Monday, December 17, 2007

Diary of a Madman and Dream of a Ridiculous Man Review

Photo: Clayton Jevne of Theatre Inconnu (www.theatreinconnu.com)

Diary of a Madman and Dream of a Ridiculous Man continue at 1923 Fernwood Road until December 29th. Call 360-0234 for tickets.

Clayton Jevne of Theatre Inconnu usually performs his one-man version of Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol at this time of year...why the switch this year to versions of Gogol and Dostoyevski stories?


As you may have seen, Clayton Jevne is the cover story of this week's Monday Magazine, as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of his small theatre company Theatre Inconnu, or “Unknown Theatre” that has been performing regularly in Victoria since 1987. Jevne founded and ran the Victoria Shakespeare Festival for many years and has managed a number of different theatre spaces around town, from a tiny shoebox space in Market Square, to a tent in the Inner Harbour, to St. Anne's Academy and now his relatively new space in the Little Fernwood Centre across the road from the Belfry on Fernwood Road. Throughout these twenty years, Jevne has presented a widely-ranging program of classic and contemporary plays that have offered Victoria theatre-goers the rare opportunity to see a number of plays that would never otherwise be seen. His programming choices have been described as 'eclectic' and that seems a fair description...you never know what to expect from season to season, and definitely some shows work better than others, but I am always happy to have the chance to see plays by lesser-known European playwrights, or classics by playwrights such as Pinter, George Ryga and many others. To celebrate this anniversary, Jevne has decided to remount Dostoyevski's short story that he originally performed way back in 1984. He has paired this one-act play with a new production of Gogol's short story Diary of a Madman.


I understand that the epitaph on Gogol's gravestone reads “I shall laugh my bitter laugh”. Does that quote describe Diary of a Madman?


Absolutely. Gogol is famous for his sharp satires of overblown Russian government bureaucracy in the early 1800's. Many of his characters possess the peculiar and particular Russian quality of poshlost which translates best as 'self-satisfied inferiority' or 'false importance and cleverness'. The narrator of Madman fits this quality to a 'T' as he describes his contempt for both his betters (with a couple of exceptions) and those beneath him in the strict social class structure of czarist Russia. While the narrator longs for the beautiful and unattainable daughter of the 'Director', he also begins to hear dogs in conversation and so starts to slowly decline into delusions of grandeur and full-blown insanity. So the story has that uniquely Russian quality of both humor and sadness mixed together as we watch this pompous yet insignificant 'titular counsellor' descend into madness in the grips of believing he is actually the king of Spain.


What about The Dream of a Ridiculous Man by Dostoyesvski...is it in a similar satirical theme as the Gogol?


Not at all. Dostyesvski, one of the greatest writers of all time, was influenced early in his life by utopian socialism and was imprisoned in Siberia in the 1840s for this perceived threat to the czar and his regime. While Dostoevski moved away from these utopian dreams later in his career-- as he began to explore a psychologism and existentialism in his writing that remains a huge influence on any number of authors--the short story presented here hearkens back to the utopian dream of a better world. The narrator tells us about a dream he had one night as he fell asleep in contemplation of suicide, due to his feelings of total indifference to a totally indifferent world. This dream sees him shoot himself yet remain conscious of his funeral and burial. He is then taken by a mysterious stranger through outer space to a planet like Earth but perfect in every way, a society built on love of both nature and humanity. While his presence eventually poisons this perfection, rendering it into a dystopia we recognize all too well, the narrator awakens from this dream to a renewed sense of purpose and a will to live.


As both these stories are pieces of literature rather than plays, how well did you feel they worked as theatre?


Both stories feature first-person narrators who speak directly to the audience, which helps a lot in turning these pieces of literature into theatre. Any story written in third-person needs to be re-written in a more immediate and direct voice in order to work well dramatically. That said, this is still essentially a form of Reader's Theatre, albeit at a high level of achievement. As we are listening to and watching an actor interpret two short stories, the demands on an audience are quite high and this show is over two hours long. So audiences should come prepared to meet that challenge...this is not light entertainment! While this production is intentionally minimal...the first piece has a bare stage and a couple of props, the second a table and chair...the words of these great authors definitely paint pictures in your mind, as any fine literature will do.
And what about the work of Clayton Jevne in these roles, and of the director Graham McDonald?


Jevne's performances in both roles is very strong. His madman in the Gogol is somewhat stylized, exaggerated and overblown for comic effect. His transitions in one lengthy scene between the character of a small dog and himself is very well done. Simply propping himself up against a pole of one side of the stage allows us to imagine him either working at his desk or lying in bed. As the character descends in to madness, his movement becomes more manic and Jevne uses his gestural vocabulary to great effect as he circles the tiny stage. In the Dostoyevski, Jevne's performance is much more naturalistic as he very simply tells us the story of what happened to this narrator one fateful November 3rd. This piece is the more challenging of the two to make theatrical, as it is mostly the relating of a fantastic dream, so we are drawn in by Jevne's detailed physical and facial expressions. Director McDonald has Jevne make effective use of levels by standing and lying on the table, even turning it on its side at one point, but this piece is more static and could perhaps have used some judicious editing to help sustain interest. There is a lack of dramatic tension in descriptions of utopias, afterall they are supposed to be perfect and therefore conflict-free, so it only when the utopia starts to slip into sinfulness and human evil that the dream gains some power. Overall, this production offers an alternative to the usual light Christmas fare and will be stimulating for anyone interested in Russian literature and the satirical and moral issues they explore.

Monday, November 19, 2007

SCOTLAND ROAD REVIEW - November 19, 2007

Scotland Road continues at Langham Court theatre until December 1st. Call 384-2142 for tickets.


Apparently, this is one of two plays by American playwright Jeffrey Hatcher to be produced in Victoria this year...why the interest in his work?

Hatcher is quite a popular playwright who writes adaptations as well as original plays. His adaptation of Henry James' TURN OF THE SCREW will appear at the Belfry Theatre in January and his adaptation of the novel TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE was presented by Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre last season. So Hatcher seems to have the ability to tap into a current popular interest, or a traditional popular tale, and to turn it into a stage play. This is certainly the case with his original play SCOTLAND ROAD that premiered in 1993 in response perhaps to the renewed interest in the Titanic after the ship was found on the ocean floor in 1985. Of course, not long after Hatcher's play was written, James Cameron's blockbuster film version became the biggest movie of all time, demonstrating how much we are still fascinated with this historic disaster.

So this Langham Court production would have been a good choice performed at the same time as the Titanic exhibit at the Royal BC Museum?

That would have been a great tie-in for this production, and I can only assume that they were unable to fit it into their schedule so that it ran at the same time as the exhibit, which closed about a month ago. But, nevertheless, interest in the Titanic never seems to wane and this play definitely engages its audience with details about the ship and its fatal maiden voyage in April of 1912. We are treated to a number of historic images of the ship and people aboard it as slides projected onto the walls of the set, plus headlines from newspapers of the day and other things such as the onboard dinner menu for April 12th, the night the ship sank. These images really add an educational element to the show and successfully take us back in time.

Is the play set on the Titanic...does it attempt a staged version of James Cameron's movie?

Not at all...in fact, the play is set in 1992. The play proposes that a silent young woman has been plucked off a North Atlantic iceberg, dressed in 1912 clothing, who appears to be a survivor of the Titanic. We see her interrogation by the great-grandson of a famous Titanic victim, John Jacob Astor, who is as obsessed by the Titanic as much as he is determined to reveal her as a fraud. But the play is full of twists and turns, as any good psychological drama should be, and not one character is really who they pretend to be. The premise works very well to draw us in and keep us guessing right up until the final moments. Is this mysterious young woman really a survivor? Has she been frozen alive in an iceberg all these decades? Is she a ghost? An angel? Or, is she a con artist seeking celebrity? And how has this descendant of Astor managed to maneuver it such that he has gained almost limitless access to her? (This problem is answered simply with the age-old “lots of money” response, which fails to convince as we move into the second act of the play.) What doctor, such as the Icelandic doctor responsible for the young woman's care, would ever agree to such an ethically questionable scenario as transporting her patient to the USA and having her subjected to a gruelling interrogation in a mysterious white-walled room? And, when we meet an authentic Titanic survivor (apparently, the 'last one') who is invited to determine whether or not the young girl's story is true, would this person not be at least 100 years old in 1992? So, the play raises some questions of veracity, but at the same time, the central conflict between Astor and Winifred (the young girl) keeps us on our toes and waiting for the truth of things to be revealed.

And what did you feel were the strengths of this production?

