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Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Stratford Festival mourns the death of Janet Wright

Janet Wright in The Grapes of Wrath,
2011. Photo by David Hou
November 14, 2016… The Stratford Festival company and staff were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Janet Wright this morning in Vancouver. Ms Wright, one of this country’s foremost stage and television actors, was a member of the Stratford Festival company for seven seasons, and is perhaps best known for playing Emma Leroy, the long-suffering matriarch on the hit CTV comedy series Corner Gas.

“Janet was an artist on an uncompromising search for the truth in all its unvarnished beauty,” said Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. “She was a profoundly talented actress, director and ‎champion for the importance of the arts. I will never forget her passion and forever be inspired by her commitment to our work.”

During her seven seasons at Stratford, Ms Wright shone in a number of key roles and as a director. She made her Stratford debut alongside her sisters, Susan and Anne, playing Rhéauna Bibeau in the hugely successful 1991 production of Les Belles Soeurs, directed by Marti Maraden. Ms Wright returned the following year to take on the title role in Shirley Valentine, Gilberte in Bonjour, là, Bonjour and Maria Vasilyevna in Uncle Vanya. In the ensuing years she played Agave in The Bacchae, Joan Roberts in Fair Liberty’s Call, Queen Eleanor in King John, Gertrude in Hamlet, Mado in In the Ring, and Aemilia in The Comedy of Errors.

In 2011, she returned to Stratford after more than a decade away, giving an unforgettable performance as Ma Joad in the acclaimed production of The Grapes of Wrath, directed by Mr. Cimolino, and portraying a hilarious Mistress Quickly in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Ms Wright won great praise during her career for her insightful and masterful direction, including the Stratford Festival productions of Juno and the Paycock, featuring Lally Cadeau and James Blendick, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, also featuring Lally Cadeau in the title role.

Together with her sister Susan and her first husband, Brian Richmond, Ms Wright founded Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon in 1974. In addition to performing at theatres across the country, Ms Wright was a significant part of the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver, where she performed in or directed more than 40 productions.

It was her role as Emma Leroy on Corner Gas that made her a Canadian star, but she had dozens of television and film credits to her name. She won a 1992 Genie Award for her leading role in the film Bordertown Café and a 2003 Gemini Award for her supporting role in the TV movie Betrayed.

Ms Wright’s life was touched by unthinkable tragedy not just once but twice. In 1991 her sister Susan and her parents were killed in a house fire here in Stratford, an accident her family and the theatre community continue to struggle with. Then in 2003, Ms Wright’s 23-year-old daughter, Rachel Davis, was killed when she stepped in to help a stranger being beaten outside a Vancouver bar.

“To lose an artist of such extraordinary gifts, a friend of so lively and passionate a spirit, would be a grievous blow under any circumstances, at any time; to lose her at the age of just 71, with the memories of her own terrible bereavements never wholly absent from our minds, is nothing short of a tragedy,” said Mr. Cimolino.

Everyone at the Stratford Festival extends their deepest condolences to Ms Wright’s husband, Bruce Davis, her children and all of her family, colleagues and many, many friends.


Monday, 5 September 2016

Moving, but not heart-breaking: The Aeneid at the Stratford Festival

Saamer Usmani as Achates, Bahereh Yaraghi as Pyrgo, Gareth Potter as Aeneas
and Michael Spencer-Davis as Anchises. Photo by David Hou.
The Aeneid, by Oliver Kermeid; translated by Maureen Labonte
Directed by Keira Loghran
Designer Joanna Yu (set, costumes), Itai Erdal (lighting), Debashis Sinha (sound)
Featuring Gareth Potter, Karin Robinson, Saamer Usmani, Lanise Antoine Shelley, Rodrigo Beilfuss

Virgil’s Aeneid is about a man’s flight from war-torn ancient Troy and his founding of Rome. Oliver Kermeid’s adaptation is related to these events, but only tangentially, and unfortunately, this journey of a thousand miles begins with a few missteps.

It starts strongly – a packed nightclub of revellers dancing to an uplifting beat, unaware – despite the desperate warnings of a street prophet – that doom is imminent. Given recent events in Paris and Orlando an attack in a public place is a very good place to start, although in Kermeid’s play the motivations of the attackers are unknown. It’s when the action goes to slow-motion that one gets the sense that the production will not be as hard-hitting as perhaps it should.

There is poetry in the choreographed movement – refugees mimicking waves upon a shore, swirling robes to imitate a storm at sea – but it overshadows the poetry and strength of the text most of the time, which is a shame, considering the central plot is a shade of its former self in Virgil’s epic.

