Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Photos, from top: Scott Walker, Michelle E. White, Christian Goutsis, Marie Baron, Tracy Michailidis and Neil Maffin / Photo by David Cooper Photography 2008; Christian Goutsis and Tracy Michailidis / Photo by David Cooper Photography 2008; Poster [http://www.belfry.bc.ca/0809/summer.htm]. Tickets at 250-385-6815.
Well, although I think the show will do well at the Belfry (as almost everything they produce does well, they have a large and loyal audience in Victoria) I have to admit my feelings were mixed about this show. There is a lot of appealing cleverness in it, witty dialogue, engaging characters and even a couple of good songs. But for me, the whole doesn't quite add up to the sum of its parts. This chamber musical for six actors tells the story of Joel and Jinny, two young people close to turning thirty and looking for 'real love'. Joel's best friend Tyrone is gay and unrepentantly into almost-anonymous and plentiful sex. Another friend, Alberta, is also gay but married to her partner and wishing for motherhood. They support Joel in his hopes for a relationship with Jinny, who wanders into his flower shop one day and immediately becomes his 'One True Love'. The catch? She thinks he's Tyrone's lover and only bonds with him as a safe gay friend. The rest of the show is about Joel plucking up the courage to tell her the truth as everything around him falls apart and he risks losing Jinny to her own bad patterns, issues with her recovering alcoholic mother and inability to see a good thing when it shows up...at last. Of course, this being a musical, we can be confident that everything will come right in the end, and it does, but along the way--especially in Act Two---we get sidetracked by secondary characters like the gay friends and the mother (and even Joel's long lost and distant father) who threaten to overwhelm the simple and affecting love story at the heart of this musical.
2. Does this happen, in your opinion, because the two leading roles aren't quite up to the challenges of their characters?
Not at all. Director Michael Shamata says quite rightly in his program notes that casting is 90% of a director's job and he has cast the show well with Christian Goutsis and Tracy Michailidis as Joel and Jinny. They are both strong young performers with good voices and we want them to get together. Now if only we could get the other four characters offstage and out of their way! This is the reason why a show that could move along at a good clip and come in under two hours, including intermission, clocks in at over 2 and a half hours. Most of this problem lies in Act Two, which gives us a dinner scene that takes off in all directions at once, including a showstopping number about the power of the menopausal woman, that literally moves the protagonists to the sidelines as we watch their parents and friends sort through their own issues over expensive bottles of wine. Shamata also mentions in his notes that this is the first production of this musical since its first full production at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre...in 2001. For me, that sets off more warning bells than celebratory cheers.
3. And how do the supporting players, who seem to be taking over the show, manage in their roles?
All of them have their moments. I really like Neil Maffin's work with Tyrone...he makes a gay cliché seem quite real and has some very funny moments. Marie Baron gives us a more complex mother than her own daughter knows and grows into the role in Act Two. Michelle White plays Alberta with lots of bravado, but I wasn't quite convinced of her pain at being dumped by her wife in Act Two. And Scott Walker as Joel's absent father has the toughest job of all. He appears at the very end of Act One, but we don't really hear much from him until quite late in the show, so he's an uneasy presence for us. Why is he even there if his son is so much out of his life? What is his purpose? This remains unclear. Shamata seems a very capable hand at keeping everything moving along, and there are scenes with real heart and flare--especially in Act One which works quite well--but he cannot save a sinking bottom-heavy script, which is what I feel prevents Anything that Moves from being the show it might be.
4. What about the music and design of the show?
The musical direction by Steve Thomas is very accomplished, although the music itself, by Allen Cole, does not make much of a memorable mark. The company sings well and the couple of numbers with a bit of choreography are effective. The design, by very well-known Canadian stage designer John Ferguson, was a disappointment. We are given one playing level, a stark metallic frame with glass windows and doors that doesn't add to the action or theme. Everything with color or visual interest in the show is rolled on and off by the actors, or is worn as a costume. I don't understand the set, although I think it could have worked if the huge empty glass spaces inside it had been occupied at key moments with either action or symbolic objects; the one time it is used as Jinny's closet it works well, but this only happens the once.
5. So all in all, a mixed response to this show?
Yes, and it's too bad. Like many, I love MacDonald's writing and have even produced and performed in her earlier play The Attic, the Pearls and Three Fine Girls with my theatre company WAVE Theatre. She writes terrific dialogue, creates interesting characters and strong narratives, but this show gets ahead of itself and becomes confused about what it is trying to be. When an audience becomes distracted from the heart of the musical story 'Boy Meets Girl' to the extent that we are in this show, it becomes harder to care when 'Boy Wins Girl' in the final moments. That was unfortunately my experience with this problematic piece by one of Canada’s most talented writers.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Prolific and popular indeed! In fact, Foster has written over 40 plays, all of which have been produced…an outstanding achievement. He began playwriting in the 1980s and his plays have been performed coast to coast as well as in the States. As a comic playwright, Foster’s work is very popular with summer theatre and dinner theatre companies, although it has also been produced by a number of regional professional theatres. The Belfry, for example, has produced two Foster plays in recent years (Ethan Claymore, The Love List) and his plays are also popular at Langham Court (Maggie’s Getting Married, Here on the Flight Path). One might well ask what the level of quality could be in someone who writes so much, and, happily, for the most part with Foster, the quality is quite high. He writes situation comedies for the stage that are character-driven and tend to have a low-key charm about them…they feature real people struggling (comically) with real-life issues such as relationships, parenting, divorce and death. Foster himself says of his plays: "I think for the most part, they're about ordinary people just trying to get by in life. I never set out with a monumental purpose in mind. I'm not trying to teach an audience a lesson or pass along some profound message, because I don't think I'm qualified. What I am trying to do is make them feel a little better about this world, and that's not easy these days."[http://www.normfoster.com/bio.html]
So how does The Long Weekend fit into this description of his work?
