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Monday, 17 July 2017

Yo ho Yo ho a Pirate’s Life For All

Katelyn McCulloch as Ben Gunn, and
Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Jim.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Nicolas Billon
Directed by Mitchell Cushman
Designed by Douglas Parashuk (set), Charlotte Dean (costumes), Kevin Fraser (lighting), Debashis Sinha (sound and composition), Nick Bottomly (projections), John Stead (fights)
Featuring:  Thomas Mitchell Barnet, Juan Chioran, Sara Dodd, Katelyn McCullogh

In recent years the Stratford Festival has moved firmly toward offering fare for younger folk, and it has become my tradition to let the younger folks be the critics. And since this year’s offering is Treasure Island, it seemed only fair to offer their review in pirate parlance, as best we could manage, anyway. After all, the audience is met with ships’ crew and invited on stage to view the world through a pirate’s glass before the show even begins – it seems only right to embrace this spirit in a review as well…

(A-hem) Fer those unfamiliar wit' th' tale, let me fill ye in a bit: young Jim Hawkins 'n his widowed mother run th' Admiral Benbow Inn on th' English coast. When an injured sailor leaves an ole map t' th' rascal Captain Flint’s lost booty, Jim, a squire 'n doctor hire a ship 'n crew t' lead them thar and find the treasure. Unbeknownst t' them, th' ship’s cook, John Silver, be really th' pirate Long John Silver, 'n once they arrive at Treasure Island his scallywag crew mutiny t' loot th' booty themselves. It’s up t' Jim, his mates, th' good cap'n 'n an ole stranded sailor named Ben Gunn t' stop Silver, claim th' booty 'n retake thar ship.

(Pirate-speak is not as easy as you’d think.) 

The bare bones of the story remain the same in Nicolas Billion’s adaptation, though there is an additional framing device – similar to that used in the 2010 production of Peter Pan but not as clearly executed – and the welcome addition of more women in the cast.  Jim Hawkins’ mother becomes an aunt who morphs into a pirate, a sister from the framing device becomes the stranded and mostly airborne Ben Gunn, and the female doctor becomes Mom as the framing device closes. Oh, and the never seen Captain James Flint is also given a sex-change into the notorious and fearsome Jane Flint.  Not that any of the younger set I interviewed noticed.

At intermission I interviewed Beatrice (age 11), Tess (age 11), and Owen and his brother Liam (age 9 and 10, respectively), to capture their thoughts on the production so far.

RG: Did ye know th' tale o' Treasure Island afore ye came?

Bea: No, I knew nothing about the story.

Tess: I kind of knew, there are pirates looking for treasure.

Liam: No, I didn’t really know the story.

Owen: …. Not really.

RG: Be this yer firs’ time at th’ theatre?

Bea (age 11): No, I’ve been here before, I’ve seen Narnia, and Alice and the Snoopy one. (That would be You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, from 2012.)

Tess: I saw the Narnia one and Alice through the Looking Glass.

Liam: This is our first time here, but we’ve seen The Lion King…

RG: Be ye not from around these parts?

Liam: No, we’re from Toronto. (He waits for Owen to chime in but his brother has opted out of the interview.)

Peter (Liam and Owen’s grandfather): He isn’t into theatre today, though that is unusual for him.
(L-R) Juan Chioran as Long John Silver, Thomas Mitchell Barnet as Jim
and Jamie Mac as Allardyce. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

RG: No bother… So how are ye likin' th' play so far?  Wha' be yer favourite part?

Liam: It’s really good – especially the bit at the beginning with the bunk beds and toy box, and how it got sort of teleported to Treasure Island.

Tess: I really like all the music and scenery – I like how they’re able to make one thing [set piece] into something else. And the actors look like they are really enjoying it too.

RG: That be mighty perceptive o' ye!

Bea: I really like the special effects – especially the sounds - and the projections.

RG: (Surprised out of pirate speak momentarily) You could tell they were projections?

Bea: (Rolls eyes at me*) Uh, yeah.

The sights and sounds of this production are really quite fantastic.  The set, lighting and projection designers have used layers of scrim curtains to create an incredible amount of depth to the island’s jungle, storms at sea and night skies, as well as the travelling maps and seafaring flags.  It is a visual treat, to be sure.
RG: Be thar anythin' ye reckon that could be better?

Tess: Well, I could see the string for the parrot the whole time – it could have been a bit more real. And I could see the hooks [of the safety harnesses] though everything else was going on.

Bea: I don’t really know who they are.

RG: Who? Th’ scurvy crew o’ actors?

Bea: Yeah, it’s hard to keep track of who they all are, it isn’t very well explained. I’m looking forward to the end.

RG: What?! Why?

Bea: (Rolls eyes at me again*) Because I want to see what happens next!

Liam: I hope there are booby traps and I think the Captain dude [Long John Silver] is going to die.

RG: Tha’s a fair thought, can I check back wit’ ye afterward t’ see if it be true?

Liam: Yeah! (A lengthy discussion about the film The Goonies ensues until intermission is almost over, at which time I asked them to think of a play she’d like to see on stage in the future, and let me know what it is after the show.)

Bea: (didn’t need to think about it) “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”.

RG: Hoo boy.