Karen Robinson as the Immigration Officer. Photo by David Hou.
This plot, in which Aeneas is forced to flee his home, loses a wife, his father, his friends and almost himself before regaining purpose, determination and finally a new home, is scattered among other tableaux of what it means to be a refugee. In most cases, these tableaux are more powerful than Aeneas’ story: a young woman facing maddeningly inscrutable red-tape of an immigration office, only to be threatened with sexual violence when she manages to free herself from it. A man who begs Aeneas to let his delusional, frantic wife keep his baby for the night, just so she can pretend for a time that it is her own lost child. A matriarchal woman who incites her own small community of refugees to fight a group of camp newcomers, afraid they’ll compete for scarce resources – only to lose her beloved son in the skirmish.

These all provide an insiders look at the trials refugees must bear – whether they be from internal struggles and conflicts within refugee communities themselves or from external sources like insensitive government officials, or the “rather not see you” attitudes of the privileged.

Unfortunately, the elements of Aeneas’ own journey seem forced by comparison. Even the haunting scene in the underworld in which Aeneas is reunited briefly with his dead father, is given over to a recitation of the countries from whom refugees have fled. It is a sadly long list, but ultimately not about Aeneas at all.

Perhaps in the biggest misstep of all, in the end Aeneid’s promised land looks very Canadian (polar fleece and a description of wheat fields) which is a little rose-coloured, given Canada’s history with refugees pre-World War II. Cynically, one wonders if Aeneas would have been so welcome if he had been any other colour than white.

Members of the company in The Aeneid. Photo by David Hou.
In short, the problem seems to be two-fold: in the text – it just does not have a whole lot to do with Aeneas, despite Gareth Potter’s intrinsically dignified performance; and in the direction. Instead of stylish choreography one feels that the director should have taken aim at people like me: privileged white and as unethnic as you can possibly get, and not just held a mirror up to us, but shoved it in our faces or smacked us upside the head with it. Veiling these people in symbolism makes them easier to ignore, or easier to pretend you don’t understand.

The Aeneid continues in repertory until Oct. 4 at the Studio Theatre.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

The Hypochondriac: proving laughter is the best medicine

Stephen Ouimette as Argan and Ben Carlson as Beralde.
Photo by David Hou.
The Hypochondriacby Molière
Adapted by Richard Bean from the literal translation by Chris Campbell
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Teresa Przybylski (set, costumes), Michael Walton (lighting), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound)
Composed by Berthold Carriere
Featuring Stephen Ouimette, Brigit Wilson, Ben Carlson, Trish Lindstrom

Shakespeare was not one to shy away from a good bawdy joke, but even he might be shocked at the rather baser toilet humour at play in this version of Molière's The Hypochondriac, on stage now at the Festival Theatre.

The play opens with Argan (the hypochondriac of the title) obsessing over his laxative bills even as he sits on a throne, attempting to have a b.m., which he then insists on examining (with a certain amount of fascination). It only goes downhill from there, with all manner of bathroom jokes – textual and physical – which may make balcony audiences glad they are not any closer to the stage. Let’s just say that the props department were at their realistic best for this one.

Stephen Ouimette as Argan and Brigit Wilson as Toinette.
Photo by David Hou.
Our hypochondriac is so obsessed with his bowels that he wants his daughter, the lovely Angelique, to marry a doctor, the unfortunately named Diafoirerhoea, just to have free medical care at his disposal. He is blind to the fact she loves Cleante, an apprentice in one of his shops. His obsession also blinds him to the fact that his doctors are all quacks and that his wife Beline would prefer him dead (with Angelique out of the way in a nunnery) so she can inherit all his wealth. It is up to the cheeky maid Toinette and Argan’s practical brother Beralde to get Argan to see the truth of these matters, which they do through a series of stratagems.

It was Molière's modus operandi to take the piss out of lawyers, aristocrats and in particular, doctors. In a bow to Molière's own life, director Antoni Cimolino has set his production within a frame of a play being performed for Louis the XIV, who himself sits front row centre and more than once appears flattered by the proceedings. The frame begins with players warming up before le Roi’s arrival, and ends with the onstage death of Molière himself – mirroring the playwright’s own death soon after the fourth performance of the play on which The Hypochondriac is based.

Shannon Taylor as Angelique. Photo by David Hou.
This framing device then, provides a sober ending to what up until then was a play mostly about poop and the idiocy of 17th century doctors of the academy. It might be the only misstep in a hilarious and biting satire – after guffawing for two hours at rectum jokes and at those who blindly follow celebrity health fads rather than sound science, is it any wonder that the character who asks “Is there a doctor in the house?” gets a huge laugh, rather than the stunned silence such a death warrants?

