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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

War of 1812 begins previews

June 26, 2012… The Festival welcomes avant-garde Toronto theatre company
VideoCabaret’s spectacular production The War of 1812 (The History of the Village of the Small Huts: 1812-1815) as part of its 60th season. The show, which has been programmed to commemorate the two hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812, begins  previews at the Studio Theatre Annex performance space on June 26. 

VideoCabaret is one of Canada’s most creative and imaginative theatre ensembles. The company, which won a Dora Award last night for Outstanding Costume Design and was nominated in four other categories for The Life and Times of Mackenzie King, was founded by Michael Hollingsworth and Deanne Taylor. Since its inception in 1976 VideoCabaret has created many enduring plays, and with renowned designers and actors has devised spectacularly original styles of performance including black-box epics, multimedia cabarets, musicals, opera and masquerades. 

The War of 1812 tells the story of a Native confederation led by the Shawnee chief  Tecumseh that defends its own territory by joining in the defence of Canada when America declares war on Britain and her empire. After three years of bloodshed on land and lake, the Yankees have burned York, the Yorkees have burned Washington, and everyone has burned the Natives.

“The History of the Village of the Small Huts is a comedy of manners, satirizing Canada’s various colonial periods,” says Mr. Hollingsworth, who wrote and directed the play. “It is a historical epic for an audience raised on rock and TV. It is the goons of history in their very own Goon Show. It is the Canadian book of the dead, a merry tale told by ghosts and demons.”

The production features performers Greg Campbell, Richard Alan Campbell, Richard Clarkin, Mac Fyfe, Jacob James, Linda Prystawska, Anand Rajaram and Michaela Washburn.

Full press release here.

(FYI: As this is another pre-existing show that is simply being transferred to a Stratford stage, it is unlikely to be widely reviewed. -RG)

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Review: The Matchmaker: Boy, Did We Need This

Seana McKenna as Dolly Levi.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

by Thornton Wilder
Directed by Chris Abraham, designed by Santo Loquasto

The Story: Wealthy but stingy merchant Horace Vandergelder of Yonkers, New York refuses to let his niece Ermengarde marry the artist she loves, although he intends to get remarried himself. He enlists the help of the matchmaker Dolly Levi to liaise with his intended, but she plots not only to help the young lovers, but also to marry Horace herself, and with that they all head to New York City.  Horace's oppressed clerks Cornelius and Barnaby long for excitement and head to the City too, where Cornelius falls for the milliner Irene Malloy, who just happens to be Horace's intended bride. Cornelius and Barnaby find they must dodge their boss at every turn, and only Dolly seems unperturbed as the zany events unfold.

Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker started out life as the failed play, The Merchant Of Yonkers. Borrowing heavily from the plots of Moliere's The Miser and Johann Nestroy's Einen Jux will er sich Machen, Wilder reworked it into the 1955 Tony-Award-winning play, which was in turn adapted into the 1964 stage musical Hello, Dolly (later filmed in 1969). While the musical and film are the stuff of frothy entertainment, Wilder intended his farcical play set in the late 19th century to be a satire on the new middle class that had sprung up mid-19th century, which employed plays with characters so broad that they were distant from the audiences watching them - which Wilder found boring and unchallenging. He presents a plot in The Matchmaker also so contrived, and yet he then breaks the fourth wall with a number of soliloquies aimed directly at the audience on such topics as vice and economics, topics meant to make the audience draw breath with recognition. It is a strange paradox that faces any director of this play.

Luckily, director Chris Abraham walks the line very well, with only one or two minor slips from the tightrope. One being the design by Santo Loquasto, very laden with props which distracts from the actors and occasionally trips them up, as in a too-long and scrambling Harmonia Gardens scene. (The costumes Mr. Loquasto created for the cast are beautiful however; each character has a distinct look that informs, from the bohemian sleeves of Flora to the shabby detached hem of Malachi.)