There is a fair amount of commotion on the stage, and paired with the lively soundtrack it might be a little confusing for younger members of the audience, particularly when the former ship’s crew peel off their disguises to become rock-star pirates, accompanied by appropriate rocked-out version of “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum”. Also, a fair number of pistols go off with very loud bangs, so fair warning to any sensitive audience members out there. While the production is not quite a pantomime, there are quite a few moments where it comes close, with the obviously fake parrot, cast members asking for help from the audience, and a few jokes aimed squarely at the adults, above the heads of the younger set.

Though I missed Liam (and the chance to lament his false prediction), I did catch up with Tess and Bea after the show to get their final thoughts:

Tess: I loved it! I’ll definitely come back, I’d like to see Romeo and Juliet.

Bea: I thought the guy who played the boy [Thomas Mitchell Barnet, playing Jim Hawkins] was quite good, and the girl in the air [Katelyn McCullogh as Ben Gunn]. I’ll probably come back because I’ll go with my school, or you will bring me.**

Tess: You asked what play I’d like to see on stage in the future.

RG: Yarr, that I did. Did ye reckon’ on a show?

Tess: Harry Potter.

Bea, offering a high five to Tess: That’s what I said!

Jennifer (Tess’s grandmother): Hoo boy.

Blimey, fair winds to ye, wit’ that, Stratford Festival. And congrats on a hugely entertainin’ Treasure Island.
Juan Chioran (centre) as Long John Silver, and Thomas Mitchell Barnet (far right)
as Jim, with members of the company. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Treasure Island continues in repertory – with chocolate bullion – until Oct. 22 at the Avon Theatre.

 *(It should be noted that I’m Bea’s parent.)
**(And yes, I will.)



Thursday, 6 July 2017

Book Review: A Court of Lions

Court of Lions
by Jane Johnson

Have you ever gone to a historic site, and felt the shift of time beneath your feet? Touched a wall and wondered who else had touched it, centuries before? Looked at a piece of art behind museum glass and wondered who had created, it, held it, owned it? And how they had come to do so?

One gets the same sense of past connection when one reads Jane Johnson’s novels. Her latest, Court of Lions, has parallel narratives – one in the here and now in present day Granada in Spain; the other in 15th century Granada, in the final days of its Nasrid dynasties.  In the present we meet Kate, a woman who has escaped a psychotic husband but left her most precious treasure behind in order to keep them both from harm; in the past we meet Blessings, who serves and loves Prince Abu Abdullah Mohammad, the boy who would become Mohammad XII, the last sultan of Granada.  Blessings, a descendant of the northern Tuarag tribes of the Sahara, lives his life to protect Momo, as he calls the Prince.  He uses his flair for disguise and spying and even his mother’s magical rituals into play, leaving wards against Momo’s enemies around the walls of the Alhambra. But Blessings’ many talents and his reckless, unrequited love for Momo are not enough to staunch the flow of Catholic fanaticism burning its way through Spain under the obsessive rulers Queen Isabella and her King Ferdinand.

In the present, Kate quits her humble job, sickened by her boss’s rampant bigotry. Visiting the celebrated gardens of the Alhambra, she finds an iota of peace in the glorious gardens of Alhambra, as well as a scrap of paper in a garden wall.  Her past begins to play cat and mouse with her, just as the scrap of paper, hidden since before the fall of Alhambra in 1492, leads her to a type of salvation she never would have believed existed.  Sometimes a slight tug on a small thread to the past can make the future shine bright with hope.

For fans Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, Jeffery Archer’s Only Time Will Tell or Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, this is historical writing at its best – steeped in atmosphere, suspense and lush writing, Court of Lions delivers a wholly captivating story and a moving brush with history.  

To borrow: Stratford Public Library
To purchase: Indigo.ca

Book Review: A Touch of Farmhouse Charm

A Touch of Farmhouse Charm: Easy DIY projects to add a warm and rustic feel to any room
By Liz Fourez

The Internet is full of DIY blogs, and one of the nicest we’ve stumbled across recently is that of Liz Fourez, creator of Love Grows Wild. Liz is a living-in-the-country-do-it-yourself queen, but without the fuss and pretentiousness of other decorating mavens, and that is a good thing. It means one may actually start and complete some of these projects, instead of just marking pages and sighing over their possibilities.

While Liz’s blog is an easily searchable wonder of her finished products, design know-how and everything else from music to gardening, her book, A Touch of Farmhouse Charm, is a truly beautiful title.  70 DIY projects laid out room-by-room, with complete supply lists, crystal-clear instructions and tips, professional photos and (yay) levels of difficulty.  For instance, you may not want to attempt the rustic paneled door (lovely, but not everyone has the skills to use a circular saw), but the table runner, flower bucket, covered books and window-frame picture display? Even all-thumbs beginners like myself can handle these projects with the straightforward instructions provided by Liz. The photos give the book a fresh, positive and relaxed vibe, so even if you are willing to tackle a more advanced project you’ll start out (at least) feeling every confidence that your project will turn out just fine.

Now, the sources Liz provides are all from the Midwestern USA (since she lives in Indiana), but it’s nothing a little Canadian ingenuity can’t overcome.   You can follow newer projects on the Love Grows Wild blog, where the instructions follow the simple but gorgeous photos of her own farmhouse, as well as on Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook – where she’s also posted videos of her projects and renos.

If you are just dipping your toes in the waters of DIY, this book is a great place to start, and if you’ve got advanced power-tool know-how, you’ll find some weekend projects to bring a fresh look to any room.  Have fun!

Available to borrow: Stratford Public Library
Available to purchase: Amazon.ca

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