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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Review: Peter Sellars' Chamber Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play
by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Peter Sellars
Featuring Sarah Afful, Dion Johnstone, Trish Lindstrom and Mike Nadajewski

From left to right: Sarah Afful, Mike Nadajewski, Trish Lindstrom
and Dion Johnstone. Photo by Michael Cooper
Reviewers whose homes are blogs of their own design and making were not granted media tickets for the opening of Peter Seller's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, so I am under no obligation to review it, even after snaffling a freebie ticket on for a performance this past weekend.

And yet...

Something compels a response. Not because the Chamber Dream was so profoundly moving that it shakes one to the core, in fact, just the opposite. It is hard to feel anything for this production.

Ok, that is not quite true, at first one feels respect for the hard work that went into crafting this version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. But that is quickly replaced by boredom. Then frustration, and finally sheer aggravation at being trapped in an audience given no graceful avenue of escape.

The point of the piece and the director's intentions are clear in the program's notes: to get at the heart of the play by condensing the text and having a mere four actors quadruple up on the roles, their lines delivered by whispers or shouts with mic'd voices - to reveal layers in the text not normally heard and seen. Relationships overlap, intentions are muddied, a throwaway laugh becomes sexy, a vicious invective feels like silk.

But why is anyone who frequents theatre at all surprised by this? Corporate consultants are paid ridiculous amounts of money each year to tell businessmen a simple fact that every actor inherently knows - that 70% of all communication is non-verbal. Tone and pitch of voice, inflection, emphasis, body language - each one of these things factors into the meaning of any line or sentence when spoken aloud, and in theatre it goes miles in creating subtext .

So about twenty minutes into the performance when it became obvious this Dream is a master-class in non-verbal communication, it becomes boring. The actors explore the plays' relationships by changing the natures of the characters; the audience ceases to care. It would have been more interesting to read this version of the play, not witness its desiccation.  I do not use that word lightly - for all of Mr. Sellars' enlightened intentions to get at the heart of the play, he only reveals - relentlessly so - the dark, lustful, anguished side of the play's core emotion, love. There is no gentleness, no humour, no forgiveness... even at plays' end the characters do not seem convinced that the worst has passed and there is happiness to come.

Were the performances brave and powerful? Yes, if you like your points made with a jackhammer over an hour and forty-five minutes with no interruption. Was it an audacious production? Yes, it is lovely to see the Stratford Festival taking such risks - and  for the sake of their financial health it is good they did not try it in a bigger venue.

But  theatre should not just be about presenting a play in a "clever" new way, it should also be about connecting with the audience, and this the Chamber Dream fails to do on any emotional level.

Well, except for making some of us so irritated it was hard not to scream at the characters "SNAP OUT OF IT!" so we could all go home.

So, if you go see the Chamber Dream, here are three pieces of advice:
  1) Carefully read the other reviews over there to the right  - Lynn Slotkin's and Kelly Nestruck's are particularly helpful.
  2) Be as familiar with the plot and as many of the characters of the original so it is easier to follow as the actors switch roles (Sarah Afful plays Helena, Hippolyta, Flute and Puck; Dion Johnstone plays Theseus, Demetrius, and Bottom; Trish Lindstrom plays Hermia, Lion, Wall and Titania; Mike Nadajewski plays Oberon, Lysander, and Peter Quince).
  3) Get a seat in the rows E, G, J or L for the best shot at an unobstructed view. It is a very small stage.

A Midsummer Night's Dream: A Chamber Play continues in repertory until September 20th at the Masonic Concert Hall.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Stratford Festival extends 2014 season: Performances added for five productions

[Media Release] July 11, 2014

Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and Executive Director Anita Gaffney are pleased to announce that the Stratford Festival is extending the 2014 season. King Lear and Crazy for You will run for an extra week in October, and the three productions at the Tom Patterson Theatre, King John, Mother Courage and Her Children and Antony and Cleopatra, will run for an extra week in September. 

