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Friday, 15 July 2011

Review: Difficult but worth it - Titus Andronicus

John Vickery as Titus Andronicus.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann.

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

The story:  Having returned from 40 years of fighting for Rome, General Titus Andronicus turns down the emperor’s laurel, bestowing it upon the late emperor’s eldest son, the debauched Saturninus. However, Titus’ fortune abruptly turns when his daughter Lavinia, who is legally betrothed to another man, defies her father’s wish that she marry Saturninus. In a rage, Titus kills one of his own sons who helped Lavinia escape, and Saturninus takes the captive Tamora, queen of the Goths, as his own queen. She immediately begins plotting revenge on Titus, who would not spare her eldest son from ritual slaying, and when Lavonia pays the ultimate price, Titus vows to take his own path of brutal revenge with horrific consequences.

Titus Andronicus is not a tragedy in the truest sense. There is a lot of death – gruesome death, in fact – but no character ever realizes their own part in bring about their own destruction. If they do, they are unrepentant and defiant to the ugly end.  It is a difficult play for modern audiences to enjoy in the strictest sense of the word, what with the barrage of images from war-torn countries in the past sixty years.

However, in the hands of director Darko Tresnjak, it becomes something disturbingly enjoyable. This is his third or fourth kick at the Andronici can, and although he thankfully dials it back from beheadings with chainsaws to a Beatles’ soundtrack, Mr. Tresnjak brings out every moment of the inopportune, dark humour he can in this Roman world. Feuding, immature brothers, an Edward-Scissorhands flashback, and changing the order of the text just to get a parting giggle from a relieved audience... Mr. Tresnjak pulls no punches.

The production is fantastic. The set is a bare, marble slab set with three illuminated altars, and four scaffold pillars topped with torsos of men in the throes of rage and agony, constantly spotlit. The costumes designed by Linda Cho are white and blood-red (tribunes), bright blue (Andonici), purple and gold (emperor and empress), and although very Roman-looking, Tamora in particular looks every bit the warrior as she hunts the Andonici.  The lighting by Itai Erdai is by turns fractured and brilliant – literally – illuminating Rome’s growing corruption and Lavinia’s mutilation – the audience cannot ignore it if they tried.

In the intimate setting of the Tom Patterson Theatre, no one can ignore the performances, either. At the head of a very strong ensemble, John Vickery is completely believable as Titus, the general with such a firm belief in traditions to the detriment of even the law. By turns quietly menacing, enraged and tender, Mr. Vickery’s brand of quirky humour is well-suited to Mr. Tresnjak’s direction, giving a wry reading of the ‘murdered fly’ scene with his brother Marcus. David Ferry highlights Marcus Andronicus’ voice of reason, as well as to some of the more beautiful poetry of the play – it is evident that one brother is the tribune, the other the warrior when Mr. Ferry and Mr. Vickery share the stage.

Two other brothers are more farcical – Brendan Murray and Bruce Godfree are comical in their immaturity, slinking like curs to their mother’s side in fear, all the more sickening in their rape of Lavinia because one gets the sense they do it only to outdo each other, without thought for the consequences.
Amanda Lisman as Lavinia.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann

Amanda Lisman portrays the doomed Lavinia, giving her poise and a degree of haughtiness before her downfall, and giving a prolonged illustration of medical shock when reappearing stained with blood before being gently comforted by Marcus and her eldest brother, Lucius (finely played by Paul Fateaux).  A further warning: Ms. Lisman’s rendering of mute anguish may haunt your imagination long after the play lets out.

The true villain of the play is Aaron, lover to queen Tamora, played with an alarming charisma by Dion Johnstone. An early version of Iago, Aaron is unrepentant of his masterminded crimes, but as shown by Mr. Johnstone, almost unbelievably tender to his newborn son. Despite Aaron’s villainy, one may find that Tamora is the scarier character; Claire Lautier brings a calculating watchfulness and a wrath worthy of Jupiter to the role - she and Mr. Vickery have two of the finest stage voices in the cast. Coming up in third place for villain is Sean Arbuckle’s slimy, creepy Saturninus – he comes third only because the others are so evil, plus there is a suggestion that Tamora is trying to poison him. He is the outward face of debauchery – the others keep it well hidden.
Claire Lautier as Tamora.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann.

By play’s end there are at least 13 deaths, some off-stage but most on. There are mutilations and a rape, and even some cannibalism. And in this production, there is plenty of realistic spurting of blood. This is not meant to scare anyone away from the production – forewarned is forearmed. So while it is hard to like the play itself, this production is certainly worth seeing at least once. It is a rarely done play, and even rarer is it done with such crisp perception in both acting and direction.

