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.

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