“It is very rewarding to see such strong demand for our Shakespeare offerings, alongside the work of Brecht and the Gershwins,” says Mr. Cimolino: “proof that our audiences are actively seeking a full range of theatrical experiences.” 

“The response to the 2014 season has been extraordinary. Sales for King Lear and Crazy for You have been through the roof since they opened to such enthusiastic reviews at the end of May,” says Ms Gaffney. “The three productions at the Tom Patterson Theatre have been selling well for months – in fact this is our second extension of Antony and Cleopatra. By extending these shows, we are able to enhance the variety of offerings available to our patrons in September, which is becoming an increasingly busy month for the Festival.” 

Mr. Cimolino’s production of King Lear starring Colm Feore was hailed as a triumph, with the Toronto Star’s Richard Ouzounian saying: “If you have been longing to encounter greatness in the theatre, it is waiting for you at the Stratford Festival.” The Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones was taken with Mr. Cimolino’s “rigorously humane take” on the play, describing it as both “deeply compassionate” and “heart-wrenching.” The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck called Mr. Feore’s Lear “unforgettable,” a sentiment shared by critics and audiences alike. 

Crazy for You, directed and choreographed by Donna Feore and starring Josh Franklin and Natalie Daradich, opened to rave reviews. The Tribune’s Mr. Jones described it as “an expansive, alive, visually splendiferous and very entertaining production notable for its lively and fresh choreography.” Said Mr. Ouzounian: “In one very important way, Crazy for You is exactly like King Lear: both shows demonstrate that whatever the Stratford Festival is doing these days, it does it as well as it possibly can.” 

Martha Henry’s production of Mother Courage was called “the season’s must-see production” by the Detroit Free Press. It stars Seana McKenna, “an ideal leading lady” in the words of Mr. Nestruck. Notes Mr. Ouzounian: “Seana McKenna is truly the Mother of all Brechtian heroines and this production she stars in is worthy of your attention.” 

King John, directed by Tim Carroll, stars Tom McCamus in what the National Post’s Robert Cushman calls “a daring performance.” Mr. Carroll’s recent productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III took Broadway by storm, winning eight Tony nominations. Like those two shows, Mr. Carroll used original practices in his direction of King John. Notes the Chicago Tribune’s Mr. Jones: “If ever a production made the argument for doing Shakespeare as first done … then the sublime King John is that show.” 

Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Gary Griffin and starring Geraint Wyn Davies and Yanna McIntosh, starts previews on August 3 and opens August 14. In February the Festival announced it was adding performances to the schedule to keep up with demand for the production. Additional performances of A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play were also announced at that time. 

Tickets for the following performances go on sale Saturday, July 12: 

King Lear 

  • Tuesday, October 14, at 8 p.m. 
  • Wednesday, October 15, at 2 p.m. 
  • Thursday, October 16, at 2 p.m. 
  • Friday, October 17, at 8 p.m. 
  • Saturday, October 18, at 8 p.m. 

Crazy for You 

  • Tuesday, October 14, at 2 p.m. 
  • Wednesday, October 15, at 8 p.m. 
  • Thursday, October 16, at 8 p.m. 
  • Friday, October 17, at 2 p.m. 
  • Saturday, October 18, at 2 p.m. 
  • Sunday, October 19, at 2 p.m. 

Mother Courage and Her Children 

  • Tuesday, September 23, at 2 p.m. 
  • Saturday, September 27, at 2 p.m. 

Antony and Cleopatra 

  • Tuesday, September 23, at 8 p.m. 
  • Thursday, September 25, at 2 p.m. 
  • Sunday, September 28, at 2 p.m. 

King John 

  • Friday, September 26, at 2 p.m. 
  • Saturday, September 27, at 8 p.m.