Veteran Langham court director Roger Carr has cast the play well with David MacPherson in the lead role as Astor and newcomer Catherine Rose as Winifred. These are two fine actors; while I am very familiar with MacPherson's work, I have never seen Rose before and she was a revelation. Her Winifred moves seamlessly from silent and terrified victim, to convincing survivor with a fascinating story to tell, to interrogator herself (late in the play) who takes on the power to reveal Astor's own secrets. Lovely work. MacPherson is fine too, although I would like to see more intensity from him than is there right now. Astor's energy drives the play forward and MacPherson is playing the role a little too laid-back at the moment, as though there is too little at stake for his character. I hope he finds this intensity over the course of the run. Supporting work is well-done by Wendy Magahay as Dr. Halbrech and Danda Humphreys as real Titanic survivor Frances Kittle (although the latter does not need the heavy stage makeup in order to effectively play her role, in my view). The set design by Bill Adams is quite wonderful, with a terrific dramatic surprise I won't reveal here, as is the sound design by Alan MacKenzie and the lighting by Karrie Wolfe.

Any elements that you felt weren't working quite as well?

My main quibble with the show is its pace. This play has most often been performed as an 80 or 90 minute one-act play (based on online reviews I read). This production comes in at 115 minutes (including an unnecessary 15 minute intermission) and could be tightened up considerably. It should clip along with much greater urgency than is currently the case, and much of this responsibility falls to MacPherson, as previously stated, but also to scene changes that take far too much time. If this cast could knock 10 minutes off the running time, they'd have a much crisper and more psychologically tense piece of theatre. Also, the play itself leaves one too many questions hanging by the end. While I generally don't mind a level of ambiguity, in this case there is a bit too much head-scratching left for the audience to cope with after curtain call. I suppose there is a certain level of open interpretation where each spectator can decide for him or herself who Winifred and Astor really are (perhaps the whole play happens in Astor's imagination?), but there is also a sense that the playwright opted out of actually bringing all the secrets within the play fully into the light. Still, it's an interesting play and a quite solid production that is well worthwhile for fans of both the Titanic story and of psychological drama.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

HOCKEY MOM, HOCKEY DAD REVIEW OCT. 29, 2007



Poster for Other Guys production of HOCKEY MOM, HOCKEY DAD at Belfry Studio [Call 385-6815 for tickets].

1. This play by Maritimer Michael Melski has played across Canada, in Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Saskatoon as well as in Nova Scotia. What's the secret to its success?


Just think about the title! You've got a ready-made demographic audience there...anyone who has ever spent time in an ice rink before dawn is already going to be on board with a show about hockey parents watching their kids practice and play. And even if you have never experienced this directly, no Canadian worth his salt can resist the mythology of hockey that so serves to identify us...our national sport. So a combination of the alluring and populist setting and a quick, cleverly written two-hander about two single parents trying to connect and it looks like a win-win game for all involved. In the play, here performed as a one-act in about 70 minutes, we see Donna and Teddy engaged in the courtship game while cheering their 8 year old children on as they get whupped yet again. It's a charming formula that mostly works, although Melski does tend to hammer home his points, rather than take a slightly more subtle approach in his dialogue. While some scenes have a real ring of truth to them -- and I especially liked the scenes where the mom and dad are caught between their own conversation and the action of their sons' game -- at times the dialogue slips into movie-of-the-week and we lose some of the freshness that is present elsewhere. That said, there are a couple of unexpected twists along the way that will keep you wondering about what happens next, and if these two lonely people will ever make it together.


2. And what about this Victoria-based Other Guys Theatre production, featuring local actors and real-life married parents Brian Linds and Jan Wood?


This is the real treat of seeing this show....a rare chance to see Belfry favorite Brian Linds and his wife Jan Woods onstage together. And they are both terrific in their roles, offering us characters who are fighting for their lives in very different ways. Brian Linds is an immensely likable actor who radiates warmth and his challenge here is to make Teddy charming, but also to some extent risky, as Donna becomes less certain about his typical hockey-loving (that is, bench-clearing and brawling) ways. I think Linds can find more danger in Teddy than is there as of the preview I saw: he needs to scare Donna enough at one point to scare her away and Linds seems so much in love with her, so remorseful about his behavior that I found it difficult to believe Donna's rejection...he's just so darn nice! Jan Wood's Donna, on the other hand, suppresses her warmth with good reason...she has left a terrible and damaging marriage, she has no money and little work, and she only wants to protect her son. Not a great prospect for a relationship, but Teddy makes up his mind to woo her right off the bat, and I loved watching Wood thaw very slowly and in a very careful and thoughtful way, until she begins to let Teddy into her life a little. Wood is a terrific actor and her physical and emotional work here is a testament to her popularity as an acting professor in the theatre department at UVic, and to her long professional career. The way she reacts when Teddy touches her, the hands flying up to protect herself from anyone or anything getting to her, are wonderful to watch.

3. What about the Canadian hockey culture that is the background of the play...is it celebrated or slammed?


I'd have to say it's a bit of both. We laugh along with these characters as they watch their young children play badly, and we can even relate to Teddy's dreams of the NHL for his son Todd. And we cheer along with them when the Langford Leafs score an occasional goal. But the violence that has become such a prevalent aspect of hockey is shown when a fight breaks out on the ice and Donna is shocked by Teddy's behaviour. Personally speaking, I don't watch hockey, partly because of the violence, so I understand Donna's negative reaction, especially given her context and situation. But, on the other hand, if you're hanging out at a hockey rink and your kid is playing the game, I figure you've got to be aware at some level about the nature of the game...in 2007. Unfortunately, I found Donna's concerns about fighting understandable but still a bit naïve. I'd suggest she put her child into a different sports activity if she really wants to prevent him from being exposed to violent behaviour. Again, speaking personally, I like baseball. Rarely a two-team pile-up in ball...the only real danger is getting smoked by the ball or crashing into the fence.


4. And did you believe you were really in a kids hockey rink?


The set designed by Bill Adams, who has done many fine sets in town over the years, often at Langham Court, is simple but effective...the bleachers and grey brick back wall of a rundown Langford hockey rink. Director Ross Desprez, assisted by Brian Linds' fun and sometimes rabble-rousing sound design and Keith Houghton's effective lighting, has the two actors move effectively between and within scenes so as to make maximum use of the small space. The couple of times they actually climb over the boards and onto the ice, it is a strong effect. And the use of the buzzer marking periods in games also takes us into the rink, as does a Zamboni that seems to cross the ice right behind us.


5. Any reservations about this production, or with the play itself?


This is not a great Canadian play, but I understand and think it deserves its popularity. I agree with a Vancouver reviewer's opinion that it is a bit tired seeing the man pursue the woman and basically metaphorically beat her into submission with his sheer relentlessness. What does Teddy really see in Donna (as she asks him herself at one point, to her credit)? He seems more interested in having a partner, being a family man, than in being with this particular woman, as much as says he finds her beautiful (and I'm sure he does). And the play is (at least in part) yet another female victim story, of which I am so very, very tired. Also, it is a love story that seems to entirely lack sex, and as Romeo and Juliet taught us, that is the spice of life in love stories. Why do these two never get it on for as long as we know them? I don't know about you, but this is frustrating not just for the characters! But this production gives us a strong version of this hit show that gives us the chance to see two fine local actors working together outside of their home. Although I might daydream about seeing them together as Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, or in Eugene O'Neill's Moon for the Misbegotten, it's a treat to see them in Melski's bleacher romance, nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Critics' Choice Awards 2007

CRITIC’S CHOICE AWARDS 2007

Critics: Adrian Chamberlain (Times-Colonist); David Lennam (CBC); Monica Prendergast (CBC); John Threlfall (Monday Magazine)

set design

Leslie Frankish (Manon Lescault - POV)

John Ferguson (Don Giovanni - POV)

Ian Rye (Urinetown - Belfry)

Misha Koslovsky (Beauty and the Beast - VOS)

Christian Barry (Revisited)

Laurin Kelsey, (Crackpot – UVic)

WINNER: Ian Rye (Urinetown)

costume design

Mary Kerr (Richard III - UVic)

John Ferguson (Don Giovanni - POV)

David Hardwick (Beauty and the Beast - VOS)

Susan Ferguson (Waiting in the Wings – Langham)

WINNER: David Hardwick (Beauty and the Beast - VOS)

sound design

Richard Feren (Revisited – Halifax 2b Theatre)

Ian Case (Macbeth – WHOs)

Tobin Stokes (I Am My Own Wife – Belfry)