It is akin to Stephen Ouimette and Peter Donaldson’s 2004 production of Timon of Athens. It is that good.

Titus Andronicus continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24, 2011.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Review: Stellar - The Little Years

Bethany Jillard as young Kate.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann.

The Little Years
By John Mighton
Directed by Chris Abraham
Featuring Irene Poole, Yanna McIntosh, Bethany Jillard, Chick Reid

The story: 14-year-old Kate has big thoughts about the nature of time but physics and sciences are not considered feminine in the 1950’s. Her scientific potential gets buried deep within her, turning her bitter, angry, and eventually clinically depressed as an adult. It is only through the persistence of her sister-in-law Grace, and Grace’s daughter Tanya, that Kate and her dreams begin to live.

The stage is a white-board of a canvas, reaching into the aisles. Four bright spotlights slowly change position to a soundscape of birds, an occasional plane, frogs, the wind and a low undercurrent of buzzing bass. Young Kate steps onto the stage, her face alight with wonder, listening. Older Kate also steps onto the stage, her face a mask of bitterness. The spotlights coalesce onto the younger girl, and the play begins.

Bethany Jillard plays young Kate (and later her own niece, Tanya). Young Kate is smart – scary smart. Far too smart for a patriarchal, Judeo-Christian school system of the 1950’s. Ms. Jillard is pitch-perfect as the naïve, socially awkward genius, lighting up when talking about time and physics, extinguished when teased, matter-of-fact and unsentimental about her brother’s poetry award and her father’s death – much to the perturbation of her mother.
Irene Poole as Kate.
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann

As the angry adult Kate, actor Irene Poole is by turns dynamic, secretive, and after being institutionalized where she received electric shock therapy and an experimental drug called ‘prozac’, she is a deadened, numb Kate, less ascerbic, but a shadow of her former self. Her sister-in-law Grace, played in name and bearing by Yanna McIntosh, is her constant supporter; her brother William of whom Kate is jealous, is ever-present in name only, a successful and famous writer. He is represented in body by the artist Roger (Evan Buliung) whose success also riles Kate, because he chases time through his art, yet is something he does not truly understand.

The nature of time is mentioned frequently in t he play. A clock is heard ticking, decades pass in seconds, a watch is engraved with “Forever”, a lover will return ‘in a minute’, squares of light swing back and forth on the stage like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, the characters age, some die. Reputations change with time – being the “Barry Manilow of painting” in the 1970’s is a lot better than being called the same in the 1990’s, especially when  the artist in question bothers to try to understand time, and it ruins him as a painter. Poets fall out of fashion, girls can study science. Kate feels her time has run out, but learns that the theory of time of which she has always been jealous  - linear - will not actually complete her. Kate’s time is relative – quantum time - she will be remembered, she inspired more than one person, and her life does have meaning. 

Part of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that the act of observation influences the event they observe. It also affects the observer. Nowhere is this more true in live theatre – the enthusiasm of an audience is felt by the actors on stage, and they in return pour more into their performances, which moves the audience to joy or sadness. As Kate comes to her final revelation, Ms. Jillard, Ms. McIntosh and especially Ms. Poole create one of those moments in theatre that can lift and carry a person through their whole lives.

Irene Poole as Kate, Bethany Jillard as Tanya
Photo by Celia von Tiedemann

First performed at Theatre Passe Muraille in 1995, mathematics professor John Mighton has “rewritten and polished” his play that examines the intertwined strings of potential, immortality and time. Although one might think the subjects of Newtonian, linear, circular and quantum time more suited to the halls of academia, it is the heart-warming story of a woman crushed by the weight of her dreams who finds redemption that will appeal to all. The Little Years has a little run in a little theatre – it plays in repertory only until September 24 at the Studio Theatre. Get your tickets in time – that’s linear time, not quantum.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Review: Still Bittersweet - Shakespeare's Will

Seana McKenna as Anne Hathaway in
Shakespeare's Will. Photo by Andrew Eccles. 2007

By Vern Thiessen
Directed by Miles Potter
Featuring Seana McKenna

The Story:  Coming home from Shakespeare’s funeral, his wife, Anne Hathaway, cannot yet bring herself to open his last will and testament. Instead, she allows herself to be swept away on a tide of memories of their life together… and their life apart.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival premiered Shakespeare’s Will in 2007, and since then the husband and wife team of director Miles Potter and actor Seana McKenna have taken it to the Globe Theatre in Regina, where Peter Hartwell redesigned the formerly square, raised set into the rounded, octagonal set they are using today. Spare, wooden, and decorated with only a simple stool and a lantern hanging from one of two striped posts, it is reminiscent of a ship’s wheel or deck, which is most appropriate given the language of the play.