The 2014 season of the Stratford Festival runs until October 19, featuring King Lear; Crazy for You; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Beaux’ Stratagem; Man of La Mancha; Alice Through the Looking-Glass; Hay Fever; King John; Mother Courage and Her Children; Antony and Cleopatra; Christina, The Girl King; A Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Chamber Play; and more than 200 events in the Stratford Festival Forum. To order tickets, contact the box office at 1.800.567.1600 or visit 


Thursday, 3 July 2014

Review: Hay Fever - Just Shy of Fever-Pitch

Cast of Hay Fever. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Hay Fever
by Noel Coward
Directed by Alisa Palmer
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk and Dana Osborne

The Story: Oft-retired stage diva Judith Bliss has invited a young admirer down to her home in the English countryside for the weekend. This would be fine if her husband, daughter and son had not also invited a guest for the weekend, a confusion only enhanced by the family's utter lack of consideration for anyone else.

The story is funnier than it sounds - it is a Noel Coward play, after all, not Pinter. Coward is said to have written it in a kind of fever himself, basing it on the antics he witnessed at similar weekend gatherings at the home of American actress Laurette Taylor. However, the Stratford Festival's production does not quite reach such a fevered pitch - but not for lack of trying.

The first round of gasps and applause goes to designers Douglas Paraschuk for a truly lovely English country home that looks ripped from the pages of Britain Magazine, and a similar gasp in praise of costume designer Dana Osborne is heard when Ruby Joy (playing daughter Sorrel Bliss) stands in the second act to reveal a dress that would make Jean Patou jealous. No doubt about it, the glamour of the 1920's is present in spades.

Lucy Peacock as Judith Bliss
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
Director Alisa Palmer makes her Stratford debut by issuing one command: "Release the Peacock!"  Meaning she obviously trusts her leading lady, Lucy Peacock, to use her formidable skills to create one doozy of a diva in Judith Bliss. Personally, I like watching an actress enjoying herself on stage this much, particularly that gleeful, almost demonic gleam in Ms. Peacock's eye when Judith scents drama in the air - even if the drama is of her own making. 

However she might trust Ms. Peacock, however, Ms. Palmer seems not to trust Noel Coward. She has overused some physical comedy which oddly detracts from the situational and textual comedy - such as everyone constantly being surprised as they sit on books that litter the furniture, and everyone constantly slipping on the same step of the grand staircase. Well, not everyone. All the guests sit awkwardly on books and fall up and down on the step, while the family of Blisses blissfully forgets to warn them. Every. Single. Time. 

Which is a sort of brilliant way to underline how very self-absorbed these Blisses are. It is unfortunate that the audience is pulled out of the play for each of these moments, waiting to see to whom and how each slip will occur, but one can understand why Ms. Palmer may have chosen to give bruises in this fashion to all the actors playing guests.

L-R: Gareth Potter as SandyTyrell, Lucy Peacock as Judith Bliss,
Ruby Joy as Sorrel Bliss. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
Ruby Joy plays Sorrel Bliss, perhaps the one character towards whom one can feel something approaching sympathy. Sorrel is very aware her family is eccentric and narcissistic, and appears to want to change. It is Sorrel who reveals to one very confused house-guest that he cannot take anything the family says very seriously, and Ms. Joy exudes a natural gravity which grounds this part of her character. It is a treat, then, to see Ms. Joy take her character into full-tantrum mode, as Sorrel is sucked back into the family's functional dysfunction.

The rest of the cast hold up their ends, too - particularly Gareth Potter as the boyishly charming Sandy, and Sanjay Talwar as the cool (and mostly collected) diplomat Richard; and Cynthia Dale pulls double duty as the slinky minx Myra, and also manages a superbly graceful recovery from her pratfall on the dreaded step of doom.

It strikes me as I review my notes that by presenting Hay Fever along with Crazy for You and Man of La Mancha, the Stratford Festival declared an unintentional theme in their season - a love for, and the transformative power of theatre. In each case, the process of making theatre or believing in it and in its power forms the basis for each plot, and informs the characters lives. No wonder why, despite it falling short of some expectations, I found myself booking tickets to see Hay Fever again.

Hay Fever continues in repertory until October 11 at the Avon Theatre.

The Bliss Family L-R: Ruby Joy as Sorrel, Tyrone Savage as Simon,
Lucy Peacock as Judith and Kevin Bundy as David.
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


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