Mr. Cimolino once again assembled the best cast for himself (it’s nice to be king – or at least artistic director – sometimes). Stephen Ouimette is the hypochondriac with the hang-dog face, acerbic wit and dead-bed-pan delivery. He plays Argan as a man both shrewd and gullible – which can’t be easy – and as a man who delights in having enemas from machines that appear to be more suitable for checking King Kong’s prostate. That he does so without corpsing must be less easy still, and that goes double and triple for his foils Brigitte Wilson (Toinette) and Ben Carlson (Beralde). Ms. Wilson plays her pert part to perfection while Mr. Carlson calmly completes the crackerjack cadre.
Trish Lindstrom as Beline. Photo by David Hou.
The rest of the ensemble are equally delightful as they go slightly over the top to flesh out their more two-dimensional characters. Trish Lindstrom introduces us to her character Beline with a hissed and gleeful “Yes!” at the news her husband is having heart palpitations – it’s everything we need to know about her and we can happily look forward to her downfall. Shannon Taylor and Luke Humphrey are lovers again as Angelique and Cleante - they lead Shakespeare in Love over at the Avon Theatre too – and here they get to show off their talents a tad more.

The Hypochondriac, with all its mixed metaphors, bawdy and bathroom jokes and anal probing really is an excellent piece of theatre, if one remembers to listen and watch for the satire underneath the commode. It continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre until October 14th.

Clever Bunny: New Moscovitch play debuts at Stratford's Studio Theatre

Bunny, by Hanna Moscovitch
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
Designed by Michael Gianfrancesco (set, costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Alexander MacSween (composer and sound)
Featuring Maeve Beaty, Kristin Pellerin, Tim Campbell

Bunny is about sex. A woman’s sexual appetite, to be precise, and this appetite is displayed often on the Studio’s stage in this smartly-written world premiere, commissioned by the Stratford Festival from one of Canada’s rising-star playwrights.

Maeve Beaty as Sorrel and Cyrus Lane
as Ethan. Photo by David Hou.
Hannah Moscovitch makes no apologies for her play’s taboo subject matter; the sex she writes about is not gratuitous, and director Sarah Garton Stanley doesn’t treat it as such. Maeve Beaty, playing Sorrel (aka Bunny) is funny, compelling, and brave to fake not one but two orgasms on stage. This will make audience members sit straighter, but while Ms. Beaty’s performance is superb, the play itself lacks something else.

It opens with, “Let me tell you about Sorrel”, and it is Sorrel who does so, in multiple narratives, while other characters help her on with bits of costume. Yet while she tells us about Sorrel, it is always in the third person, and one gets the feeling that Sorrel doesn’t really know Sorrel, and by play’s end, neither does the audience.

Her “younger years” monologues are funnier than one might expect: “Sorrel whimsically believed that when you were having sex you couldn’t be heard”, is followed by her mother’s comment (at a weekly family meeting no less) that while “the sound of the female orgasm is beautiful… we were trying to sleep.”

These orations of awkward teenage angst and adult sexual escapades continue to paint a picture of Sorrel, and while she never asks the audience’s forgiveness for her increasing transgressions, her use of the third person does appear to be asking acceptance of them, to share in her shame, to abet her sexual impulses.

Tim Campbell as Carol and Maeve Beaty as Sorrel. Photo by David Hou.
She is not held to account, there is no epiphany, there is no reformation – at the end of the play although she has the acceptance she craves it comes late and she seems as empty as the sexual encounters she pursues.  Accountability may not be the point, but neither is Sorrel is ever empowered by her sexuality, but remains afraid (like a bunny); yet one never learns just what she is afraid of – of being found out? That her appetites are abnormal somehow? That her inability to really connect with someone is abnormal? All of the above?

The ending feels just a bit too abrupt, with the friendship between Sorrel and Maggie (Kristin Pellerin) revealed as the only relationship Sorrel really seems to care about, the only person to whom she can say “I love you”. This too is abrupt – there is little buildup in their previous scenes together (even though Ms. Pellerin exudes warmth), so while grateful for it, the inarticulate Bunny looks just as scared as ever as the light fades to black.
Kristin Pellerin as Maggie and Maeve Beaty as Sorrel. Photo by David Hou.
But perhaps this is Moscovitch’s point – Maggie is about to die of cancer, and it may simply be too late for Sorrel to find peace with herself now. But somehow I don’t think so. At play’s end one still sees a woman who does not know herself, and whose fear will continue to define her as much as her sexual appetite.