Very little is known about the historical Anne Hathaway, but in playwright Vern Thiessen’s imagination Anne is very much tied to the sea – her father was a sailor and it was at the seashore where they found refuge when a plague seized their town and carried of her mother. Anne carries the sea with her throughout her life, its alliterative language colouring everything she says and does, its tides becoming a metaphor for the play, for her life with “Bill”.

Drifting from the present – were Bill’s sister Judith is expected and a will waits to be read – back through time to her life while Bill was alive, each person in Anne’s memory - and Anne herself - is given voice by actor Seana McKenna. The present is lit coldly, a dreary rainy day reflected on the floor of their home, the sound of distant thunder interrupting Anne’s thoughts. The past is bright and warm with sepia tones – an altogether happier place, for the most part, where music (composed by Marc Desormeaux) gently underscores each memory.  

Anne’s memories are of a Shakespeare who is inarticulate when flirting, a proud but absent father, a man passionate about writing and theatre, and a man who is ultimately as spiteful as his sister. Anne is a woman who likes the company of men, who doesn’t understand her husband’s passion, and who, despite their private vow to live separate lives and to hold dear to the things they love, misses her husband’s presence. She is also a woman – as demonstrated by Ms. McKenna – who knows her own strength, and will prevail whatever the unread will reveals.

As a performer, Ms. McKenna is a dream to watch in this role. With a simple change of vocal tone she immediately illustrates the essence of each personality – Judith’s maliciousness or her father’s laughable disgust (“Shakespeare?!?”). Any mother in the audience will recognize Anne’s panic as Ms. McKenna brings a sleep-deprived first-time mother to life, and many wives may relate to Anne’s own unease in her home life – the tale of a marriage with an absentee spouse is no rarer today than it was 400 years ago.  Ms. McKenna brings out of this imagined Anne her humour, her sensuality, and her pain. As the play nears an end, the fateful will is read, and although it reveals a husband more bitter than she would ever have imagined, Ms. McKenna’s final pose – as a ship’s figurehead – shows that Anne will be as ‘safe as sailing’; when the wind is up, she will move on.

It is a rare and wonderful thing to be able to see a play one has loved a second time, four years after seeing it for the first time, and see it improved. Not just a different production of the same play, but the same play, in the same theatre, with the same director, and the same actress bringing it to life. One might be tempted to think, “oh, how boring!” but this kind of statement would only demonstrate one’s ignorance. Because in the past four years, this same play has been refined by the same director, creative team and actress to within an inch of perfection, and one would be a fool of the first order to miss this production of Shakespeare’s Will.  It continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 2, 2011.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Review: Vimy - mired in a no-man’s land of amiguity

Directed by Eric Coates

The story: In a field hospital in France four soldiers wounded at Vimy Ridge recount to their nurse how they came to be part of one of the most famous battles in Canadian WWI history, and reveal how the experience will forever change their futures.

With two family members serving in Canada’s Armed Forces and a strong respect for our military history, I expected to feel nostalgic, or patriotic at the play’s end. It is doubtful that on seeing this production anyone unfamiliar with Vimy’s role in Canadian history will attach any more significance to it. But, it turns out, patriotism and Canada’s history are not really the point of Vimy.

The play is about the individuals – Vimy Ridge is just their setting. The four soldiers and their nurse all come from different parts of Canada, and have different backgrounds, educations, religions, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Each one joins “the cause” of the war for different reasons: For country. To become a warrior. For a different life. To escape. To follow.  They are a cross-section of Canadian people that in joining a bigger cause get thrown together where they might otherwise never have met - they are concentrated at one particular battle, a battle that comes to define their nation for a time – not that they will realize that for some time. But as individuals, each character remains as isolated as before, maybe more so, by the circumstances that each faces as they ready for the battle of Vimy Ridge, and from its results. As one character puts it – Vimy will forever be the “mess… stuck inside”. Each character remembers this mess both collectively and differently; this is what the playwright examines.

