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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Review: Stranger than Reality TV: The Homecoming

Brian Dennehy as Max, Ian Lake as Joey, Cara Ricketts as Ruth,
Stephen Ouimette as Sam, Aaron Krohn as Lenny.
Photo by Celia Von Tiedemann
Directed by Jennifer Tarver

The Story: Family patriarch Max lives in perpetual struggle for supremacy with his two grown sons, Lenny and Joey and his brother Sam in a run-down part of London in the 1960’s. Their fragile but dysfunctional apple cart is upset by the arrival of Max’s eldest son, Teddy, and his wife Ruth, home after living in America for six years.

 “Pinteresque” is a phrase used to describe typical features of Harold Pinter’s plays; dramatic pauses, black comedy, an absurd story, repeated phrases that seem to mean more than they appear. A Pinter play is as much about what is not said as is spoken.

A Pinter play is not light fare; Max and his sons are not The Waltons, this is not your feel-good kind of story. Unless your own life looks better by comparison, you are not apt to exit this play feeling very good about the human condition.  Even The Grapes of Wrath – depressing as it is – leaves you with the life-affirming knowledge that the characters will soldier on, in pursuit of something better. With The Homecoming, you just hope you never run across people like these characters and that they never procreate.

This story is for those who like examining people’s unspoken motivations. It is a marvelous play to study; to delve into, pick apart its meanings, dissect characters, to examine themes. It is not a play one enjoys watching.

Not that the direction is not crisp or the acting sharp. Jennifer Tarver has a knack with the darkly humorous, there is no doubt about that. Aaron Krohn makes Lenny into a sociopath – menacing one moment, charming the next; Cara Ricketts is an enigmatic, shrewd Ruth; Stephen Ouimette’s Sam is a gentleman out of place among predators, both haunted by and reveling in secrets. As portrayed by Mike Shara, Teddy is strangely apart but still very much one of Max’s son’s, and Ian Lake turns Joey into an animalistic man-boy.  As their father Max, Brian Dennehy is at his best when quietly bullying, switching gears from intimidating to nostalgic as fast as Lenny changes from charming to snaky.  

But as good as the direction and performers are, it is not a play one can enjoy watching. The characters are cruel or at best aloof. The comedy is of the uncomfortable kind, the laughs generated by pitiless insults and emotional abuse, rather than any genuine mirth. It is a joyless story, the characters remorseless, the action callous.

The set (by designer Leslie Frankish) is just another clue to the bleakness of the characters’ existence. Dark, dingy wallpaper, a dirty front window, shabby and worn furniture; there are plenty of light fixtures, but only a few of them are turned on at any one time.  There is an empty, faded spot where a framed picture once had pride of place, representing the long-dead Jesse, Max’s wife. Whither went she, we are not told. But we are somehow glad she escaped this den of amoral iniquity one way or another.

Watch The Homecoming forearmed with knowledge of the play for best results; Robert Cushman provides a fine analysis of the play’s themes in his review. The Homecoming continues until October 30 in repertory at the Avon Theatre.  

Ian Lake as Joey, Cara Ricketts as Ruth, Brian Dennehy as Max,
Aaron Krohn as Lenny.
Photo by Celia Von Tiedemann

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Festival adds The War of 1812 to 60th season playbill

Play marks anniversary of key moment in Canadian history

August 17, 2011… The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is adding an exciting new production to its 2012 season. The satirical historical drama The War of 1812 will be produced in collaboration with VideoCabaret and presented in an intimate, specially designed performance space. The production has been selected to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which coincides with the Festival’s 60th season.

Written by Michael Hollingsworth, The War of 1812 is one segment of a play cycle entitled The History of the Village of the Small Huts, a satirical retelling of the nation’s history, tracing the evolution of the “Canadian identity” as a comedy of manners. The original productions premièred to great acclaim from 1985 to 1999 and have since expanded to 20 plays, honoured by 24 Dora Mavor Moore Awards. The War of 1812 is being reinvented for the Stratford production based on newly available research and new inspiration.

“I have admired Michael Hollingsworth’s work since the 1970s,” says Artistic Director Des McAnuff. “Not only is VideoCabaret’s The History of the Village of the Small Huts a substantial Canadian theatrical achievement, it also represents the life’s work of this extraordinary playwright. We are tremendously proud to be presenting The War of 1812 as part of our 60th season.”