John Mills-Cockell (Honour – Belfry)

Meg Roe/Alessandro Juliani (Skydive) WON A JESSIE

WINNER: Richard Feren (Revisited)

lighting design

Christian Barry (Revisited)

Tim Herron (Richard III - UVic)

Gerald King (Urinetown - Belfry)

Adrian Muir (Skydive – Belfry)

WINNER: Tim Herron (Richard III)

direction

Roy Surette (Urinetown)

Giles Hogya (Richard III)

Graham McDonald (The Caretaker – Theatre Inconnu)

Christian Barry (Revisited)

Linda Hardy (Tartuffe – UVic)

Barbara Poggemiller (Romeo and Juliet – Victoria Shakespeare Society)

WINNER: Giles Hogya (Richard III)

performance in a community production

Trevor Hinton (Richard III)

Fran Patterson (Romeo and Juliet)

Michael Shewchuck + Jason Stevens (The Caretaker)

Ming Hudson + Laura Harris (as the maid, Dorine) (Tartuffe)

David McPherson (The Butcher’s Apron)

WINNER: Trevor Hinton (Richard III)

performance in a professional production

Meg Roe & John Payne (Urinetown)

Alan Morgan (I Am My Own Wife)

Rick Miller (Bigger Than Jesus)

Elizabeth Shepherd (Honour)

Cast of two: Michelle Monteith and Steven McCarthy (Revisited)

WINNER: Alan Morgan (I Am My Own Wife)

musical production

Urinetown (Belfry)

Anything Goes (Chemainus)

Beauty and the Beast (VOS)

Canadian College of Performing Arts Showcase

WINNER: Urinetown (Belfry)

best new play

Grimm Tales (Itsazoo)

Prior Engagement (Out of the Box Productions)

Skydive (Real Wheels/Belfry)

WINNER: Grimm Tales (Itsazoo)

overall production (community)

Richard III (Phoenix UVic)

The Caretaker (Theatre Inconnu)

Macbeth (WHOs)

Beauty and the Beast (VOS)

Romeo and Juliet (Vic Shakespeare Soc.)

Grimm Tales (Itsazoo)

Waiting in the Wings (Langham)

WINNER: SPLIT

Richard III (Phoenix UVic)

The Caretaker (Theatre Inconnu)

overall production (professional)

Urinetown (Belfry)

Revisited

Bigger Than Jesus (Rick Miller)

Manon Lescaut (POV)

An Oak Tree (UK, News from Nowhere)

WINNER: Revisited (Christian Barry, Halifax 2b Theatre)

best fringe production

Giant Invisible Robot (Jayson MacDonald)

Jake’s Gift (Julia Mackey)

Versus vs Versus (Pajama Men)

Dishpig (TJ Dawe and Greg Landucci)

Singing at the Edge of the World (Randy Rutherford)

Pitch Blonde (Laura Harris)

WINNER: Pitch Blonde (Laura Harris)

lifetime achievement

Ned Vukovic (UVic)

thank god they were comps

A Bedroom Farce (Langham Court)

Cross This Bridge at a Walk (Belfry, Incubator))

Charlotte’s Web (Kaleidoscope)

Street of Crocodiles (UVic)

Honour (Belfry)

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

THE UGLY DUCHESS and IDOMENEO – OCTOBER 15, 2007




Photos: Top, Portrait of a Grotesque Old Woman by Quentin Matsys (c. 1525-1530), National Gallery, London. Middle, poster for IDOMENEO [www.pov.bc.ca]. Bottom, Paul Terry as Margaret Maultasch [www.janetmunsil.com]. Photo by Bruce Stotesbury.



Today's reviews are of Janet Munsil's THE UGLY DUCHESS at UVic's Phoenix Theatre and Pacific Opera's production of Mozart's IDOMENEO (EE-dom-en-AY-o).




Before we begin talking about these two shows, I believe you have some Victoria theatre news to share?




The Belfry has announced the appointment of new Artistic Director Michael Shamata. Shamata is a very well-known Canadian director who has worked from coast to coast and was Artistic Director of Theatre New Brunswick and London's Grand Theatre. In recent years he has been a freelance director and has staged award-winning productions in Toronto and Vancouver, among many others. He will be directing the musical OLIVER at Vancouver's Playhouse Theatre in November and his strengths as a musical theatre director may mean we'll see more musicals onstage at the Belfry. Whatever happens, the Belfry has selected a very experienced Artistic Director in Shamata, who will no doubt continue the theatre's enviable record of success.




Now let's move on to THE UGLY DUCHESS up at UVic. This one-man show has been performed locally, nationally and internationally, is that right?




This is the Phoenix's annual alumni production, featuring graduates of the theatre program. UGLY DUCHESS is written by local playwright Janet Munsil, performed by her husband Paul Terry and directed by Britt Small, alumni all. It was first performed in 1993 and has been seen in Victoria, San Francisco, Winnipeg, Toronto, Edmonton, Czechoslovakia and Ireland. Quite a resumé! The one-act play tells the partly-true and partly-imaginary story of princess Margaret of Bohemia, who briefly ruled the European nation of Tyrol in the 1300s. She lived through the Black Plague and was reputed to be a very homely woman, nicknamed 'Maultasch' or 'Pocket-mouth'. Paul Terry plays Margaret with incredible sensitivity such that you never doubt his authenticity as a woman...the fact that he is in drag never once becomes an issue, so truthful is his portrayal. She tells us her life story while slowly getting dressed at her dressing table, occasionally bringing to life other characters, but mostly directly addressing the audience. The play was inspired by a portrait Munsil saw in London's National Gallery called Portrait of a Grotesque Old Woman and is a remarkable dramatization of this historical figure, simply but effectively directed by Britt Small.




What did you think about this version, playing in a proscenium theatre as compared to all the Fringe venues it has appeared in previously?




The Bishop Theatre in the Phoenix building at UVic is a lovely 200-seat theatre, but lacks the intimacy of the much-smaller Fringe theatre spaces where this play has most often been seen. I first saw UGLY DUCHESS shortly after moving to Victoria in 1999 at Open Space, where the audience was only a few feet away from Margaret at her dressing table. This time, seated near the back of the theatre, I missed this close contact with the character and therefore felt a little more removed from her and her story. While the show looks fine, with nice costuming by Roberta Doylend and lighting by Phoenix student Nathan Brown, I still wanted to be more up-close and personal with this unique dramatic creation from the fertile mind of Janet Munsil.






Mozart's early opera, based on the Greek myth of the King of Crete and his adventures following the end of the Trojan war, premiered in 1781. What can you tell us about this Pacific Opera production?




Mozart was only 24 years old when this opera premiered in Munich and in it we can see and hear the roots of the great operas he would compose later in his career, including THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, COSI FAN TUTTE and DON GIOVANNI, produced by Pacific Opera just last season. While hampered by a less-than-stellar librettist in Giambattista Varesco, the opera contains beautiful music and strong characters and plot in the story of the King of Crete, Idomoneo, who accidentally condemns his son Idamante to death by sacrifice, and the two women who love the prince, Trojan princess Illia and Greek princess Elettra. All these roles are well-performed and acted, and I especially enjoyed the female love rivals Emmanuelle Coutu as Illia and Joslin Romphf as Elletra. Interestingly, prince Idamante was written for a castrato, and is often played by a mezzo-soprano, as in this production by Mia Lennox-Williams, who plays the role with boyish sincerity. So we have two cross-dressing shows in the same week! This version of IDOMENEO features a lovely set design by POV regular and UBC theatre professor Alison Green that features a barren Cretan shoreline that becomes other locations throughout with the use of backdrops that are flown in and out, to great effect. Costume designer Christine Reimer makes her POV debut and her costumes for the main characters are generally effective, although I thought her somewhat garish flamenco-dancer-looking dress and long Morticia Adams hair for the insanely jealous Elletra was a bit over the top. Lighting by another POV regular Robert Thomson is uniformly strong.




How did you feel about Ann Hodges' stage direction and Mario Bernardi's musical direction of the opera?




Ann Hodges is another first-timer at POV and a welcome one, with a lot of theatre and opera directing experience. She is particularly strong at creating a chorus that has something to do, rather than just troop on and off as is so often the case in opera. In this way, she succeeds in making the chorus an integral part of the opera, and her use of tableaux, slow motion, repetition and other dramatic actions all work very well. Renowned conductor Mario Bernardi is also debuting at the POV and it certainly is an honour to have him here in Victoria. The former conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra has a stellar international career and conducts IDOMONEO with great sensitivity and understanding. His curtain call on Saturday night upstaged everyone else onstage, demonstrating what a treat is is to have a conductor of his calibre working with Pacific Opera.




