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Monday, 28 September 2009

Casting news

Fans of 2008's Cabaret will be pleased to learn of the return of Trish Lindtrom to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2010. According to her Tarragon Theatre bio, she will be appearing in The Tempest and in The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Zastrozzi: where ideas meet imagination

By George F. Walker
Directed by Jennifer Tarver
Featuring Oliver Becker, Amanda Lisman, Sara Orenstein, Rick Roberts (left), Andrew Shaver and John Vickery (far right)

The story: Zastrozzi, the master criminal of all Europe, is out for revenge on Verezzi, a younger man accused of killing Zastrozzi’s mother. When Zastrozzi and his henchman Bernardo finally catch up with Verezzi, they find that the man responsible for keeping Verezzi one step ahead of them may prove to be the bigger foe.

The story summary just provided does not come close to describing the events of this early Walker play. It is a slippery, shrewd piece that keeps the audience guessing at its true style and message. Just when you think it is set in contemporary Europe, the costumes become a mix of “now” and “19th’ century”. Just when you think it is about revenge, an idea that was falling out of fashion in the late 19th century when the play claims to be set, it becomes about art. Just when you think it is about art, it becomes about religion and the natures of good and evil. Just when you are ready for the ultimate smack-down, it becomes about the various ways humans deny their own natures. Finally, heads spinning, Zastrozzi reveals an unsettling penchant for nihilism, and all of the above is done with as much sly humour as melodrama. If there is such a thing as an existential romp, this production is it.

Jennifer Tarver’s direction is as deft as it was in last year’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and in this (literally) whip-fast version, neither she nor the cast miss an opportunity to test boundaries.

Rick Roberts plays the title role with a coolness nearing swagger, but just as he makes Zastrozzi nearly ridiculous, Mr. Roberts tears away the surface to reveal a cruelty that is sickening. Wielding a rapier almost without looking, Mr. Roberts’ Zastrozzi is a man who holds himself above all others, even those for whom he cares (in his own way).

Ultimately Zastrozzi’s foil is the Victor, played by John Vickery. In a crafty bit of staging, Zastrozzi, the master criminal, is dressed all in white, while Victor is clad in black, and wears a long coat that he never removes, making one wonder how much he is hiding. Although Victor is described as ordinary, Mr. Vickery plays the role with an edge – a thinking man’s nemesis, and arguably gives the best performance in the production.

Both characters of Bernardo (Oliver Becker, left) and Verezzi (Andrew Shaver, right) do not like to think: Bernardo, because he likes things simple, and Verezzi, because it seems beyond him to do so. As Bernardo, Mr. Becker provides some comic relief, but is as menacing as Zastrozzi in his own way. Mr. Shaver is almost all comic, because Verezzi is completely, idiotically, oblivious to the turmoil of those around him. As such, it would be very easy for Mr. Shaver play Verezzi as only a twit, but he instead provides a subtle core that makes the audience feel just a wee a bit sorry for him.

The women provide another study in contrasts. Where Sarah Orenstein’s Matilda (left) is a world-class fighter and lover – Zastrozzi’s equal, in fact – Amanda Lisman’s Julia (right) is a bird-voiced virgin who talks too much (like Verezzi, but with more self-awareness). Ms. Orenstein and Mr. Shaver provide one kind of sex-scene while Ms. Lisman and Mr. Roberts provide another, very different kind, but audience members will have to decide for themselves on their efficacy.

The excellent direction and performances, plus superb, imaginative weapon-work, gutsy costumes, sound and lighting (provided by fight directors Tom Campbell and Simon Fon, Theresa Przybylski, Jesse Ash and Robert Thomspon, respectively), makes Zastrozzi a wild, wild ride. In the small Studio Theatre you will get to know them all, perhaps a little too intimately for your own comfort, but you will not regret it.

Zastrozzi is my favourite production of the 2009 season, and I would not hesitate to see it again. It continues in repertory only until October 3rd.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Love, Loss and Letting Go: the pattern of life in Rice Boy

Rice Boy
By Sunil Kuruvilla, Directed by Guillermo Verdecchia
Featuring Deena Aziz, Raoul Bhaneja, Anita Majumdar, Araya Mengesha, Sam Moses

The Story: Set in the 1970s, 12-year-old, Canadian-born Tommy questions why his father takes them back to India, where he has a hard time adjusting to the culture. He bonds with his older cousin Tina, a paraplegic who is about to be married but who has never left her home. Together they sneak out and discover a world foreign to both of them while the adults at home try to sort out their messy lives.

Upon reading the notes for Rice Boy, based on past productions of the play, one could expect to see a play about an Indian immigrant’s dilemma in Canada. Or about a Canadian’s dilemma in moving to India. With this latest rewrite of Sunil Kuruvilla’s Rice Boy, one gets neither, so look at the people inside the saris and find an altogether more universal quandry. The costumes, music and lighting all deceive one into thinking this is a play about India, but it is not.

Each character is haunted. Father, played by Raoul Bhaneja (far right), still wonders about his wife who drowned ten years earlier. Grandfather (Sam Moses, right), sleepwalks because he lost his wife three months ago and must find her. Uncle (Sanjay Talwar) is obsessed with the thought that his wife will leave him for another man after Tina’s wedding, but his wife (Auntie, played by Deena Aziz) cannot forget his emotional infidelity. Their servant girl (Asha Vijayasingham) clings to thoughts of former romance with her estranged husband, and back in Canada a grieving father (Jonathan Purdon) is haunted by an image on a milk carton.
Only two characters remain pragmatic. Fish Seller (Anand Rajaram) is Servant Girl’s estranged husband, but has moved on from their relationship. Tina (Anita Majumdar) pushes her family’s buttons, gets her own way, taunts her young cousin and finally - disappears. We are not told what happens to her, and the mystery is what haunts Tommy (Araya Mengesha) back in Canada.

Looking at Rice Boy from this perspective the stories are all too familiar, and while there are occasional references to math professors being underemployed in fast-food joints, the immigrant’s dilemma is not at the heart of this revision.

Anita Majumdar gives a Tina a surprising edge, sometimes as bratty as Tommy, other times betraying a strength that would not hold her back but for the use of her legs. Raoul Bhaneja and Araya Mengesha (left, with Sam Moses) have a great dynamic as Father and Tommy. Mr. Mengesha pulls off a 12-year-old’s brattiness, curiosity and budding rebellion very well, and Mr. Bhaneja is great as the anxious father who – for the most part – puts on a brave act in front of the others. It is his newfound ability to move on, realized at the end of the play, which reconciles he and Tommy, and gives the audience faith that a new balances can be struck, and new happiness discovered.

All the while, the intricate rice-flour kolam patterns are created and then swept away, a metaphor for the play’s ultimate truth, that “things are transitory and should be celebrated and embraced for their impermanence”. I do not know if former versions of this play focused more on assimilation issues, but this one has a very simple message - seize the day, but then let it go.

Rice Boy continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 3.

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