One of the Studio Theatre rehearsal halls will be converted to a performance space with a capacity of 72, designed to accommodate the special staging technique for which VideoCabaret is renowned. The production will run for 55 performances between June 26 and August 12, 2012.

“We are delighted to welcome VideoCabaret to Stratford and look forward to our collaboration on this brilliant satirical work,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “In 1812 Canada and the United States were enemies at war, and now we have perhaps the closest and most trusting relationship of any two nations. Attracting visitors from throughout North America, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival can now offer a truly international audience the opportunity to explore the question: what could we have been fighting about?”

VideoCabaret’s unique staging style moves at a cinematic tempo as colourful scenes are conjured up in a black-box set. Using spectacular quick-change costumes and scene-setting props, seven actors portray about 40 characters, who appear and vanish as if by magic.

“Des McAnuff and his superb team have welcomed our company with open arms,” says Mr. Hollingsworth, who in addition to being the playwright shares the position of Artistic Co-Director of VideoCabaret with Deanne Taylor. “We are honoured to launch a new performance space and thrilled to bring our work to the greatest gathering of theatre-lovers on the continent.”

Mr. McAnuff and Mr. Cimolino have planned the 60th season not only as a milestone in the Festival’s history but also as a signpost to its future. The playbill marries the best of Stratford tradition with contemporary innovation and exploration. With the addition of this latest piece, which opens on Canada Day, the 2012 season includes seven Canadian works – Christopher Plummer’s A Word or Two, Rick Miller’s MacHomer, Michael Hollingsworth’s The War of 1812, Canadian poet Anne Carson’s adaptation of Elektra and the world premières of Morris Panych and Marek Norman’s Wanderlust, Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson’s Hirsch and Daniel MacIvor’s The Best Brothers.

Other works being presented in 2012 are Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Cymbeline, The Matchmaker, 42nd Street, The Pirates of Penzance and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

“These seven Canadian works – two of which are Festival commissions – represent 50 per cent of the 2012 season. These productions demonstrate our commitment to Canadian plays and will provide our audiences with an opportunity to explore the vast complement of Canadian theatre alongside our classical offerings,” says Mr. McAnuff. “Thornton Wilder did much of the writing for The Matchmaker here at Stratford – he adapted it from his own Merchant of Yonkers at the suggestion of Tyrone Guthrie in what we could describe as the Festival’s first playwright residency.”

“With productions like The War of 1812 – and also MacHomer – we are reaching out to other theatre companies,” says Mr. Cimolino, “and at the same time we are providing an opportunity for these artists to connect with a broader audience.” 
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2011 season runs until November 6, 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.


Sunday, 14 August 2011

Review: A Lesson in Class - The Misanthrope

Members of the Misanthrope cast. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedmann

By Moliere; translation by Richard Wilbur
Directed by David Grindley

The Story: Alceste is fed up with the two-faced nature of everyone at court, and is resolved to leave mankind behind to live like a hermit where he is free to speak the unvarnished truth. Unfortunately for him, he happens to be in love with one of the falsest creatures on earth, the charming coquette Célimène. When Alceste’s brutal honesty lands him in trouble with the law, and Célimène’s behaviour gets her censured in public, these two opposites may have a chance to attract – but can either of them bend enough to accept the others’ faults?

Director David Grindley was last at Stratford to direct the punk-rock-n-roll Midsummer Night’s Dream of 2009. In that production he gave the play a fresh, almost wild look; in directing Moliere’s The Misanthrope in 2011 however, he stepped back and set it in the Rococco period, roughly 100 years after the Baroque play was penned. This means that this very talky play has little action, but a lot of style.

The set, designed by John Lee Beatty, is a veritable chocolate box of gilding, drapery and light. And the costumes! Robin Fraser Payne’s designs must have take the wardrobe department a year’s worth of work to stitch, and in particular the dress worn by Sara Topham is a frothy confection of pink ruffles, bows and flounces, that could have been lifted straight from The Swing, a 1767 painting by Jean-Honore Fragonard. (Not that the other women’s dresses and men’s multi-layered suits are anything to sneeze at either.)

The acting is anything but frothy, even thought the tone remains light. As Alceste, the Misanthrope of the title, Ben Carlson is as masterful with Moliere as he is with Shakespeare, turning translator Richard Wilbur’s rhyming couplets – which could sound like Dr. Seuss in many actors’ mouths – into everyday conversation. He takes Alceste from rage to heartbreak without ever missing a beat, and one does feel the truth and conviction of the character at every turn.