PLUG: THE UGLY DUCHESS continues at the Phoenix Theatre until October 20th. Tickets are available at 721-8000. IDOMONEO continues until the 20th as well. Tickets are available at 386-6121.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

COMPANY by Stephen Sondheim at the Arts Club




Photos: Left, poster for Arts Club production of COMPANY [http://www.artsclub.com/20072008/onstage/company.htm]; Right, Dean Jones [Bobby] and Elaine Stritch [Joanne] in the original Broadway COMPANY of 1970 [http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/stars/stritch_e.html]
Let's get this straight - Stephen Sondheim is a genius of the musical theatre. I grew up in the 80s to his musicals, a total re-education from the Andrew Lloyd Webbers and That's Entertainment clips of classic American musical movies I was weaned on. Sondheim is thinking person's musical theatre, at times almost raised to philosophical worth. After all, not many composers of musicals earn Pulitzer prizes, as Sondheim and his later collaborator James Lapine did for Sunday in the Park with George in 1987. Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street is his 1979 masterwork, and is to open this Christmas in a film version by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman. I have never seen Sweeney onstage, but treasure the original soundtrack LP I own, with Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury...fantastic from first to last note. So when Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre produces this early Sondheim, his first musical hit (he had been a lyricist for huge musicals like Gypsy and West Side Story, but this was his first composer/lyricist show), I am nothing if not there.
The Bill Millerd-directed production, for the most part, does not disappoint. Matt Palmer plays a strong Bobby, the 35 year old bachelor protagonist surrounded by his loving and meddling married friends, with solid acting and singing throughout. This is a role where he is hardly ever offstage, so is a big challenge. Palmer delivers, giving rousing renditions of songs like Marry Me a Little, I'm Ready and the show-closing Being Alive. Palmer is well-supported with a large cast populated by top Vancouver musical theatre talent. Standouts for me were many of the women, to whom Sondheim gives the choicest songs aside from Bobby's: Another Hundred People, I'm Not Getting Married Today and the vicious Ladies Who Lunch were all sung with gusto and panache by their respective performers. Orchestrations were tight; the set recalled the Hal Prince original production evoking a stark urban space, with set pieces defining locations moving smoothly on and off as needed. Costumes were a bit monochromatically black for me, but livened up in Act Two. Choreography was the weak spot in the production and was serviceable at best; at worst, a solo dance sequence that is best forgotten.
That said, Company remains a powerful forerunner to the masterpieces that were to come, and I delighted in hearing echoes of melody lines that will develop into Sondheim's signature sound. There are Sondheim songs I can barely listen to, so much do they kick me in the emotional gut, and now I have Being Alive to add to that list (including Nothing's Gonna Harm You and Pretty Women from Sweeney, Move On from Sunday, Not Alone and Children Will Listen from Into the Woods, Loving You from Passion). Sondheim's stories and characters can go to dark emotional places, and there is a powerful kind of satisfaction/comfort you can get from art that pushes you and pleases you in the beautiful musical/lyrical tension that marks his work. Check out the soundtrack for the Broadway remount show, directed by John Doyle, in 2006, with a terrific performance by Raul Esparza as Bobby.

Monday, October 1, 2007

PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE REVIEW - OCT. 1, 2007


Photo: Poster of New Vic Theatre production, 2006 [http://www.newvictheatre.org.uk/press/gallery/jean_brodie.html]

1. I believe this play is an adaptation of a novel...what can you tell us about its history?

This 1968 play is based on the 1961 novel by Muriel Spark, that was first published in the New Yorker. It was made into a movie starring Dame Maggie Smith in 1969. Spark based her portrayal of the eccentric, unforgettable, charismatic yet misguided Scottish private girls' schoolteacher on a teacher she had herself while growing up in 1930s Edinburgh. She described the impact of this teacher in this way: “What filled our minds with wonder and made [her] so memorable was the personal drama and poetry within which everything in her classroom happened” and certainly this is the Jean Brodie she creates in the novel, and in Jay Presson Allen's adaptation for the stage: Jean Brodie is devoted to her small group of selected young girls and her mission to make them “La crème de la creme”, to shape their very destinies. What eventually happens involves scandal, betrayal and disaster as Brodie becomes attracted to fascism and meddles in her students' lives in a way that we would now consider to be emotionally abusive and is clearly destructive, even with the best of intentions.

2. Most of us have seen Maggie Smith's Oscar-winning performance as Jean Brodie in the 1969 film...how does this production's Jean Brodie compare to that well-known portrayal?

Director Wendy Merk has cast Lorene Cammiade (who has appeared in a number of previous Langham Court productions) in this hugely challenging role. I felt that Cammiade's performance was somewhat mixed, faring better in some scenes than others. She manages to capture Brodie's severity and single-mindedness quite well, and her ability to control and manipulate everything and everyone around her. But in Act Two, when everything starts to collapse, Cammiade keeps her stiff upper lip in place to the bitter end, and I wish she was able to show more of Brodie's vulnerability and the toll of the multiple betrayals that befall her. Also, Brodie is meant to be a scandalous free-thinker around premarital sex who has affairs with her teacher colleagues; unfortunately, this Jean Brodie felt very prim and proper to me, and I found it hard to believe that her sexuality drove some of her less-than-wise decisions. This is a Jean Brodie who is more Mary Poppins, I'm afraid, than the Cleopatra whom the character so admires.

3. What about the supporting characters...how do they do?

Another big challenge in this play are the many roles taken on by young girls, especially the key role of Sandy, Jean Brodie's ultimate betrayer and the narrator of the story. Here we have some nice performances from a group of young actors who play their roles with great conviction. However, I have to hope their performances soften a bit over the run, as I felt all of them tending toward overacting and pushing their emotions a bit too much. The whole cast is a bit guilty of face-front acting, where conversations are played facing out to the audience a bit too much, and I hope they can find their way into a more natural and connected place in the next two weeks. The male roles fare somewhat better in the show, with a nice performance especially from Christopher Harris as art teacher and Brodie's married lover, Teddy Lloyd. I also enjoyed Pippa Catling's portrayal of the head teacher and Brodie's antagonist Miss McKay, although I think there could be more fire between the two than is currently the case.

4. Langham Court often offers lovely set designs...what about this time?

Unfortunately, the set design by Tony Hubner was a bit of a disappointment. We are shown bare grey walls and an almost empty stage, save for the school desks on one side. This means there is a lot of trooping furniture on and off stage during blackouts between scenes, and this drags the pace of the show down quite a bit. For instance, the headmistress' desk was brought on and off a total of four times by my count; surely, Jean Brodie's desk on the other side of the stage could serve double-duty as Miss McKay's...audiences are quite capable of making this switch. Overall, the production would pick up pace with a lot more of beginning one scene immediately following another, even if we have to see actors and furniture moving on or off stage. In my view, this approach always beats looking at a dark stage and waiting for the lights to come up over and over again.

5. Any final thoughts about this play?

This play deserves its popularity in its portrayal of a dedicated yet deluded protagonist. As an educator myself, it is a cautionary tale about the powerful influences, both positive and negative, that teachers can have on their students. Also, given the dangers of fundamentalist thinking that continue to plague us today, Jean Brodie's attraction to fascism and its tragic consequences in the death of a student who tries to go to Spain and fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, are an uncomfortable reminder of the dangers in the viral spread of oppressive ideals. The play shows us the prime of Miss Jean Brodie and her fall from that self-defined prime that leaves her jobless and alone. A cautionary tale about self-delusions indeed.

Monday, September 24, 2007

HOMECHILD by Joan MacLeod


Photo: John Krich as Alistair [www.belfry.bc.ca]

1. What can you tell us about the playwright Joan MacLeod and her previous plays?


Joan MacLeod is one of Canada's most well-known playwrights whose plays have won numerous awards, including the 1988 Prix Italia for the CBC production of her one-woman play Jewel, the Governor General’s Award for Amigo’s Blue Guitar in 1991, and the Chalmer's Award for The Hope Slide. Her plays have been produced across Canada, and in England, the United States and Europe, and translated into eight languages. Although born, raised and schooled on the west coast, MacLeod spent a number of years in Toronto where she premiered her first plays at the Tarragon Theatre. She moved back to BC in 1992 and is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Victoria.