Memory is often slippery, and Thiessen plays with memory in a circular way. Each character is brought to the fore, slips into his past before the war, comes back to the present, and eventually each character’s story becomes bound to the others. Perhaps this is why the play felt more theatrical, and less gritty than one might expect.

Sebastien David and Meegwun Fairbrother are in particular memorable as Jean Paul Metivier and Mike Goodstriker.  And as usual Blyth manages to convey a great deal of landscape with a set of simplicity and imagination. The direction does get confused between the individual and an anti-war message from time to time though, and some of the performances are slightly ambiguous.  The second half of the play – particularly those parts where the soldiers are remembering the planning stages for Vimy – are more real, more visceral and therefore more moving than the more poetical first half.  One just wishes the same passion could have been carried throughout the rest of the play.

There is no doubt that our veterans and military families will find much to relate to and identify with in this production of Vim, I am just not sure how much a wider audience can take away from it. Just as Thiessen demonstrates how memory is slippery, there is an undefinable something that is missing in this production of Vimy; be it the fault of the playwright or director, it is hard to tell.

Vimy continues at the Blyth Festival until August 6, 2011.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Spoke too soon?

The Beacon Herald is now reporting that rumours of Cynthia Dale's return to Stratford's stages may be greatly exaggerated...

[exerpt] "Dale's manager and the Festival's Des McAnuff and Antoni Cimolino all say any announcement is a bit premature.

Her manager told The Beacon Herald there have been conversations but there is not a "done deal" as of yet."

"I can't say enough about the talents of Cynthia," said McAnuff, the Festival's artistic director.

"But we haven't signed a single contract for 2012." That was a position echoed by Cimolinio. "We will be announcing casting in the months ahead," said Cimolino, adding, "Cynthia has been a very important part of the Stratford Festival and I would love to see her back very soon."

Dale -- a "triple threat" who sings, dances and acts -- was the marquee actress for the Festival for almost a decade, but hasn't been at the Festival since 2007." - John Kastner, Managing Editor, Stratford Beacon Herald

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Brian Bedford withdraws from Misanthrope for medical reasons

Brian Bedford

July 4, 2011… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival regrets to announce that Brian Bedford has been forced to withdraw from the 2011 season for medical reasons. Mr. Bedford was to have played Oronte in The Misanthrope.

“Brian’s condition is treatable, and it is expected that he will make a full recovery,” said Artistic Director Des McAnuff. “However, it does require immediate medical attention, which means he will not be able to take part in The Misanthrope.
“I know this is a huge disappointment to Brian, as it is to all of us here, but we look forward to his return to our stages in future seasons. In the meantime, we send him our very best wishes for a speedy recovery.”

“We’re very sorry to hear of this health challenge for Brian, who is not only an immensely gifted colleague but also a dear friend,” said General Director Antoni Cimolino. “As much as we will all miss him this season, it is vitally important that he address this issue immediately, so we can go on enjoying his work and his company for many years to come.”

Mr. Bedford has just completed an enormously successful Broadway run of The Importance of Being Earnest, which he originally directed for the Festival’s 2009 season. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Lady Bracknell in the production.

Peter Hutt will assume the role of Oronte. He is also playing Muley Graves and the Contractor in The Grapes of Wrath. In 12 seasons at Stratford, Mr. Hutt has played a number of leading roles, including Alonso in last season’s acclaimed production of The Tempest, with Christopher Plummer. In addition to 20 seasons at the Shaw Festival, Mr. Hutt has performed across Canada and has done extensive work in film and television.

“Peter and I both went to Ryerson and he was always my favourite actor in the class. It is gratifying that we have an actor with such pedigree and of such stature ready to step into the role. I think it speaks volumes about the strength of our current acting company,” says Mr. McAnuff.

The Misanthrope, directed by David Grindley, begins previews on July 31. It opens officially on August 12 and runs to October 29, featuring Ben Carlson as Alceste, Juan Chioran as Philinte and Sara Topham as Célimène.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2011 season runs until October 30, featuring The Merry Wives of Windsor, Camelot, Twelfth Night, The Misanthrope, The Grapes of Wrath, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Homecoming, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Will, The Little Years and Hosanna.


Monday, 4 July 2011

2012 Casting: Cynthia Dale returns for 42nd Street

Cynthia Dale
Richard Ouzounian reported in yesterday's Toronto Star that Cynthia Dale will be returning to Stratford stages in 2012 as Dorothy Brock in 42nd Street.