Sara Topham as Celemine, Ben Carlson as Alceste.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedmann
Alceste’s love interest, Célimène, is played with both fire and wide-eyed – but false - sweetness by Sara Topham. She shows Célimène to be immature with her petulant rages, but with a slowly dawning realization that she may have gone too far with her behaviour. She also gives as good as she gets, taking on both her rival Arsinoé and her lover Alceste and often getting the better of them. Ms. Topham and Mr. Carlson share one fantastically stormy scene which is riveting in its passion, humour and sweetness.

Kelli Fox as Arsinoe.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedmann
Alas, Alceste’s ‘radical honesty’ and Célimène’s gossipy slander is no more popular in 1666 as it is in 2011. When the two lovers finally part, the audience witnesses two hearts breaking.  

The other actors are equally strong in their performances; Kelli Fox makes Arsinoé a pleasure to dislike, as does Steve Ross and Trent Pardy in their roles as the simpering courtiers Clitandre and Acaste – Mr. Pardy’s Acaste is particularly glittering and mean. Not to be outdone, Peter Hutt takes Oronte’s foppishness down a notch and replaces it with a shade of chilly malevolence.   Robert King, Brian Tree and Brigit Wilson are wasted in their small roles, although Mr. Tree makes the most of the inarticulate Dubois .

Martha Farrell as Eliante.
Photo: Cylla Von Tiedmann

As for the true lovers in the play, as Philinte Juan Chioran is at his best when imitating a raging Alceste and exchanging knowing looks with Eliante; played by Martha Farrell, Eliante becomes not just the steady voice of reason, but also a lively woman entirely capable of throwing palpable sparks at Alceste (it is not her fault that it is Philinte who catches fire for her).

All in all, this is a classily acted and designed production of a classic play that is a pleasure to hear and see. It continues at the Festival Theatre until October 29 in repertory.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Review: Hosanna - Timed out

Gareth Potter as Hosanna, Oliver Becker as Cuirette. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedmann.

By Michael Tremblay
Directed by Weyni Mengesha

The Story: The drag-queen Hosanna returns home from a Halloween party, dressed as Cleopatra, where she has been upset. It transpires that her lover Cuirette has had a hand in some joke that has been played upon her, and while they fight and throw insults and talk by turns, the gradual story is revealed, and so are the men underneath.

Here’s what made Hosanna a major force when it was first produced in the early 1970’s: 1) it followed the Quiet Revolution and FLQ crisis in Quebec; 2) it was less than five years after homosexuality was decriminalized; 3) it was written in a Quebecois dialect making it immediately familiar to its audiences, the English translation of which retained its rhythms.

I grew up after the Quiet Revolution on the East Coast, a region with economic problems so gargantuan and immediate that the problem of Quebecois identity - the allegory which Hosanna represents - really didn’t register. So chances are I would have struggled to connect to the play on that level, even if the Bloc Quebecois had not recently been decimated from Canada’s political map. Problem number one with producing Hosanna for modern Canadian audiences.

Problem number two: Not only is being gay legal, gay marriage is also legal, so the issue of simply being gay is no longer as much an issue in Canada as being gay with AIDS, or being transgender when healthcare covers only a portion of the costs associated with either.

I’m not a director. I don’t know what goes into decisions that are made for a character, set, costume etc. I’m not an actor. I don’t know how decisions are made for movement or delivery. I am an audience. And I could tell right away that I was not connecting to either actors or production in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Hosanna that opened August 10.

But the general issue of questioning one’s identity? Now there’s a theme to which I could relate – it rings true for anyone who has to shift between regions, countries, genders or races. So this alone is where the production could have held me; somewhat tentatively like a cat with a claw-snag, but the potential was there.

Claude Lemieux is known by his drag-queen name Hosanna, and is obsessed with Elizabeth Taylor in her role as Cleopatra (four layers of identity, in case you’re counting). She has been given a humiliating comeuppance by some drag rivals, in which her lover Cuirette (aka Raymond Buloc – two levels) has played a part, and they exchange bitter, cruel barbs designed to shred each other, but which have the additional result of stripping away the layers of their false identities and defenses until only the essential and vulnerable men remain. If this had been the only focus of the play, I think I would have been moved more than I was by the production.