Bunny continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until September 24th

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Breath of Kings - Rebellion and Redemption: Ambition pays high dividends

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption
Richard II, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II, Henry V by William Shakespeare
Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey
Directors Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman
Designed by Anahita Dehbonehie (set), Yannick Lavrivee (costumes), Kimberly Purtell (lighting), Debashis Sinha (composer and sound), John Stead (fight), Brad Cook (movement)
Featuring Tom Rooney, Graham Abbey, Geraint Wyn Davies, Araya Mengesha

Graham Abbey as Henry IV and Araya Mengesha as Henry V in
Breath of Kings: Redemption. Photo by David Hou
Graham Abbey has spent the better part of a decade distilling Shakespeare’s 2nd tetralogy, also known as the Henriad, down to what is now known as Breath of Kings. Taking Richard II, the first and second parts of Henry IV and Henry V and giving them roughly the same amount of performance time (~75 minutes each) to be viewed in two different sittings; Rebellion frames Richard II and Henry IV part one, while Redemption frames the latter two.

Condensing the plays suggests that Abbey has created a Cliff’s Notes version of them all, but this is unjust – a certain depth of feeling remains intact, despite the extraction of many scenes in which characters and relationships are developed. This keeps the pace clipping along at cinematic speed, and may just be the ticket to opening new (read: teenage) audiences to the charms of the Bard… with the hope that as their fascination grows so will their desire to examine the plays more fully. In fact, the abridgment of some scenes - i.e. the Salic Law speech from Henry V - should be considered by directors far more often. (I love Shakespeare, but oy does that Canterbury like to talk…)

Tom Rooney as Richard II in Breath
of Kings: Rebellion. Photo by David Hou.
The first part of Rebellion is the story of Richard II, a complex character who both arrogantly believes in the divine right of kings and comes to see that a king is still just a man whose crown can be taken away. Tom Rooney alternately hits notes of pride, fretfulness, sorrow, and philosophical resignation. He deadpans Richard’s most heinous moments of callousness and makes the audience laugh out loud, but the laughter turns to dust – Richard’s conceit is very Trumpish, and therefore contemptible. His first foil John of Gaunt (Richard’s uncle, Bolingbroke’s father) is given great voice by Stephen Russell who delivers the excellent “sceptred isle” speech like one fevered and brokenhearted – and yet fails to move the coldhearted King.

Geraint Wyn Davies as John Falstaff, with members of the company
in Breath of Kings: Rebellion. Photo by David Hou
Abbey himself plays Henry Bolingbroke, the usurper, and brings more pathos to the role than usually seen – this Bolingbroke is sorta kinda sorry for the circumstances leading to his taking the crown. He is still going to take it, of course, but Abbey shows Henry IV to be less a political opportunist and more a victim of circumstances. I do not necessarily agree with this interpretation, but it remains consistent through the next two quarters of the tetralogy, which is one of the reasons it is enjoyable to see Rebellion and Redemption one after the other.

In the second half of Rebellion, Henry IV squares off against his former supporters, now rather ticked that he took the crown (and possibly murdered Richard II), instead of simply reclaiming his Lancastrian lands, like he said he would do. Beside these woes, Henry is worried about his eldest son and heir, Henry (aka Hal or Harry), who tends to carouse much with is buddies and one John Falstaff.  As the life-affirming Falstaff, there cannot be anyone better than Geraint Wyn Davies to play the part – never a buffoon, always calculating and clever, and sometimes actually sweet. At the end of the first half of Redemption when Hal casts Falstaff away so cruelly, it reveals that Hal never understood how much the old knight loved him… and Falstaff actually dies of a broken heart.

Araya Mengesha, as and like Hal, has highs and lows. He is at his best when swaggering with his mates, has an incredibly moving scene with Graham Abbey as Hal and his father Henry IV are reconciled (one of the best in the two productions together); however, he treats the audience to a superlative St. Crispian’s Day speech (wonderfully staged as well) in the second half of Redemption, chronicling the events of Henry V.

Araya Mengesha as Henry V with members of the company in
Breath of Kings: Redemption. Photo by David Hou.
With 20 company members playing the over 70 parts in the tetralogy, there are wonderfully dextrous performances from the wardrobe attendants doing all those quick-changes. Also from Carly Street and Irene Poole who each had 6 roles (I think, I lost count) and all of them forceful; from Randy Hughson as York and Pistol; from Parker Merlihan as Davy Gam – that was heartbreaking – and Jonathan Sousa as a truly hotheaded Hotspur.

It is not strictly necessary to see both Rebellion and Redemption, as either stands finely on its own; though if pressed for time I might recommend seeing Rebellion simply because it is the only version of Richard II to hit Stratford stages in almost twenty years, and Tom Rooney is such a fine actor in it.  But to get the full dividends from the efforts of this ambitious adaptation, its directors and its excellent, nimble cast, try to see them both, and in order.

Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption continues at in repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24th

Friday, 8 July 2016

Griffin Delivers Big with A Little Night Music

Yanna McIntosh as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carslon as
Fredrik Egerman. photo by David Hou.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman
Originally produced and directed on Broadway by Haarold Prince
Director Gary Griffin; Musical director Franklin Brasz
Designed by Debra Hansen, Kevin Fraser (lights), Peter McBoyle (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Yanna McIntosh, Cynthia Dale, Alexis Gordon

It is hard to know where to begin in describing the pleasure that is the Stratford Festival’s production of A Little Night Music. 
Gary Griffin has taken this Sondheim musical and drawn it’s tapestry of intertwined relationships with delicate. There are pairings of new lovers, unrequited lovers, lusty lovers and mature lovers. The bare bones of the story would suggest a farce – at east three love triangles to untangle - yet there are shades of hope, longing and regret hanging over them all, and surprises in almost every performance.
Alexis Gordon as Anne Egerman and Gabriel
Antonacci as Henrik Egerman. Photo by David Hou.
Anne Egerman is a very young, very naïve 18-year-old, married to the middle-aged Fredrik; call her Fredrik’s mid-life crisis.  Both are played by actors able to infuse them with a layer of self-delusion. Alexis Gordon plays captures Anne’s naivety very well, additionally giving her a hair-brushing tic and tendency to talk really fast to hide her innate nervousness, and is fantastically funny when Anne is threatened by the more seasoned lover, Désirée (A Weekend in the Country). As the husband Fredrik, Ben Carlson plays him as a straight-man, oblivious to both Anne’s deep anxiety and to Désirée's wry observances (You Must Meet My Wife). That the young Anne should end up with the heart-sick Henrik (Gabriel Antonacci) is perfectly natural, her buoyancy (Ms. Gordon’s costumes are particularly flouncy) balancing out his tendency for melancholy. Will it last? Built on young love and lust, who knows? We are not meant to care, just be happy they are happy.

Cynthia Dale as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Juan
Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. Photo by David Hou.
By comparison, the Count and Countess may end up together but one wonders exactly how happy they will be. Juan Chioran plays the Count quite rigidly myopic, insensible of the hurt he causes Charlotte in speaking openly of his affair with Desiree. He makes the Count completely unlikeable, and Charlotte’s unwavering devotion to him somewhat hard to take, even though Cynthia Dale’s performance is touchingly moving. In Ms. Dale’s care, Charlotte is a woman whose despair is just underneath the surface of the bright laughter she uses to hide how brittle she is. If her husband had not rediscovered her worth (although one cannot be sure he really does), Ms. Dale’s Charlotte would surely have died of a broken heart (Every Day a Little Death).
Yanna McIntosh as Desiree Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik
Egerman. Photo by David Hou.
Yanna McIntosh, the queen of wry, is Désirée  Armfeldt. It is only natural – Désirée is the emotional centre of the musical, and in this role, Ms. McIntosh becomes a centre of gravity for all Désirée's relationships. There looks to be a real bond between Ms. McIntosh and Kimberly-Ann Truong, playing her daughter, Fredrika; likewise there is as much familial connection with Rosemary Dunsmore (Madame Armfeldt).  As he third couple, Désirée and Fredrik, Ms. McIntosh and Ben Carlson portray a mature relationship built on mutual knowledge and trust, the ability to laugh at themselves, to work together as a team. It may come late in their characters’ lives, but it will last. Ms. McIntosh gives a wholly rounded performance, showing a woman who is completely self-assured in all aspects of her life, as a career-woman, a mother, a daughter, a lover. Yet, Ms. McIntosh reveals Désirée's regrets in flashes of looks, movements and pauses, culminating in what must be one of the most sublimely rueful renditions of Send in the Clowns one will ever hear.
Sara Farb as Petra, with Matt Alfrano as Frid (background).
Photo by David Hou.
For all the characters in relationships, there is one who steadfastly refuses to be in one, preferring to grab life by the throat before she settles down – as Petra the maid, Sara Farb serves notice that she is ready to move on from playing 10 and 13-year old girls. Let this woman loose, please; let’s see what else she can do.
Add to this the sublime stage art inspired by Per Ekström – that is a guess, but it really does evoke the odd tension of an evening when the sun never quite sets (it is a truly peculiar thing, to live in the Arctic) - and the elegant designs by Debra Hansen that perfectly suit the complex but elegant three-quarter score of Sondheim, and we get a nearly transcendent evening of musical theatre. Sondheim is never very hummable, but if the strains from Weekend in the Country don’t follow you all the way home, you were asleep, my friend, and missed one helluva show.
A Little Night Music continues in repertory until October 23rd at the Avon Theatre.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

As You Like It: Would Have Preferred it Well Done

Robin Hutton as Hymen with members of the company.
Photo by David Hou

As You LikeIt, by William Shakesepare
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Designed by Bretta Gerecke, Leigh Ann Vardy (lights), Don Ellis (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Petrina Bromley, Trish Lindstrom, Cyrus Lane, John Kirkpatrick

Jillian Keiley is known for taking productions and setting them in her native Newfoundland, and this has served her well. Her current trip home however, underserves the play in a myriad of ways.