2. Why do you think she might have chosen the subject of Canada's home children for this new play?


MacLeod's plays are always socio-political at some level, although never overtly so. Instead, her interest is in examining how larger social or political issues and events play out in the lives of ordinary people. So in her play Shape of a Girl, we see a young girl who is affected by news stories of the Reena Virk killing here in Victoria, and this provokes her to do something about a bullying problem in her own life. In Amigo's Blue Guitar (staged by UVic's Phoenix Theatre a few years back), a Salt Spring Island family takes in a Salvadorean refugee and learn more than they want to about the realities of this young man's life. In this new play, MacLeod pushes us to deal with the relatively unknown story of up to 100,000 children who were forcibly emigrated to Canada from orphanages and poor families in Scotland and England from the 1870s to the 1930s. These children were often separated from their siblings and put to work as indentured farm labourers across the country. In Homechild, we see how the legacy of Dr. Thomas Barnardo and his Barnardo Homes has affected the life of one home child, Alistair McEachern, now in his late 70s or early 80s, and the members of his family.


3. What did you feel were the strengths of this production?


This production features a lovely set design by Pam Johnson that offers us something akin to a museum diorama exhibit of a typical Eastern Ontario rural farm, where the fields outside blend impressionistically into the porch and dining room of the home itself. I loved how the sky backdrop features a number of doors that the characters enter through. With a large cast of 8 the set can feel a bit cramped for space at times, though. Director Roy Surette (who is sadly leaving the Belfry for Montreal's Centaur Theatre this season) gives us another one of his fine shows, and has cast local actor John Krich as Alistair, whose performance is at the centre of the production. Krich offers a moving yet unsentimental portrait of a man who has bottled up the truth of his past for many decades. Alistair is not a very likable man, yet somehow Krich allows us to feel for him, and when he finally reveals the secrets he has hidden for so long, in the last few minutes of the play, we share both his deep grief and his tentative joy...a very fine performance. The supporting work in the show is also very even, with solid work from Terry Tweed as Alistair's live-in sister-in-law and fussbudget Aunt Flora, Jillian Fargey as Alistair's estranged daughter Lorna, Craig March as her low-achieving brother Ewan and Andrew Wheeeler as old friend and neighbour Wesley. Belfry regulars will also enjoy seeing a couple of other favorite actors returning to its stage; Margaret Martin as neighbour and home child Dorrie and Donna White as Alistair's sister in the present, in a very quiet and focused performance. I was especially impressed by the work of Jennifer Paterson as the young Katie, the embodiment of Alistair's memory of his long-lost sister. It is very difficult for an adult actor to play a young child convincingly and I felt that Paterson was note-perfect, both physically and verbally, throughout.


4. How did you feel about the weaving of past and present in the play?


It's interesting that this was an aspect that some Toronto critics didn't much like in the first production, yet here I felt it was one of the most effective elements in the play. Whenever the young Katie entered, I held on to my Kleenex, because her story of abandonment and her endless waiting to be reunited with her much-loved older brother Alistair (who she calls Jackie) is so terribly moving; all the more so because we realize that this young girl's experience was shared in real life by so many tens of thousands of children...a national tragedy, really. And the scenes when Alistair encounters Katie in his memories and recreates scenes from their childhood, are almost too much to bear.


5. What about any aspects that you felt weren't working?


My only major criticism of this highly-recommended production is a dramaturgical one that deals with the play itself. I have a feeling that there is a bit too much going on in the play than there needs to be, and that MacLeod gives us supporting characters who offer some comic relief but who don't really drive the story forward. In my mind, this story is about Alistair, his daughter and his sister (in both remembered and present versions). In other words, I can't help wondering what this play would look like as a four-hander, pared down to its essentials. Right now the play feels a bit like taking a warm bath...we know upfront that all will end up okay. I'm wondering what it be like to experience it as more of a drama...a long cold shower. It wouldn't be as funny a play, and perhaps we would miss the laughter that helps us cope with the powerful emotions generated by the story. But maybe (for all that) it would be an angrier, more raw and perhaps even more truthful play about the damage done to so many innocent children, and how that damage causes permanent scars that are passed on, from one generation to the next.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

TWO MORE LOCAL SHOWS - DISHPIG & [sic]


Photos: Top, poster for [sic] from Theatre SKAM [www.skam.ca]
Bottom, Greg Landucci in TJ Dawe's Dishpig [www.tjdawe.com]


This past week I saw the one-man show DISHPIG written by TJ Dawe in collaboration with performer Greg Landucci at the Vancouver Fringe. This show has played in a number of Fringe Festivals and been warmly received and Vancouver is no exception: It was voted a “Pick of the Fringe” and will be extended into early October at a number of different venues (see http://www.vancouverfringe.com/). While it is unavoidable in my role as local critic/theatre artist that I must review the performances of friends (Landucci and I were students together at the Phoenix Theatre at UVic), my focus here is less on his very accomplished performance and more on the play that he has written with popular Fringe icon TJ Dawe. What I found so refreshing about the play is that it stands on its feet as a play, which cannot be said for many Fringe shows that offer performance experiences, good, bad and sometimes ugly, but that cannot always be called 'plays'. DISHPIG begins with the autobiographical in mining the memories of both playwrights from their days of dirty and difficult work in restaurant kitchens, but ends with quite a class-conscious and moving picture of a young man who learns that he has more inside him than he knew, and who is therefore able to move on to better things than cleaning up after other people for minimum wage. Landucci invites us into the world of Matt, freshly home from 3 months backpacking in Europe and in need of both lodging and work. When the best he can come up with is being a dishwasher in a second-rate restaurant, he steps into the subculture of kitchen life where hierarchies written in stone determine that he is now the lowest of the low (of course, the servers are the gods and goddesses in this world). The play gives us portraits of a number of characters and Landucci, directed ably by Dawe, renders each of them with distinct facial expressions and verbal precision. He also takes us through the mind-numbing robotic repetition of actions required in dishwashing (“Sorting, stacking, soaking, spraying...”) in a piece that has been described, quite accurately, as performance poetry, and is very funny to boot.
I do have a couple of quibbles, though. Landucci does a lot of 'head acting' in the show and relies perhaps a bit too much on facial expressions and tight, controlled gestures. This constraint, while mostly effective, makes me long for a moment or two in the play when both Matt (and the actor) can engage his whole body, can really 'let go'. I'm not asking the play to 'show' rather than 'tell', but rather to find moments where the physical can help us hear the story as well. My second quibble is from a woman's point of view. While restaurant kitchens are a largely male domain, I know, I felt that the portrayal of the goddess-like server Gemma for whom Matt longs was more one-dimensional than her male counterparts, and therefore less sympathetic. I don't expect these characters to do other than they do, but it would have been nice for us to see her being genuine, even for a moment. After all, even the Gollum-like evil Murray, who torments Matt throughout, is given a sincere moment...why not Gemma?
These slight critical notes aside, I remain impressed with another TJ Dawe hit that is a great vehicle for an old friend who I always knew would find himself back on stage, and appears to be very much at home there.



The second show I saw this past week, [sic] by Melissa James Gibson and produced by Victoria's Theatre SKAM, was a bit of a disappointment, I'm afraid; a good production of what I thought was a not very good play. The fact that the play won a prestigious Obie award in its original New York off-Broadway production notwithstanding, I found the play clever and somewhat engaging, but ultimately a bit empty of real content with characters for whom I felt very little empathy when all was said and done. SKAM has a decade long history of producing some of the best theatre in the city, and their shows have also done very well on tours to Vancouver and Toronto. This show at the Metro Studio boasts a wonderful set design by Craig Hall that works very well in presenting an apartment building with three separate bachelor-sized apartments. The occupants are three friends, Frank (Michael Rinaldi), Babette (Samantha Madely) and Theo (Lucas Myers) all of whom are underachievers in their various chosen occupations (a wannabe auctioneer, a writer and a musician) and who scramble to cover the basic necessities like food and rent. Gibson writes in a stylized way, though, with some of the dialogue written to be spoken chorally and I understand the script itself is devoid of punctuation or stage directions. Director Amiel Gladstone has given us an interpretation of this challenge that renders these three as veering toward clown-like, where their various 'quirkinesses' start off big and become more subtle (but still present) as the play continues. The dramatic tension lies in the age-old love triangle, where no one is going to end up with what he or she thinks s/he wants. The three actors all do well in their roles, but I found it more and more difficult over the course of the 90 minute show to actually care about any of them; they just seemed too self-involved and too, well, superficial. Maybe I just missed the boat on the Seinfeld/Friends generation (although I love the former show), and just can't quite get with these young people who can't seem to move their lives forward in any meaningful way, nevermind connect meaningfully with each other. The most effective moments in the play for me are solo moments; at night while lying in their beds the three create shadow puppets on sheets strung on a clothesline (a lovely effect) and confess their inner thoughts and dreams to no one but themselves. And Babette has a terrific monologue halfway through, to someone on the phone, about an encounter on the subway that is quite moving. Maybe it's not important that I didn't believe for one second that these characters are New Yorkers, but I didn't, and perhaps the original production was tinged with the New York mix of inbred irony, white-hot anger and fierce intelligence that seemed to be lacking here.