Ms. Dale, a resident of Stratford, has been absent from our stages in recent years. In previous years she has performed all the great leading ladies, like Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady), Nellie Forbush (South Pacific), Maggie the Cat (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), Reno Sweeney (Anything Goes), Sarah Brown (Guys and Dolls) and that spunky nun, Maria (The Sound of Music).

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Review: Hometown worth a visit

Directed by Peter Smith

A string of projections and voiceovers reminiscing about growing up in or around Blyth, Ontario, sets the stage for the series of plays known collectively as Hometown. “Fond nostalgia” would be the order of the day, it would seem, and so a heavy dose of sentiment is subsequently delivered, with varying degrees of success.

The least successful is Des Walsh’s “New Bonaventure, Newfoundland”, a look-back at Newfoundland pre and post the colony’s joining Canadian confederation. A trio of actors take the stage but are given nothing to do, and what little there is to say is delivered statically and without a decent Newfoundland accent among them (I know it's a hard one to mimic, but I can say this with conviction, being from the Rock myself.)   The “poor us” attitude of Confederation lamenting has been done to death, and the fierce pride of so many Newfoundlanders is missing. Finally, there is any number of Newfoundland anthems  worthier to end the piece than the melancholy dirge Walsh provides.

Moving on to Quebec, is Jean Marc Dalpe’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”. Told in two time periods, we meet Louis, who, having grown up in Alberta, Louis resents his mother’s  over-the-top Christmases that are rife with old Quebec traditions, and does not understand her perseverance in the very thing that made him stand out in Alberta. On the other side, we learn that his mom never really wanted to leave her rural Quebec village – she only did so that Louis would have the better life that he did indeed grow up to have. The dual identity that Louis feels and the deep connection of his mother to her Quebec roots show how complex “home” can become to those who leave roots elsewhere. Marion Day as the mother and Ryan Bondy as Louis both turn in excellently torn performances.

Next is Peter Smith’s “A Way to the Stars”, set in 1969 Barrie, Ontario. Two boys growing up, doing boy things – experiencing the euphoric wonder of the moon landing, illegally buying smokes from the scary shop-keeper, and looking back at their town from the unique perspective of the middle of Lake Simcoe, having skated out to the middle during the winter (kudos to Pat Flood for the simple and clever rendering of hockey skates). Such happy memories are tinged with tragedy, but Smith’s assertion - that you take home with you, in the memories of those you loved most – is no less potent for its predictable sentimentality.

“Things to Remember” by Meiko Ouchi has a different slant on ‘home’ that it is the lessons taught by those who love us well is what creates the feeling family. The patriarch of a prairie homestead in the early 1900’s is an affectionate father but somewhat of a mystery to his two sons.  He has ten lessons that he lives by, and he not only teaches the boys to memorize them by heart, he shows how to apply them in real life. “The pleasure of working.” “The influence of example.” “The dignity of simplicity.” The boys learn about their father, their own history, and take these lessons into the future.

“The Bog”, by Martha Ross, is perhaps the most interesting play and the best performed. Less about ‘home’ than the nature of memory, we meet a writer named Tracey who is preparing a lecture about the town where she grew up, on the outskirts of Vancouver. It seems there was a bog on the edge of this town, where fantastic people lived and mysterious events took place. But did they happen exactly as Tracey remembers? As Tracey types, a sinister fellow – perhaps her conscience – keeps haranguing her to remember things truthfully. With lightening speed and dialogue to match, people from her memory enter and exit and change on stage, reenacting events of her childhood, until Tracey is forced to admit that truth is a ‘whole lot different from reality’ – and the truth of memory is different still. Marion Day plays Tracey, and although she has been long known as a fine actor, I had no idea she had the great comic chops she displays in this piece. She’ll have you in stitches.

Tying all the plays together is “Thea” by Mansel Robinson. Thea (performed wonderfully by Kira Guloien) is a teenage, techno-babbling girl who is pissed that her mom is dragging her – by train – across the country to go back to her hometown after splitting with her dad. She comes and goes between the other plays, giving the audience monologue updates on her cell-phone and blog status, her attempts to get into the bar-car, and the people she’s met (even “really old” people - in their 30’s). The journey across Canada is a metaphor for Thea’s coming-of-age, and she comes to understand her mother a little more, admits nervousness about fitting into a new town, and is unabashedly, humbly surprised when she sees her cousins at the station waiting to greet her. Having found ‘home’, she thanks the audience for listening, and tells us to stop by anytime.

Do stop by the Blyth Festival to catch Hometown. It plays in repertory until August 7, 2011.

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