Her production notes make a case for the Newfoundland setting, saying there was a great rediscovery for outport life in Newfoundland in the 1980’s, but that was not my experience. Places like Trinity, Trinity Bay were not yet tourist destinations or artists’ retreats (Rising Tide Theatre’s Trinity Pageant didn’t come along until 1993) they were tiny villages still slowly dying, in the same danger of becoming derelict as those communities like British Harbour or Ireland’s Eye that had been abandoned in the resettlement movement in the 1950’s and 60’s. At the height of the 80’s, there were 3-4000 people employed in the lumber and pulp and paper industries in Newfoundland – the forest of Arden might have provided an escape for the Duke but it would hardly have been an idyllic one in the mid 80’s.

So, as delightful it was to hear that this unique culture might be celebrated on a stage as illustrious as the Stratford Festival, I am also quite aware of the incongruities. The vision is not convincing - the setting is completely asquish for the play. 

What is sad is that it might have been, if Keiley had followed through with this vision from start to finish. But instead of immersing the play in the culture, there are half-hearted attempts. Brookfield ice-cream and Carnation milk only go so far. Changing some text from lion to lynx is fine, but call the feast a boil-up, refer to Oliver as the bullamanque he is, call Jaques a glawvawnin’ CFA, get Charles and Orlando in a real crum. Orlando and Adam are leary, Rosalind is all mops and brooms for Orlando, Audrey is a sweet gommel. If you’re going to change some text, you might as well go for the whole quintal of fish.

The other framing device, inserting the new character of Hymen (only referred to briefly at the end in the play’s text), as your evening’s emcee is playfully wrought (thank-you, Robin Hutton) but does a disservice to the strength of Rosalind’s wit – instead of seeing something of worth in Orlando and holding her own with him, we instead see Hymen making the match almost for her own amusement. Cyrus Lane as Orlando is also underserved by this – starting out nobly, his portrayal quickly becomes a bit of a scumpshy; there is nothing there that would attract a mind or heart of one of Shakespeare’s smartest heroines.
Keiley also makes the audience complicit in her shenanigans; props are handed out to audience members, turning them into a forest, the starry night, a vegetable garden, a meadow, the sky, and an ocean (there is no body of water in the text larger than a brook, by the way). A part of Newfoundland’s “participatory culture”, we are meant to understand, but distracting, noisy and an ultimately gimmicky way around building an actual set on stage. Half the gimmicks would have far more effective for her point.
L-R: Cyrus Lane as Orlando, Trish Lindstrom as Celia,
Petrina Bromley as Ganymede/Rosalind. Photo by David Hou.

Enough glawvawning. Chops must go to actors who embrace a direction that subverts the text as a whole, and Petrina Bromley (Rosalind) and Trish Lindstrom (Celia) shine in this production.  They show the girls as true friends, almost turning the story into a two-hander buddy play. Ms. Bromley makes the most convincing Ganymede, giving the character a real bay-boy vibe, while Ms. Lindstrom’s Celia never really loses her taffety ways to hilarious effect.  And while the distinct Newfoundland accent (there are many, actually) is barely present with or completely ignored by most actors, Ms. Lindstrom not only replicates a decent townie accent, she carries it consistently. Ms. Bromley’s accent gets distinctly thicker as Ganymede, as only a Newfoundland actor could manage.  They make a great team, truly caring and funny. Other notable performances include John Kirkpatrick as a slick then completely disarming Oliver, who is far, far cleverer than his brother, and Antoine Yared as a rather excitable LeBeau (the French-Canadian accent was a diverting surprise). Seana McKenna’s is a low-key Jaques, though there is compelling subtext with which to work, as a world-weary photo-journalist looking for some peace in idyllic Newfoundland.

Growing up in the 1980’s in small-town and even smaller-village Newfoundland, I was aware of OZFM’s Dawn Patrol, banana clips and acid-washed jeans. I’d heard of Figgy Duff and Ryan’s Fancy, occasionally watched Land and Sea with my parents and local theatre aside, was hooked on Shakespeare when a travelling group brought an Edwardian production of Much Ado About Nothing to town, not an audience prop in sight. High school students are sure to love the pantomime in Ms.Keiley’s As You Like It, and maybe that’s what attracts a new generation of Shakespeare lovers. This current Shakespeare lover doesn’t think it was necessary at all, but it’s however you decide to like it.