Friday, September 14, 2007

NEW YORK SHOWS - AUGUST 2007



From top: SPAMALOT poster, EURYDICE poster, Eurydice arrives in the Underworld, Eurydice and her father with Chorus in rear

Okay, time to get back in the critical saddle, but before that...a thumbnail review of SPAMALOT. My kids' first Broadway show, what can I say, and a complete and unapologetic rehash of the movie MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, in most scenes word for word. But it doesn't take itself seriously and has some very funny bits, effective newly-injected and imported songs (the latter is "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN), huge sets, beautiful costumes and good acting. This is the second or third cast since it opened and it would have been fun to have seen Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce and Tim Curry in the first-run company. No standouts in this cast for me, aside from Broadway star Marin Mazzie as The Lady of the Lake. Mazzie has appeared in many hit shows, including those by Stephen Sondheim, and is sexy, funny and has an incredible raise-the-roof voice. She is given some very funny self-aware po-mo songs, as in the second act when she comes on in her dressing gown and furiously belts out "Whatever happened to my part?" A good time was had by all!


The other show we saw in NY was a Yale Rep production of Sarah Ruhl's EURYDICE at off-Broadway's Second Stage Theatre (where I saw Mary Zimmerman's THE NOTEBOOKS OF LEONARDO DA VINCI in 2003). A lovely revisioning of the tragic tale of the beautiful Eurydice and the musician Orpheus and their journey into the underworld across the River Styx. But in Ruhl's version, written following the death of her father, the play focuses less on the young lovers and more on Eurydice and her father, who become reunited in the underworld when Pluto takes Eurydice there. The father has chosen to remember his life on earth, a very unwise move (according to the trio chorus of Gothic Victorian grotesques) when he could so easily wash himself in river water and forget everything, i.e., be 'really' dead. The father helps his daughter--who has been "flooded with forgetfulness" upon her arrival--remember her life. In one of the most beautiful and simple moments in the show, he uses a ball of string to create a room for her to live in within the vast emptiness and nothingness of the underworld. They sit in there together and talk, like Lear and Cordelia as two little birds in a cage. Then Orpheus arrives with music so beautiful he makes the hard-hearted (and in this version, completely childish and selfish rather than malevolent) Pluto cry and thereby agree to release Eurydice. But Orpheus must never look back at her as they weave their way out of the underworld. The audience shares one of those priceless collective gasps when, after what seems like hours but is probably a couple of minutes into their trek circumnavigating the stage, Eurydice calls to Orpheus and he responds by turning around. The end of the play--when Eurydice returns quite happily to her father and finds he has made a decision she can only follow--is both theatrically powerful and emotionally devastating. The acting was very strong, in every part, with the actress playing Eurydice reminding me of a young Julia Roberts, very charming. The gorgeous and totally integrated (both practically and metaphorically speaking) set design, with live running water, was also a treat. A great choice and one that moved all of us to tears.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

JULIUS CAESAR at Bard on the Beach


I feel rusty after not having seen a play in well over a month! So getting to a Bard on the Beach show gives me an excuse to get back up on the horse, so to speak...

I had the chance to teach JULIUS CAESAR to grade 11 English students in my former life as a high school teacher in Toronto. It was a tough sell. Unlike R&J or Macbeth or Dream or 12th Night, JC is a political play that ends in war and involves the decision made by a group of "honourable men" to pre-emptively assassinate a man they fear will become a tyrant.

I like the Bard's studio stage, seating only 240, and was pleased to see the new alley configuration that places the audience on both sides of a rectangular playing space. While this limits design elements such as backdrops, it definitely increases the intimacy factor. Touchstone Theatre's Katrina Dunn directs a workmanlike production that moves along quite well, but overall I found the production uninspired.

The cast features some well-known Vancouver actors such as Allan Morgan (as Caesar), Scott Bellis (Brutus), and Gerry Mackay (Cassius), all of whose work I enjoyed, plus some good supporting work from Bard regulars such as Alan Zinyk, David Mackay and Jennifer Lines. But is it just me, or is the vocal quality of these Shakespearean actors somewhat lacking? Does Bard have a vocal coach working with its company, as seen in Stratford? In a play that is centred in oratory I wanted to hear deep resonant tones that demonstrate the power of a skilled orator to become a leader of wo/men, whether for better or worse. The debates between characters, the famous speeches of Brutus and Marc Anthony following Caesar's death, the fight between Cassius and Brutus in Act 2 all should hit the audience's ears like thunder. Bellis and Mackay deliver some needed passion in their scenes together, as do Bellis and Lines in the lovely scene between Portia and Brutus. But at intermission I found myself complaining aloud that Craig Erickson's somewhat reedy voice failed to build into the mob-raising climax the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" monologue requires.

Dunn injects more women into the play than is usually seen and I liked having an older female actor play one of the conspirators. But on the battlefield in Act 2 this gender equality fades as the women are presented as servants only, not soldiers. Perhaps the most frustrating moment of the play for me was Dunn's decision to cast Allan Morgan as the soldier who agrees to help Brutus fall upon his sword (which happens a LOT at the end of this play!) It seemed clear to me that this double-casting offered an incredible opportunity to reveal Caesar's ghost (who has haunted the guilty Brutus) one last time as Brutus slays himself. All Morgan has to do is remove his helmet then put it back on to create a powerful theatrical moment. But this doesn't happen and the play ends with me feeling a bit short-changed by a serviceable but relatively unmemorable production of this challenging play.

Friday, June 8, 2007

GRIMM TALES REVIEW JUNE 8, 2007

GRIMM TALES REVIEW JUNE 8, 2007
ITSAZOO's production of Grimm Tales continues until
June 16th at Mt. Douglas Park. Showtimes are 7pm
with 2pm matinees on June 9th and 16th. Tickets are
available at 858-2733.

1. So what is it like seeing a show at Mt. Doug park?

As Robert Frost once said, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep". It's a real thrill seeing a theatre production in such a beautiful natural setting, specially seeing modern versions of traditional fairy tales that were gathered by the Grimm brothers in the woods and villages of Europe in the 1800's, thereby keeping these oral stories alive for future generations. When we enter the woods off the main parking lot at Mt. Doug park we can see a few hundred meters in every direction where actors are already in role as characters who we might not meet for quite a while. Yet we know they are there and look forward to encountering them where they have created a stage space in front of a tree or between two fallen logs, or even, at one point, literally on the edge of a cliff. You do need to be prepared for the chill coming down as the show goes on (dress warmly) and for some bugs, but the walking is minimal and level and really doesn't move much beyond the main parking lot and its immediate environs.

2. Tell us a little bit about this new theatre company ITSAZOO that has been founded by University of Victoria theatre students. What are they trying to do?

This group of very talented and committed young people are interested in working in unconventional theatre spaces and drawing new audiences to see new works, or new versions of older works, as in this case. Two prior ITSAZOO productions were mounted in UVic's Finnerty Gardens and were very successful - Midsummer Night's Dream and Alice in Wonderland. They also produced resident playwright Sebastian Archibald's Death of a Clown last summer at the Victoria Fringe Festival, to great acclaim. This adaptation of a number of Grimm Brothers' fairy tales is written by Archibald and very cleverly directed by Chelsea Haberlin in an effective blend of the original stories with contemporary references. We see the spoiled princess of the Frog Prince, for example, as a Paris Hilton clone with a daddy who over-indulges her. We also see a Prince Charming who has found a career on reality TV and who is not all that willing to settle down to "happily ever after"! Yet all these modern interventions into the traditional tales does not diminish their original plot or underlying messages.

3. What are the highlights of this production?

Two of the main pleasures of this show are our tour guides throughout, Hansel and Gretel, played complete with cheesy German accents by Anne-Marie Giroday and Colby Wilson. These two are hilarious and are able to both deliver their scripted lines and to improvise with the audience whenever they need to as they move the group of about 30 people from setting to setting. I thought production designer Ingrid Hansen did an outstanding job on what must have been a minimal budget to create very effective costumes, my favorite by far of which is a king's robe fashioned out of stuffed teddy bears. One other aspect of the show which worked very well was that we are accompanied throughout the 90 minute show by four musicians (the Bremen Town Musicians, of course) who create a soundscape for every story and location. Very effective.