Minor quibble aside, Mr. Abraham has assembled another dream cast who also know the difference between farce and satire and can deliver both, occasionally coming briefly and hilariously out of character to do so.
Mike Shara and Josh Epstein as Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The farcical heavy lifting comes from Mike Shara and Josh Epstein as the hapless Cornelius and Barnaby. Forced to drop to the ground as if shot, hide under tables, in closets and under women's clothing, their timing and dead-pan could not be better - think Tim Conway times two and you will just begin to get the picture. Mr. Epstein in particular was a revelation.

As their foils, Irene Malloy and Minnie Fay, Laura Condlln and Andrea Runge are equally memorable. Ms. Condlln is a spirited, infectiously joyous Irene, while Ms. Runge's Minnie is timid, sweet and a wonderfully enchanting drunk. In fact, these four actors nearly steal the show from under the noses of the leads.
Mike Shara, Laura Condlln, Andrea Runge and Josh Epstein as Cornelius, Irene Malloy, Minne Fay and Barnaby.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The other actor who very nearly does so is Nora McLellan as Miss Flora Van Huysen. Although she does not appear until late in the second half of the play, Ms. McLellan is instantly memorable, so wonderfully has she interpreted Flora as an overly dramatic disappointed diva. Ms. McLellan turns in what would be the 11th-hour performance if this were the musical and not the play.

Tripling up roles as the Joe the barber, Rudolph the waiter and Joe the cabman is the ever versatile John Vickery, utterly drole in each character; although as Rudolph the waiter he is briefly outshone by Victor Dolhai as the uptight, panic-stricken and sobbing August.

Tom McCamus as Horace Vandegelder.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Setting creepy aside (see Cymbeline) for his role as Horace Vandergelder, Tom McCamus gives him all the pompous bluster of the newly wealthy miser, with the booming voice to match. Although Mr. McCamus's voice resembles that of a platoon sergeant from time to time, this is understood to have been a deliberate choice when the audience applauds after another character comments, "He doesn't understand you, Mr. Vandergelder. You'd better speak louder."

The actor who speaks this line - dead-pan of course - is Geraint Wyn Davies as Malachi Stack. With the lovely Welsh lilt which has become an audience favourite, Mr. Wyn Davies infuses Malachi with  kindliness, becoming a genial fellow who is clear-sighted despite his love of whisky. If Vandegelder is Lear, Malachi is his unheeded fool.

Seana McKenna plays the title character with warmth and a twinkle, but instead of being a detached puppeteer for the others, Ms. McKenna finds the underlying pathos of Dolly as well. Yes, Dolly is meddlesome and is so because it amuses her, but this Dolly has a sense of urgency about her - she is poor, and the audience feels this pressing on her throughout the performance in fleeting worried looks, a nervous hand-gesture here, a slight twitch there. Ms. McKenna delivers the penultimate soliloquy on money and humanity, and the immediacy of her words for today's economic climate is clear - precisely as the playwright intended. If there is any criticism for the direction of the play as a whole, it is a wish for there to have been more such poignancy in between the (admittedly delightful) pratfalls.

Chris Abraham's period production is refreshing, charming and surprisingly relevant, for all it being set more than a century ago. Go see it, and splurge for the good seats. It will not disappoint.

The Matchmaker continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 27th.

Seana McKenna as Dolly Levi.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Review: Pirates of Penzance Problematic, Pulls its Punches

C. David Johnson (centre) with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

by WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Ethan McSweeny, with musical direction by Franklin Brasz

The story: Having just turned twenty-one, Frederic decides it is time to leave the band of pirates to whom he was mistakenly indentured by his hard-of-hearing nurse, Ruth. Having served his duty with them, however, he now feels it is his duty as a free man to apprehend them for piracy. Before gathering his forces to do so, he meets a troop of sisters and falls in love with one of them, Mabel. He is revisited by the Pirate King and Ruth, who tell him that since he was born on February 29th in a leap year, he is in fact only 5 years old and bound to the pirates until his actual 21st birthday - his sense of duty is so strong he must part from his beloved, until the pirates themselves are captured by the ever trembling watch.

