Tuesday, October 16, 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.

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