4. Any future stars to watch out for?

There are quite a number of new faces in this show and the cast is large with 15 actors in all. Of course, Victoria favorite Gina McIntosh is always a treat and when we see her as the quintessential evil stepmother we are ready to boo her straight into the oven. But I was delighted to see Phoenix newcomers like Marina Lagace and Katie Takefman who shone in their respective roles. And Chris Wilson and Kaitlin Williams play their roles as Prince Charming and Princess Becky and Briar Rose with lots of self-mocking delight. But is really an ensemble piece where a lot of people are working literally behind the next tree getting themselves and others in and out of costumes. And kudos to Peter Carlone who plays the all-important doors that lead us from one story into another simply by holding onto a doorknob with a sign around his neck.

5. This seems like a children's theatre production and yet you say the audience was mostly adults. What's in it for grown-ups?

There were a few children in the audience last night, and they seemed to be very engaged in the show (sometimes a bit TOO engaged...children need clear guidelines when it comes to participating in a theatre production). But, similar to the Shrek phenomenon, Grimm Tales is full of clever asides that are really intended for an adult audience. We are constantly told by our tour guides Hansel and Gretel that the Enchanted Forest is plagued by famine and war, and we see glimpses of these problems throughout. We are presented with princesses who only care about shopping and princes who only care about how they look on TV. Yet, even in these contemporary updates of these stories, we are reminded of their great power as cautionary tales (Don't be too greedy...Be careful what you wish for...Look before you leap...) that function just as effectively today as they did two hundred years ago or more. A fine production from this up and coming company and lots of fun.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Roy Surette Leaves Belfry for Montreal's Centaur Theatre

Photo: Debra Brash, Times-Colonist

Well, I suppose it had to happen, but that doesn't make me happy about it. Victoria is sadly losing the Artistic Director of the Belfry Theatre to the Centaur Theatre in Montreal, that city's premier English-language theatre. After 10 years at the helm of the Belfry, Surette is looking for new challenges and he will find them in Montreal, of that I am sure!

I could wax lyrical about Roy for a long time, but instead I will post some articles published this week on Roy's departure, plus my response to one of them. Tributes will be made over the next few months and I hope to participate in a number of them. My audience education program at the Belfry, Belfry 101 (now taught by my friend and close colleague Kate Rubin), is a testament in itself to Roy's interest in and commitment to the larger community. I can only hope that his successor will continue to appear like clockwork at local shows, supporting the theatre community that supports the Belfry. Sigh...Roy, you will be much missed...


Adrian Chamberlain
Times Colonist
Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Roy Surette, 50, is ready for a change of roles. "I want new challenges and to scare myself."
The Belfry Theatre's artistic director will take over Quebec's premier English-language theatre company.
Roy Surette starts his new position as artistic director of Montreal's Centaur Theatre Company in November, ending a decade-long tenure at the Belfry.
"I'm excited," said Surette, 50. "I'm a little anxious, of course, and aware of what I'm giving up, which is huge."
He replaces Centaur artistic director Gordon McCall, who has already chosen a six-play season for the Montreal company's 2007-2008 season. McCall -- leaving to teach at Indiana's Purdue University -- praised Surette's support of Victoria artists and his expertise as an artistic leader.
"He brings a lot of the qualities that are necessary in Montreal, and for that theatre," he said Tuesday.
McCall added that Surette was the unanimous choice of the Centaur's search committee, besting 50 other applicants.
Surette said he accepted the new position because he has led the Belfry for a long time, is intrigued with the notion of living in Montreal and believes the new job will be artistically stimulating.
"I want new challenges and to scare myself," he said .
One challenge will be brushing up on his French. McCall said Surette has promised to study the language in preparation for his new job.
The outgoing artistic director leaves the Belfry in a solid financial position, said Michael Ziegler, the company's board vice-president. The Belfry's subscription base for the upcoming season is about 5,300 -- a record for this time of year.
In July, the Belfry will strike a search committee for a new artistic director. The job is considered a plum position in national theatre circles and will likely draw about 50 applicants, said Belfry publicist Mark Dusseault.
The Centaur has two theatre spaces -- one 425 seats, and the other 244 -- as well as a separate rehearsal/set-construction building. McCall said the Montreal company, with an annual budget of $2.9 million, is doing well. It carries a $390,000 debt. But he noted the company owns its mortgage-free buildings, worth $6 million.
In Victoria, Surette proved skilful at balancing artistic integrity and accessible theatre that draws crowds, Ziegler said. "They [audiences] expect to be challenged, but not overly challenged ... It's a fine line he has to walk."
Surette, with more than 85 director's credits, is especially admired for his clever use of light and other visuals. He has won two Critics' Spotlight Awards, eight Jessie Richardson Awards and three Monday Magazine awards. One of his best known accomplishments is directing and co-creating The Number 14, a physical theatre comedy returning to the Belfry this summer. The piece has been performed more than 1,000 times internationally, and was nominated for New York's Drama Desk Award.
Raised in the suburbs of Vancouver, Surette worked for Carousel Theatre and Western Canada Theatre Company before being hired as artistic director of Touchstone Theatre in 1985. He left the Vancouver company in 1997 to take over the Belfry Theatre.
achamberlain@tc.canwest.com
© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007

Roy Wonder

By —John Threlfall
Jun 06 2007
Stage shocker! After 10 years, Roy Surette announces he’s leaving the Belfry Theatre
T hink it’s tough to keep a secret in Victoria’s theatre community? Just ask the tight-lipped crew over at the Belfry, where nary a hint had leaked out that, after a decade of outstanding theatrical achievement, artistic director Roy Surette will soon be leaving to become artistic and executive director of Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. But what is undoubtedly Victoria’s loss will be Montreal’s gain, as the always charming and incredibly talented Surette has proven his stage savvy time and again. With the search for his replacement now underway, Surette won’t be taking up residence in la belle provence until November, still giving him enough time to direct Joan MacLeod’s Homechild, the Belfry’s season opener, in September. (And he’ll be back to helm The Violet Hour in spring 2008.) We caught up with the somewhat shell-shocked Surette about 15 minutes after his big news broke.
Monday: You’re leaving? What the hell?!
Roy Surette: Well, I think it’s a great time for some transition. It’s been a really fantastic ride; I’m so happy how things have gone here. It’s such a difficult decision—it’s a hard place to leave—but I’ve been thinking about the next stage in both the Belfry’s and my life for a little while now, and these opportunities rarely come up. And Montreal’s a city I always thought would be fantastic to live in, so I’m going to go.
Monday: Is Centaur at all similar to the Belfry?
RS: They have a fairly similar mandate—they do a lot of contemporary work—also have two stages (450 and 250 seats), the programming is similar, and it’s a bit bigger of a company—a $3 million budget instead of our $2 million—so it’s not that different in terms of scope and scale. And it’s in a heritage building, the Old Stock Exchange in Old Montreal, and has a nice sense of intimacy. And in a way, it’ll have similar isolation issues, in that it’s the major English theatre in a mostly French city. And the outgoing director, Gordon McCall, has also been there for 10 years.
Monday: How’s your French?
RS: Lousy! I studied physical theatre some time ago in Paris and functioned okay, but it’s in my bones—I’m a Surette, and my father spoke French all through my childhood. It’s just one more learning curve I’ll encounter; it’s going to be a harder road in Montreal, but it’s one of those things where you go, “I’m up for the next challenge in my life.”
Monday: How will being an artistic and executive director differ from the strictly artistic director role you have now?
RS: It’s kind of a combination of what [general manager] Mary [Desprez] and I both do, in terms of working with the management of the theatre, and I’ll be the only one who goes to the board of directors. There is a general manager who’s been in the position for over 20 years, so I think he’ll be a good partner. And I’ll be on the phone to Mary a lot, asking “How do you do this? How do you do that?”
Monday: How do you feel about your tenure at the Belfry?
RS: It’s been great; I’m already feeling all nostalgic about it. The Belfry is very strong in so many ways right now, in terms of our financial health and support in the community. It was stable and strong and had a good pattern in place when I took over from Glynis [Leyshon], and I’ve just maintained and built on that. It’ll be great that there’s going to be a fresh vision of what’s on the stage here, too. It’s a gift of a company to somebody, and I’m sure people will be beating down the doors in the applications to replace me. And I have to say, doing the big monster production of Urinetown last fall almost felt like a closure. And doing The Number 14 again this summer, that was originally done in my first year of programming at the Belfry. It’s like the bus is coming back around again.


