Monday, April 23, 2007

Don Giovanni & Our Town Reviews - April 23, 2007

Photos: Our Town poster ( and Don Giovanni poster (

Don Giovanni continues at the Royal Theatre tomorrow night, Thursday night and Saturday night at the Royal Theatre. Our Town plays until May 5th at Langham Court Theatre.

So this was an interesting double-header for you, both famous pieces directed by women...a rare event I suppose?

Yes, women directors make up less than a third of the total amount of directing in Canada, according to a recent study, so it's heartening to see a POV production of Mozart's Don Giovanni directed by Glynis Leyshon and the Langham Court production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town directed by Judy Treloar. That said, I wish both of these productions had been a bit more inspired than I found them to be. While both are certainly competently performed and have their moments, I unfortunately found them to be somewhat uninspired.

Well let's begin with the opera, one of Mozart's most popular and beloved, premiered in 1787. How has Leyshon re-envisioned this story of the infamous Don Juan?

It seems to be somewhat de rigeur this season for opera directors to move into different timeframes to tell their stories. We saw this in POV's season opener Manon Lescaut, a move I criticized at the time, and here again we see it with Don Giovanni, which Leyshon has moved a century prior to its original setting, into Spain of the 16th century, during the infamous period of the Inquisition. She has framed the whole opera as a form of trial where we see Don Giovanni on trial for his soul from the opening moments. The setting by John Ferguson is church-like, what Leyshon describes as an ecclesiastical courtroom and all of the characters, chorus included, remain onstage throughout the three-hours of the opera, sitting around the edges of the dark, sombre and formal set. While I appreciate Leyshon's vision here, and attempt to make the opera a more contemporary meditation on the clash between religious fundamentalism and the freedom of expression so embodied by the unrepentant seducer of thousands of women, it feels heavy-handed and more importantly, it robs us of the sheer vicarious pleasure we should be getting in seeing Don Giovanni up to his mischief. This is a comic opera, rooted in the commedia del arte tradition with funny sidekick servants, disguise and intrigue aplenty. In Leyshon's interpretation, I felt that we lost a lot of the comic aspect of the opera in favour of a kind of dark foreboding and foreshadowing of the inevitable bad end that befalls Don Giovanni.

So, in spite of what you feel was a directorial imposition on the opera, how were the performances?

As in all of the POV shows I've enjoyed this season, the quality of the musical aspects under conductor Timothy Vernon are very high. I thought the women in this production especially shone, with soprano Monica Huisman sounding especially lovely. I also enjoyed the work of Frederique Vezina as Donna Elvira and of Michele Bogdanowicz as Zerlina. As an accomplished theatre director, Leyshon gets strong acting performances from the whole ensemble, and Gregory Dahl as Don Giovanni and Terry Hodges as his faithful clown-like servant Leporello were both very strong in their acting and singing.

Let's move on now to the production of Our Town at Langham Court. I understand that Wilder's 1937 play is still one of the most-performed plays in high schools and university theatre programs, is that right?

Yes, it remains a very popular choice for schools and community theatre groups, and was even revived on Broadway a few years back with Paul Newman in the narrator role of the Stage Manager. The reasons for this are obvious to anyone who has ever seen, or even just read this beautiful testament to life, love and death in mythical Grover's Corner, New Hampshire by one of America's finest writers. A recent production brought in by Intrepid Theatre, Revisited by Halifax's 2B Theatre, was an homage to Our Town, a remix version, if you will. Wilder deconstructs theatre form down to its storytelling essence as we are constantly aware that these are actors representing the characters and families of turn of the century America. We see the fates and fortunes of the Webb and Gibbs families, along with various friends and neighbours, relayed in an almost matter-of-fact existentialism, a recognition of the tiny mark our brief lives make in the world, as important as they may feel to each of us, in the grand scheme of things.

And how does this production measure up to the grand history this play has enjoyed over the past nearly 70 years?

This is not the first time Treloar has directed this play, as she presented it when she was teaching at Glenlyon Norfolk school a few years back. Here she gives us a faithful version of the play, if a bit on the safe side. The cast is mixed in both experience and success, with some strong performances from Rob Cruse as the Stage Manager (who has some of the most moving monologues I know in dramatic literature), Wayne Yercha and Lisa Hitch as Mrs. And Mrs. Webb and the ever-popular Paul Terry as Dr. Gibbs. The young actors who play the key roles of Emily Webb and George Gibbs, Lindsay Alley and Eric Smith, are less successful in their roles, although I hope that they may deepen their intensity and commitment over the course of the run. When the text calls for tears, then an attempt must be made to cry, and neither actor seemed to be up to those emotional challenges on Saturday night. The production values are intentionally minimal, which generally works well, although I found the set to be a bit too stark, even for Our Town, and did not understand the significance of the sliding backdrop panels or what they were trying to achieve. When, late in the play, we finally get a couple of projections on the back scrim, they are a welcome relief to the eye. All in all, this, along with Don Giovanni, is a serviceable, capable but somewhat uninspired version of this marvellous iconic American play.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Plays Various - April 2007

Photos: [Bottom to Top] National Theatre poster of BENT/Film poster of BETRAYAL/Remy Bumppo's MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION

