

Lastly, the set, designed by David Boechler, feels less “cold ancient history”, and more “warm, alive and now”. The costumes designs are just as interesting: in the Senate, there is a combination of elegant Edwardian and Japanese silk garments, which sounds strange, but is oddly striking. For the civil war, the Eastern influence works very well for Antony’s soldiers – they resemble Samurai warriors, while. Brutus’ soldiers are clad in winter camouflage (with a wink to Canadians).

James MacDonald has more mettle than Des McAnuff in their somewhat similar versions of militaristic Shakespeare. He digs deeper, and there are some brilliant, forceful moments. But the few missteps fracture this otherwise impressively layered production, so the whole thing does not quite reach Mount Olympus’ heights.

It is, however, the first play I am going to see for a second time.

Julius Caesar continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 31.

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