Members of the company. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
It is hard, as a theatre enthusiast, to see a show with such promise not live up to it. The return of Gilbert and Sullivan to Stratford's stages has had quite a buzz, and with Ethan McSweeny at the helm - he who turned in the luscious and daring Dangerous Liaisons of 2010 - Pirates of Penzance should have been a triumphant return for them both.

The production starts out strongly. The visible set before the show is either the scaffolding of a ship or the scaffolding behind the scenes of a theatre. Turns out, it is both, in a clever framing device. But this device is abandoned in the second half of the show. 

The musical score is given a sea-shanty facelift for the numbers that take place on the ship and is delightful, but they did not similarly  tinker at all with the remaining score. 

There are elements of steam-punk - an obvious fit for updating a Victorian operetta - like the clock above the stage, the ship's steering wheel, and the pith helmets, goggles, and corsets with their brass and leather trappings. But unless one knows what to look for, these elements are easily missed. They do not go far enough with the look for younger generations, perhaps at the risk of confusing older generations. Neither generation wins.

The first half of the production has its tongue planted so far in its cheek it threatens to come out the other side with inside jokes, slapstick and digs at the operetta style - look for Ms. Wallis warbling up and down the scale as she sings the first syllable of her name "May..." and then drop the last note to a dull "bull", for instance. It gets a huge laugh, and the audience is delighted with it, as they are when during the demanding "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General", when C. David Johnson's blackboard reveals the lineage of artistic directors at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Amy Wallace as Mabel. Photo by
Cylla von Tiedemann.

It gets a guffaw (even with the actor losing breath during it) but one gets the sense something is going terribly awry.

For instance, does anyone outside the immediate orbit of the Festival care about its artistic directors? Does anyone in the wider Canadian culture care that much about duty that they could identify with Frederic's dilemma? Does anyone under the age of 25 - at whom this production is supposedly aimed - recognize Queen Victoria when they see her?

For all its steam-punk style, the production loses steam in the oddest way in the second half. As mentioned the meta-theatre frame disappears, the tongue recedes out of cheek and gaffs are evident. (I noted at least three near misses opening night, and possibly one costume malfunction.) Instead of precision there was chaos. The one earnest number performed (Stay Frederic Stay) by Ms. Wallis and Mr. Blair is beautiful and touching in every way, but is completely out of tone with the rest of the production thus far.

It is as if the director got bored, abandoned ship, and left the cast at sea.

They do wonderfully well - Sean Arbuckle gives his Pirate King panache with enough Captain Jack Sparrow to seem familiar but without being a copy. Kyle Blair is an always sincere Frederic, immediately likable with great dead-pan and a wonderful voice, and Amy Wallis plays Mabel as a likea"bull" brat with the voice of a nightingale. Gabrielle Jones, Naomi Costain, Steve Ross and Abigail Winter-Culliford all shine in eminently memorable performances. The production may get waterlogged but the cast does a great job of bailing.

There is much to be delighted about in the first half of the production and not enough in the second. It is enough to make a theatre-lover cry "Avast!" and grab a sabre in frustration.

The Pirates of Penzance sail the waters of the Avon Theatre until October 27th.
Gabrielle Jones, Kyle Blair and Sean Arbuckle as
Ruth, Frederick and the Priate King. Photo by
Cylla von Tiedemann

Friday, 1 June 2012

Review: Cymbeline - a classical telling of a non-classical fairy tale

Geraint Wyn Davies as Cymbeline, with members of the cast.
Photo by David Hou
Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare

Directed by Antoni Cimolino; designed by Scott Penner and Carolyn M. Smith

The story: Once upon a time a king married a beautiful but evil queen who wanted her stepdaughter to marry her son so he could inherit the throne. But the son was a brute and the princess loved a poorer  man, whom she married in secret. When her father the king found out, he angrily banished the young man, and locked away the princess, but not before they swore undying love for each other. The evil queen then plotted to kill her, and a rogue Italian nobleman convinced her banished husband she was unfaithful. With a loyal servant the innocent princess escaped to the Welsh wilderness and encountered two young men - who were in fact her long lost brothers. She is reported dead, however, and her remorseful husband joins the invading Roman Army, hoping he will be killed. The many threads become too knotted for a mortal to untie, so the god Jupiter descends to make things right. They are all swept back to her father's court, where each thread is unravelled, much to the overwhelmed joy of the King, the princess, her husband, and the new-found princes.
Cymbeline might be Shakepseare's last play, it is seldom performed, it is certainly one of his least believable fairy-tale plots, and this production is likely to be Antoni Cimolino's calling card for his coming tenure as the new Artistic Director. It is a near perfect example of classic Stratford Shakespeare Festival - an excellent cast in the hands of a good director who understands how to use the unique space of the Tom Patterson Theatre.

In fact, it is like Mr. Cimolino has a checklist of what is needed:
1) Imogen (in this production, Innogen): the actress who plays this princess must be able to stand up for herself, think for herself, and find the humour in passing herself off as a boy. Can only be Cara Ricketts. Check. (Hope she isn't squeamish about headless bodies. Check.)
Cara Ricketts as Innogen.
Photo by David Hou.

2) Posthumous: actor must be leading-man material, able to be both blustery and illustrate a man so deeply in love it hurts. Must be able to deliver on the most romantic line in Shakespeare. Gotta get Graham Abbey back here. Check.
Graham Abbey as Posthumous.
Photo by David Hou.

3) Cymbeline: King being unknowingly slowly poisoned by evil queen; need someone who can demonstrate both rampant madness but able to switch on charming, giddy joy and warmth when reunited with the family he lost. Geraint Wyn Davies, of course. Check.

4) Pisanio: the loyal servant needs to be an actor with integrity who can convey the strength of his emotion from across the room when not centre stage. Must also not mind being thrown around a bit. Get me Brian Tree. Check.

5) Cloten: A psychopath, a brute of a guy. Need someone who can play dumb and cowardly for laughs but be scary in moments of lucidity. Where's Mike Shara? Check.
Mike Shaara as Cloten.
Photo by David Hou.

6) Iachimo: a devilish villain, smooth and cool, easily tempted, might be a sociopath. But - must be able to show genuine regret for his role in besmirching Innogen. Must also fit in a box. Tom McCamus would be great, if we can reign him in from becoming that character from Dangerous Liaisons again. Check? Well, almost.

Tom McCamus as Iachimo.
Photo by David Hou.
7) Belarius: Guy so bitter from being accused of treachery that he kidnaps two princes, but must show true fear and grief at the possibility of giving them up. Should have a really resonant voice for some rich and sardonic lines. Call in John Vickery. Check.

8) A fairy tale needs music with a magical touch. Wonder if Stephen Page can compose with Celtic pipes? Check.

9) That Jupiter scene is almost too silly for words. Gonna need to go straight for the wow factor or audience will never buy it. Do we still have Ariel's wings from Plummer's Tempest? How about adding some smoke, lightening and a glowing set of red eyes? Check, check and check.  Ooh, like that red - must get Robert Thompson to use it again on the Roman Eagle. Check.

10) Set - no sight lines obscured? Check. Lavish-looking but easily moved props? Check. Scene changes should move smoothly, maybe beginning before last scene exits, making use of the many entrances and exits available. Check.

With this checklist in hand, Mr. Cimolino has a formula for how things get done on Stratford's stages. It is never that simple, of course, and his production notes indicate the depth of his knowledge of the plays subtleties. While his focus on the dream-like qualities and themes of this difficult play provide a frame for its (un)believability, the nuances Mr. Cimolino and his team bring out in the production create a breath-taking theatrical experience.

Like there was ever any doubt.

Cymbeline continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 30, 2012.