As YOU Like It continues in repertory until October 22 at the Festival Theatre. 

Company members in As You Like It. Photo by David Hou.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: What the Kids Said

Middle: Sara Farb as Lucy, Andre Morin as Edmund, Ruby Joy as Susan,
Gareth Potter as Peter, with members of the company. Photo by David Hou.
The Lion,The Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis; Adapted by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Tim Carrol
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Dana Osborne (costumes), Kevin Fraser (lighting), Todd Charlton (sound), John Stead (fights), Brad Peterson (projections)
Featuring Sara Farb, Ruby Joy, Tom McCamus, Yanna MacIntosh, Andre Morin, Gareth Potter

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the latest Schulich Children’s Theatre series to hit Stratford’s stages. Marketed at families and elementary schools, it seems only fair to ask the kids themselves what they think of the show. I caught up with Katie (10), Nolan (6), Abigail (8) and Thomas (5-ish) at intermission to see how they were liking the show. None of the children polled had read the books nor seen the Narnia movies beforehand, and for most, it was their first trip to the Stratford Festival.

RG: So, what do you like about the show so far?

Katie-the-articulate: I liked the part where they think Lucy is lying – I like how they reacted to the truth. I’d see this again, and I’d come back to the theatre. I’d like to read the book now too.

Katie’s mom: We have the set…

Katie-the-suddenly-delighted: We do?!? (My librarian heart gives a little leap of joy as I move on to Nolan, who is sitting backwards in his seat.)

Sara Farb as Lucy. Photo by David Hou.
RG: Hi Nolan, um… are you liking the show?

Nolan: (sliding sideways off the booster seat) No, it’s too long.

RG: Oh dear… Are you looking forward to the second half at all?

Nolan: (slipping further onto the floor) After this we’re going home.

RG: What about the lion, Aslan? Are you looking forward to that?

Nolan: (pops back up, briefly) Yeah!

RG: Will you ever come back to the theatre, do you think?

Nolan: No. (perches upside down in seat)

RG: Oh... What about if there were swords and battles? Would you come back then? Because I think there might be swords coming up in the second part…

Nolan: (looking at me sideways) Yeah! (Goes back to acrobatic theatre-seat--sitting)
Tom McCamus and Colin Simmons as Aslan (hidden) and
Gareth Potter as Peter. Photo by David Hou
Moving onto siblings Abigail and Thomas.

RG: Are you enjoying the show?

Abigail-the-enthusiastic: Yes!

Thomas: (silence. Shyness has struck.)

RG: What about it do you like? Do you have a favourite character?

Abigail: Ummm…. The wolf.

RG: The wolf? The bad wolf? (Maugrim, played by Brad Hodder) Any particular reason why you like him?

Abigail: I like animals. He looks like a cat.

RG: Um…

Abigail’s Gramma*: That’s going to make the costume department feel good!

RG:  Ok…   And Thomas? What about you?

Thomas-the-shy: ….

Abigail: He likes cats too. (Much discussion about decorating with cat pictures follows)

RG: So are you looking forward to seeing Aslan the Lion in the second part?

Abigail: Yes! We’ve seen theatre before.

RG: Excellent! Can I catch up with you after the show for your final thoughts?

Abigail: Yes!

Thomas: ….

Andre Morin as Edmund, Yanna MacIntosh as the White Witch, with
members of the company. Photo by David Hou.
It is important to remember for families bringing small children to this show that it is quite long, can be very “talky”, and there is a lot of inaction between super-exciting bits. The adaptation by Adrian Mitchell contains some jokes that will hit the adult audience squarely in the funny-bone, but only after they’ve gone whizzing over the heads of the younger playgoers, and Aslan doesn’t appear until after intermission (although it is a very grand entrance, to be sure). There are two battle-scenes (with swords) but they are near the end of the play, so just be prepared to fight or accommodate the fidgets.  (Likewise, adults unaccompanied by children to this show should just accept it as part of the experience, and enjoy the acrobatic side-show, if present.)

The production is thoroughly magical, with a small musical score (by Shaun Davey) that will thrill the Celtic-blooded; the charming puppets, costumes and prop-costumes that must have had those departments working overtime (Maugrim really does look more canid than feline – in armour, no less); and the set provides a framing device to delight literature-lovers - books are everywhere, reminding the audience at every step that this is a story.   The words of the novel adorn snow-covered trees, the scene-scape projections, and even Aslan himself. The steps are made of books, the mansion’s columns are books, the thrones of kings and queens are made of books. It’s a librarian’s dream.