Centaur Theatre names new boss
Relative unknown Roy Surette takes over post vacated by Gordon McCall
Matt Radz, Gazette Theatre CriticPublished: Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Roy Surette is the new boss at Centaur, effective in November.Roy who?That's the question everyone was asking after yesterday's abrupt announcement, including the theatre's mainstay playwrights David Fennario and Vittorio Rossi."I'm not familiar with his work," Fennario said after two terse no-comments, "but it should be interesting.""I have no idea who this man is," said Rossi, whose autobiographical drama, The Carpenter will open Centaur's 2007-2008 season on Oct. 2.Rossi, one of several Montreal theatre artists who applied for the job, did not make the search committee's short list and was not called for an interview. "My biggest challenge at Centaur will be to enter a new culture," Surette, who celebrated his 50th birthday yesterday said when reached in Victoria, where he has been running The Belfry, the British Columbia capital's only mainstream theatre. After working in the West, the past 22 years in his native B.C., the unilingual Surette said he was "very excited about coming to your wonderful and vibrant city."Centaur's top post was left vacant early this year when Gordon McCall, 58, who came here from Sudbury, Ont., announced he'll be stepping down after 10 years to take an academic position at Purdue University, but not before directing Rossi's season opening play.Since taking over The Belfry in 1997 after 12 years as artistic director at Vancouver's Touchstone Theatre, Surette has boosted the number of the theatre's subscribers by between 200 and 300 patrons a season. It now stands at about 5,900, thanks to a program Adrian Chamberlain, the veteran Times-Colonist's theatre critic described as "conservative and commercially successful.""Victoria is a conservative city," Chamberlain said, predicting that Surette would likely do "more edgy" work in Montreal. He described the new AD as a "nice guy" with a solid knowledge of theatre repertoire, an artist particularly adept at physical theatre and with an excellent grasp of production mechanics, especially lighting design.Asked to rate the extent of The Belfry's artistic ambition during Surette's tenure, Chamberlain said he would peg it at no more than 7 out of 10.Infinitheatre's artistic director Guy Sprung was reluctant to comment on Surette's appointment, pointing out the obvious conflict coloring his opinion. "Good luck to Centaur in its choice," Sprung said. "What the Centaur does is important to all of us. It's a primary cultural institution. The important thing is what he knows about Quebec."Not a lot, apparently. Surette has visited Montreal, but he has never worked or lived here. "He doesn't speak French," Chamberlain said. "Will that be a problem?" The Belfry and Centaur are mainstream theatre enterprises of roughly equal size. The former runs on an an annual budget of $2 million, the latter on about $2.8 million, about $1 million of that from the taxpayers through government grants.When he arrives full time in November, Surette will pick up the reins for the theatre's 39th season, already in progress and mapped out by McCall. The second play of the season, Pamela Gien's The Syringa Tree opens Nov. 6. A Graduate of Vancouver's Studio 58 theatre school, Surette will be the third person to occupy Centaur's top post, held until 1997 by Maurice Podbrey, the theatre's South African-born founder.
mradz@thegazette.canwest.com

Letter to the Editor - The Gazette - Sent Thursday, June 7/2007

I consider theatre reviewer Matt Radz's June 5th story on Roy Surette taking over the Centaur Theatre to be unfortunately typical of the Eastern ignorance of anything West of Toronto that plagues culture in this country. As a CBC Radio theatre reviewer in Victoria, and a local theatre artist who has worked with Mr.Surette in a number of capacities over the past years, I can say without hesitation that Montreal is gaining one of the best directors in Canada, or anywhere else. His sense of vibrant theatricality, his playfulness, his love of actors (uncommon) and his passion for Canadian theatre have led him to win eight Jessie Awards in Vancouver and three Monday Awards in Victoria. Roy has worked internationally in Australia, Japan, France, and the UK (and more). And this is a "relative unknown"? Shame on you!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Robert Lepage's ANDERSEN PROJECT


Robert Lepage in The Andersen Project at the Barbican, London
Photo: Tristram Kenton
http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/11413/

I consider it a grievous fault in my theatregoing history that it was only yesterday whenI first witnessed a production by and starring Quebec's Robert Lepage. This world-renowned auteur director/actor has a reputation that can only be appreciated by reading in the program for this show that it is a co-production between over 20 different international companies and has been performed in Tokyo, London, Sydney and Copenhagen, among others, to date. Such is the rarefied life of a theatrical superstar... and a substantially high level of expectation to build in any audience. I came away from this 2 hour intermission-free show a firm convert to Lepage's vision of theatre, despite my generalized misgivings about one-man plays and highly-technologized theatre productions. Lepage overcomes these critical biases in the simplest of ways...he tells a good story that is very well-written and beautifully performed.

Lepage was commissioned by the Government of Denmark to create a piece to mark the bicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. What emerged in Lepage's research and development (with a large number of co-artists) is an elegant interweaving of the life and stories of Andersen and the Canadian librettist hired by the Paris Opera to write an operatic adaptation of one of Andersen's leeser-known stories, The Dryad. We see the hapless Frederic trying to settle into both Paris (in a tenement apartment over a peep show) and into his difficult job pleasing all the collaborators in an international co-production (a nice dig at his own experience of these kinds of complex undertakings). There is humour found in Fred's interactions with the opera manager (all roles played by Lepage) who is too busy and distracted to ever attend to the needs of the low-status Canadian in this high-profile production. The opera manager's opening monologue to Fred over coffee in an outdoor Paris bistro is a verbal barrage that effectively skewers the politics and economics that drive these multinational projects, sacrificing artistry and integrity along the way. Plus, Frederic is also dog-sitting his drug addict friend's drug-addicted pooch, Fanny, a creature which gets many laughs throughout the play, despite being invisible. The third main character played by Lepage in the present is a silent Moroccan immigrant named Rashid who is janitor in the seedy peep show and street grafitti artist. His presence reminds us of the problems faced by France and many other Western nations in integrating these understandably angry young immigrants into a society that offers them little or nothing in the way of jobs, understanding or respect.

As the show unfolds (an apt metaphor for Lepage's storytelling here, that has been described as a Russian matrioshka doll, where many smaller dolls are hidden inside the largest one), we get to know these characters, especially Frederic and the opera manager, by watching them talk to others on the phone, in cafes, at the peep show, in an animal psychologist's office, in the park, at the opera, on a train...many settings all created with the stunning imagery that is obviously Lepage's great gift to theatre. The computer images are always effective, projected as they are onto a concave white box set that moves up and down stage throughout. Objects are placed into the white box also; a 19th century luggage set (Andersen's), a statue, a tree...along with Lepage himself. Andersen is silent in the show, like Rashid, but we catch glimpses of him as he is described as an essentially lonely man who suffered great bouts of unrequited love (symbolized in the slow undressing of a 19th century mannequin that flees from him in the final moment) and a predilection for onanism. As we hear the story of The Dryad told to us in episodic fashion, we see it staged in exquisite puppetry that climaxes with Lepage pulling off one of the most amazing quick-changes (among many in the show that are inexplicable in their speed and seamlessness) from Frederic to the Dryad who floats over the city of Paris in 1867, the year Andersen visited for the Word's Fair.

One other Andersen tale is told to us, by the opera manager; we see him tell it to his young daughter as a bedtime story. Using only the concave white box and a bright bedside lamp, he tells us the story called The Shadow about a man whose shadow takes over his life and destroys him. This becomes a metaphor for the journey of the manager, whose marriage falls apart and who shares Andersen's addiction to solitary sex. A scene set in one of the peep show booths where he is trying to masturbate but is interrupted by cell phone calls, is quite devastating.

Frederic is suffering too, as his work is ignored and he is unceremoniously fired from the opera. He is trying to reconcile with his girlfriend back in Montreal and his phone calls home are filled with hopeless longing. The play ends with him waking up to smoke and flames in the rundown apartment and we are left to wonder about his fate.

There is much else going on this production; objects slide on and off stage on tracks, music blasts and soothes, phone and peep show booths move in from the wings or from upstage to down. In one scene we are in an internet cafe where Fred's email is written in realtime and projected into the white box over his head. Moments that make one take short intakes of breath that signal amazed surprise. But all of this dazzling display of virtuosity is never at the expense of the storytelling; I left feeling that I had really come to know and care for the people that Lepage has both created and embodied in his understated, yet potent, way.