Maggie Smith to receive Legacy Award

[Press Release]
Festival honours her great contributions from 1976 to 1980
May 31, 2012… Dame Maggie Smith will be the 2012 recipient of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Legacy Award and will be honoured at a gala at Toronto’s new Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, September 10.

“Here in Stratford, Maggie Smith holds a special place in our hearts,” said Artistic Director Des McAnuff. “One of our Festival’s founding principles was that we should be a home for artists of international stature as well as for our own Canadian stars, a principle spectacularly embodied in the four seasons Dame Maggie spent with us between 1976 and 1980. Her performances on our stages made an immense contribution to our artistic legacy and are still treasured in the memories of all who experienced them.

“As brilliant in her many celebrated screen roles as in her classical work on stage, Dame Maggie is known around the globe as one of the truly legendary artists of our age. It gives me tremendous pleasure to have this opportunity to express to her our admiration and our gratitude for the extraordinary body of work she has bestowed not only upon us but upon the world at large.

“Having spoken to her recently, I know that Dame Maggie is really looking forward to coming back to Canada, where she enjoyed so much substantial success.”

In her four seasons at Stratford, Dame Maggie gave some of the most memorable performances in the Festival’s history, including Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra, Rosalind in As You Like It, Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure, Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, Titania/Hippolyta in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lady Macbeth.

Her non-Shakespeare roles at Stratford were equally noteworthy: Masha in Three Sisters, The Actress in The Guardsman, Judith Bliss in Hay Fever, Amanda Prynne in Private Lives, Irina Arkadina in The Seagull and Mrs. Millamant in The Way of the World, for which she won her second Variety Club Best Actress Award. Her performance in the title role of the world première of Edna O’Brien’s Virginia was one of her most lauded. The production went on to the Theatre Royal Haymarket, winning Dame Maggie her first Olivier nomination and her second Evening Standard Drama Award for Best Actress.

“Maggie Smith joined the Festival company under Artistic Director Robin Phillips,” says General Director Antoni Cimolino. “She had become a bright star in Britain at an early age, enjoying enormous success in the West End and at the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, before rising to international fame with her Oscar-winning performance in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. It was a coup for Robin to have lured her to Canada for the 1976 season and audiences flocked to see her. She won a second Oscar in 1978, but decided to continue her collaboration with Robin, giving the Festival four years at what we thought then was the height of her career. In fact, she has remained at those heights in the years since.

“It is our honour to celebrate Maggie Smith’s legacy at Stratford, remembering her witty portrayals of the heroines of Shakespeare, Congreve and Coward as well as her heartfelt dramatic roles in a range of Shakespearean and other classics. We look forward to creating a tribute worthy of her contributions to our stages.”

Dame Maggie won the 1969 Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the title role in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She won a second Oscar – as well as a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award – in 1978 for her supporting role in Neil Simon’s California Suite. Her performances in Othello, Travels with My Aunt, A Room with a View and Gosford Park also garnered Oscar nominations.

Dame Maggie’s star has shone continuously throughout her career, with each new generation finding appreciation for her brilliant characterizations – from her early career at London’s National Theatre, where in 1963 she played Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier’s Othello, to her mid-career success in film and on stage, to her recent turns as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter films and Violet, the Dowager Countess, in Downton Abbey.

Among her dozens of awards are a Tony and an Olivier, two Oscars, seven BAFTAs, two Emmys, two Golden Globes, a SAG award and five Evening Standard Theatre Awards. She was awarded the Hamburg Shakespeare Prize in 1991, is a fellow of the British Film Institute, was awarded a Silver BAFTA in 1993, is an Hon. DLitt of Cambridge University, and St. Andrews, and is a patron of the Jane Austen Society.

The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is extremely honoured that she has agreed to accept its Legacy Award and looks forward to her return to Canada where the Festival’s finest performers will celebrate her magnificent career.

The Legacy Award Gala committee is co-chaired by Barry Avrich, Beth Kronfeld and Florence Minz. To order tables and tickets or to receive information, please contact Rachel Smith-Spencer at 519.271.4040 ext. 2402.


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