As for those actors inhabiting this enchanting land? The critic feels there wasn’t a lot of room to stretch as an actor in most of these parts; the fangirl feels like they were having a lot of fun (except perhaps for Yanna MacIntosh who the critic feels wasn’t comfortable embracing the sinister melodrama that is the White Witch). Both critic and fangirl generally prefer Tim Carrol’s Peter Pan from 2010 for sheer theatrical joy.  But I’m not sure either the critic or the fangirl get a say here, so after the show I caught up with Abigail and Thomas-the-shy for further impressions.
Gareth Potter as Peter and Brad Hodder as Maugrim, with members
of the company. Photo by David Hou.
RG: Hi Abigail and Thomas, how did you like the show overall?

Thomas-the-still-shy: ….

Abigail: I have a new favourite character!

RG: Really? Which one? (Fully expecting it to be Aslan, the very imposing lion)

Abigail-the-cat-enthusiast: The jaguar guy! Because he’s a CAT!

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (and all its cats) continue at the Avon Theatre until November 5th. Go with the family, suspend your disbelief, and just enjoy the spectacle.

*I apologize if this lovely lady was not Gramma; I completely forgot to ask for her name amidst the discussion of cats.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

All My Sons: The Heavy Hitter of the Season

Joe Ziegler as Joe Keller.
Photo by David Hou

All MySons, by Arthur Miller
Directed by Martha Henry
Designed by Douglas Paraschuk (set), Dana Osborne (costumes), Louise Guinard (lighting), Todd Charlton (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Joe Zeigler, Lucy Peacock, Tim Campbell

It seems appropriate to use a baseball metaphor to describe a play about the all-American dream… even if that dream is based on a lie.

Miller’s play examines the cost and subsequent worth of the American Dream, an examination just as relevant today as they it was when it was written in 1947. America, still high on itself for winning yet another war, wasn’t interested in examining the price of winning – but Miller was.  Not on the grand scale but on the minute, day-to-day scale of regular Joes – in this case, one Joe Keller.

A businessman during the war and a good ol’ boy afterward, Joe made a business decision that cost 21 pilots their lives and sends his partner to jail. In business they call this ‘acceptable losses’ even though it is revealed as fraud; Joe says he ‘did it for his family’ so they could continue living the American Dream.

Truth will out, as the poet said.  As the play unfolds and the characters are all revealed to be living in pretended ignorant bliss or outright denial, they are caught in the churning vortex of consequence which inevitably tears them all apart. In the case of Martha Henry’s production which opened June 2, the audience is likely to feel as shattered as the characters they watch.

Lucy Peacock as Kate.
Photo by David Hou
Blame, judgement, ethics, guilt, the true nature of courage… all come to bear in this masterful play, ably directed and superbly acted. Martha Henry has directed a very moving, yet not devastating piece, not the way one would expect from a play containing all these themes, still so timely, still so significant in a Wiki-leak, Panama Papers age. With a play like this, one would expect an audience in tears or even roused to anger – they’ll still want a stiff drink after seeing it, but perhaps not tissues. I for one, wanted just a bit more.

Ms Henry did, however, assemble an exceptionally fine cast for her play. Lucy Peacock gets better and better, year after year. Here, she gives Kate the essence of a frightened but determined, intelligent woman, and she keeps audiences guessing at Kate’s true thoughts for nearly the entire play.  Ms. Peacock is a true force of nature in this role.

Actor Joe Ziegler gives the character of Joe Keller a certain flavour of shiftiness, but this Joe Keller comes across as a little too white collar, and a little too confident for a man who is supposed to have little education and a sense of ‘wonder in many commonly known things’ (as described in the play).  Mr. Ziegler’s bearing is a little too upright in portraying Keller-the-fraud, but this gives Keller-the-haunted a significant boost in impact.

The others are just as strong and it is gratifying to see some of them come to the fore – Sarah Afful, EB Smith and Michael Blake in particular; while some newer faces – Jessica B Hill, Lanise Antoine Shelley and Roderigo Beilfuss – all give character depictions that promise a bright future on Festival stages.

Joe Ziegler (foreground) as Joe Keller and Tim Campbell as
Chris Keller. Photo by David Hou.
However, the great standout performance of All My Sons is Tim Campbell as Chris Keller. Mr. Campbell brings all of Chris’s yearning, his earnestness and his anxiety just to the surface and leaves it there, simmering, until it finally erupts into complete devastation – this is a guy so desperate to believe the lie he actually comes across as truthful, so truthful that all the other characters use him as their moral barometer. In a heavy-hitting play, Mr. Campbell is the pinch-hitter, and he knocks it out of the park. 

In a season so far of triple "A" ball, Martha Henry’s production of All My Sons reminds us why the Stratford Festival is a major league player.  Catch this home run at the Tom Patterson Theatre where it continues in repertory until October 2.

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