Oliver Becker plays Raymond/Cuirette, a leather-clad biker gone to seed, and he is better in the gruff, cruel parts of the character than in parts that reveal Raymond’s softer, caring centre. Quebec-born Gareth Potter is the title character and he carefully brings Hosanna back to the man she was. The rapidly-changing, raw emotion in Mr. Potter’s features as he directly addresses the audience is wonderfully moving, but still a little too bitter to truly heartrending. And although the look of his character curiously recalls Betty Page more than the diva Elizabeth Taylor, monstrous cruelty with which he and Mr. Becker exchange abuses is worthy of Ms. Taylor’s performance in Virginia Woolf.

The set, designed by Michael Gianfranceso is slightly tawdy, cluttered and recall a slightly earlier time, although I doubt the play needs to stay in Montreal or the 1970’s. This may be the biggest problem with the play as directed, it simply felt out of time.  The Cleopatra costume by Dana Osbourne is glamorous and worn fantastically by Mr. Potter – weirdly, this may also be a detriment, because it is hard to believe that Hosanna was ever anything but the belle of her ball while wearing it.

Ultimately, it is unfortunate that fine actors end up in uneven productions of plays that should be amazing. It annoys me to anticipate being blown away, only to be left with an irritating whisper in my ear, “this should have been better”.

Hosanna continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 24.

Oliver Becker as Cuirette, Gareth Potter as Hosanna. Photo by Cylla Von Tiedmann.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Review: Watch out - It's Early August

By Kate Lynch (world premiere)
Directed by: Shari Hollett

The story: Backstage at a homegrown rural repertory theatre festival, a motley group of actors gets in shape for the day’s matinee performance. There’s the company veteran, Gina-the-diva; Stephanie, the angst-ridden, ambitious ingénue; Chelsea, the gothic but fresh-faced newbie; and Albert, the audience favourite and company horn-dog creating romantic havoc wherever he goes. Teddy the stage manager has her hands full, no doubt – costumes to repair, leaks to avoid, a building inspector to coddle and four actor’s messy lives to untangle – all in the name of great theatre.

Kate Lynch’s Early August is a rare glimpse at the stage actor’s dressing room. Wigs prepared, makeup applied, costumes shimmied in and out of, pre-show rituals followed. For theatre buffs it is a treat, but for those connected to the acting community, it might hit a little too close to home for comfort.  The phenomenon of “early August” does appear to affect many theatre companies, a time when actors start to go a little squirrelly, and Kate Lynch uses the singularity to address such issues as backstage politics, ageism, budgets and career haggling. Mind you, they are addressed in such a lighthearted manner (this is a comedy, after all) that it is easy to let your mind brush past these things, but they are there; perhaps fodder for a meatier version of this play somewhere down the road.

Sarah Orenstein
The play is very well written and constructed, with the first half being slightly better than the second, only because the ending becomes predictable shortly into the second half (no spoilers here). The characters are all well defined, and all but one becomes multi-dimensional by play’s end. Set designer Victoria Wallace may have not looked further than backstage at Blyth for her inspiration – the set is small, cluttered with personal affects, wigs and a small fridge, with the graffiti’d names of past actors on its walls.

The actors do a fine job in their roles, as well. Perhaps the best is Sarah Orenstein, the “aging” actress who appears a diva, a den mother and a maneater all rolled into one. The audience is completely prepared to dislike her, but Ms. Orenstein surprises us in a most touching way, by showing Gina’s soft underbelly with one perfectly-pitched line. Similarly Tova Smith takes her character Stephanie from super-nice, uber-prepared pro to Queen B in one smooth exit - by play’s end she is a gal going places and can now leave others in the proverbial dust.
Catherine Fitch

Newcomer Haley McGee has excellent comic timing and deadpans some of the play’s funniest lines as the newbie Chelsea; her comic rival is Gil Garrett, who manages the task of being flirtatious to all four women without being icky. Of course the coup for Blyth was casting Catherine Fitch to be Teddy the stage manager – she already had three seasons of Slings and Arrows under her belt as the long-suffering stage manager Maria. The difference here is that while Maria was treated worse than dirt by her coworkers, Teddy is a managing goddess (perhaps this is Ms. Lynch’s thank-you to all those Marias out there).  Teddy holds all the cards and is really the tour de force that keeps the play running (on time, too!), and Ms. Fitch makes the most of each moment, be it practical, comical, dramatic or even romantic (that’s all the spoiler you’re going to get).

A show for anyone connected to a summer theatre festival, any theatre buff, or any laughter afficianado, Early August continues in repertory until August 27 at the Blyth Festival.

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