Nearly a month has fled by without me posting a review. This is a busy time what with my class in the UVIC theatre department wrapping up and a conference trip to Chicago, from whence I just returned. So, this update entry will consist of snapshot or postcard (pick your metaphor!) reviews of a few shows I have seen over the past month. Enjoy...
BENT by Martin Sherman - Student production, Department of Theatre, UVIC

Graduating directing and applied theatre major Chelsea Haberlin directed a very fine production of Martin Sherman's harrowing gay love story set in a Nazi concentration camp. I missed BENT on its arrival in Toronto in the early 80s in a well-known production with Brent Carver, so I was looking forward to finally encountering this highly-reputed play. I found it to be quite beautifully constructed and written, with fully-realized characters and potent dialogue throughout. And I was generally very impressed with the quality of this student production, featuring local favorite Trevor Hinton in his final role at UVIC, James Kott, fellow acting graduate, and Victor Dolhai, most recently seen at UVIC as Tartuffe last fall. Haberlin chose to present the play in the round and this choice increased the intimacy of an already very intimate play. The small audience was drawn right inside the lives of gay men persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by homophobic Nazis before and during World War II. I did have two small quibbles with Haberlin's choices: one, these characters are all German, so it made no sense to me that the "bad" guys speak with a stereotypical accent while the "good" gays speak without one; two, if we can't hear the words, no matter how strong the acting, we are no longer able to engage...some scenes dropped down to filmic volume and many in the theatre simply could not hear the dialogue. Many scenes are difficult to bear, as we see characters pushed to the very limits of psychic and physical endurance, and beyond. But what redeems us from the unrelenting agony is the love story between two gay prisoners who are never allowed to touch, and yet make love (verbally) in one of the most sexually provocative scenes I've ever witnessed, without any action beyond two men standing next to each other, whispering. The ending of the play feels inevitable but is nonetheless shattering and many in the audience I was with were reduced to helpless tears of grief and despair. I'm not sure, along with Brecht, that this is where theatre should take us and leave us (where's the action needed to change the world?), but it was a memorable encounter with a remarkable play.

BETRAYAL by Harold Pinter at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

I am not worthy, I am not worthy. The words of Mike Myer's Wayne's World characters came to mind as I spent an evening at Chicago's famous Steppenwolf Theatre, an actor-founded company of over 30 years standing that has developed the acting, producing and directing careers of such luminaries as John Malkovich, Joan Allen and Gary Sinise. I first saw a Steppenwolf production in New York about 20 years ago (ORPHANS [1985] by Lyle Kessler, directed by Sinise and starring John Mahoney). Three long-term company members star in this very popular Pinter play about triangulated infidelity between both spouses and friends. The Pinterian twist is the backward chronology employed that takes us from the present - two years following the end of a long-term affair between a married woman, Emma, and her husband Robert's best friend Gerry - back nearly a decade to the first moment of sexual attraction and disclosure at a house party, in the couple's bedroom. The show was exquisite and precise, and well-performed throughout. Pinter requires a highly-skilled actor who can nail the dialect and play the stillness, the notorious "Pinter pause" with emotional and thoughful intensity. This company does so with aplomb and provides the rare pleasure of feeling safe in the hands of mature actor artistry that Steppenwolf does so well. The physicalisation of the moment when Robert discovers and confronts his wife's infidelity - played out as subtle sexual domination and forced intimacy in the touching and intertwining of their bare feet as they lie in bed - is intense. Each performance at Steppenwolf is followed by a post-show discussion about the play with a company associate director. I was one of about 2 dozen, or around 10% of the house, who enjoyed a roughly half hour conversation about the play. I met with associate director David New following this and he very kindly showed me both the downstairs theatre space (previewing ANNE FRANK directed by Tina Landau) and took me through the building as we talked about one of my favorite topics (subject of my graduate research), audience education. Chicago has a place in contemporary American theatre history for many reasons, but Steppenwolf is one of them.

MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION by George Bernard Shaw at Remy Bumppo Theatre, Chicago

This actor-driven company (similar to Steppenwolf but only 10 years old) was recommended to me by the knowledgable girl in the HotTix office that sells discount and day-of tickets to shows across the city. This is a small theatre company operating in one of the spaces that make up Victory Gardens Theatre, home to three stages, all quite small. Remy Bumppo (don't ask me about the name...check their website at ). Their space is a 150-seat thrust studio space where you are sitting on the same level and within 10 feet of the actors. I love this kind of theatre (well-done of course, up close and bad is excruciating) and this Shaw production didn't disappoint. These are classically trained American actors who can manage, as in the Pinter, the right dialect and Shavian pace and acerbity, even acidity. It's a relatively free but unforgiving world he populates, in this case with the story of a successful move from lower to upper class via prostitution of Mrs.Warren and her struggles with her long-lost and rather puritanical daughter. It all ends badly, with even a hint of incest to boot, and every character has his moral positioning made clear. I enjoyed the show, especially in the performance of company member Annabel Armour as Mrs. Warren who looked and sounded wonderful; a rich, resonant voice and strong, clear and decisive physicality. The simple set was effective and the costumes read authentically in the closeness of the room. In theatre this small you need to get the costumes right as you're in the naturalistic mode...we will see velcro closures, snaps etc. in this proximity...this production offered great-looking costumes that helped me enter into the late 19th century world of this early play by Shaw. All in all, a strong production that convinces me of the richness of talent and good theatre to be found in the Windy City.