The Long Weekend was first produced in 1994 and is a very typical example of Foster’s writing. It tells the story of two very mismatched married couples, Max and Wynn (Max is a successful personal injury lawyer, Wynn a successful psychologist specializing in relationships) and Abby and Roger (Abby runs a clothing store and Roger has quit his high school teaching job to become a screenwriter). Max and Wynn have built themselves a weekend getaway home and have invited their friends Abby and Roger for the weekend to see it for the first time. We quickly find out that there is a lot of history and tension amongst these 4 people. The women are old friends from their teen years, and yet can barely contain their mutual rivalry and jealousy of each other. The husbands can barely stand each other, and are almost total opposites; the high-flying ‘Type A’ lawyer Max and the under-achieving and neurotic ‘Type B’ Roger. A further spanner is thrown into the works when we realize that two of the four are already in an affair and the other two look to be heading that way as well. Act Two takes us 2 years into the future where we see that not very much has changed, that re-arranging the marriages has not made them any less mismatched, and the conclusion sees all four choosing another alternative to the one they’ve been sentenced to for far too long. The quips and barbs exchanged throughout the play hit a lot of audience members along the way, as Foster skewers the materialism of the middle classes, the drive for success over happiness, the pretensions of psychoanalysis and the inability of much of our ‘white’ Anglo-Saxon culture to be honest and direct with each other.
How does the production live up to the challenges of the play?
Very well. This is a good choice as a Langham Court show, and is an entertaining summer show at that. Regular Langham director Toshik Bukowiecki does a fine job keeping everything moving along on Bill Adams’ typically effective set and has cast the play with effective choices. Another Langham regular Wayne Yercha plays Max and captures his uptight character while making him likeable enough for us to stick with him and hope for his eventual happiness; a nice balance. Fran Patterson plays his first wife Wynn with her usual panache and confidence. I like Patterson’s physical ability to play comedy through her body, although in a comedy of manners such as this one, there are a couple of moments that come across as over-played. These people are repressed, so it becomes an interesting challenge for an actor as unrepressed as Patterson to make Wynn work. David MacPherson, well-known on many Victoria stages, does his usual solid work with Roger, making him believably whiny and ineffectual, but also appealing enough to attract a new partner. Lorene Cammiade, who played the lead in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at Langham last year, does a good job with the self-involved Abby, although she needs to work on maintaining eye contact with consistency. Lack of eye contact signals an actor’s insecurity onstage, so Cammiade needs to overcome that challenge to develop her skills.
Any reservations or quibbles to relate?
Not a lot. At times, for me, Foster can sometimes come across as cynical. Cynical about the possibility of real love and longterm relationships. Cynical about the ability of people to genuinely connect. In this he is very distinct from Neil Simon, with whom he is often compared. Simon’s worldview is often family-centred and warmly nostalgic, even hopeful (leaning toward the sentimental). While I value Foster’s steering away from easy sentimentality, I do wonder about his worldview. These are two childless couples in this play, a topic that is never raised, not once. Surely, this choice makes them somewhat unusual, if it is a choice? The fact that it is never mentioned makes it appear like a convenience for the playwright. Also, the play’s conclusion leaves an audience feeling that maybe we’re better off on our own in this world, that marriage serves to quash people’s dreams, a fairly negative outcome, really. Many of his other plays have much warmer endings, especially his plays written for the Christmas season, such as Ethan Claymore (a play I found quite moving). But plays such as this one, and The Love List (which I disliked for its implicit misogyny) can leave a trace of bitterness that leaves me to wonder if Foster is achieving what he sets out to do, to, as he says, “make [people] feel a little better about this world”. I guess everyone who sees this show will have the opportunity to make up their own minds.
The Long Weekend continues at Langham Court until July 26th. Tickets can be booked at 250-384-2142.
Monday, June 9, 2008
Photos: Left, cast of Mom's the Word 2: Unhinged [www.youthink.ca]; Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn in 2004 remount of 'Night Mother on Broadway [http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/15/theater/reviews/15nigh.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&oref=slogin]
MOM’S THE WORD 2 AND ‘NIGHT MOTHER REVIEWS – JUNE 9, 2008
This is an interesting pair of shows you’re sharing with us today; both deal with motherhood, but in very different ways.
Yes, that’s right. Mom’s the Word 2: Unhinged is a return production to the Belfry and is a collective creation written and performed by the five women who also wrote and performed the first Mom’s the Word show about 15 years ago. These five women were professional actors who found themselves becoming at-home mothers and going through the inevitable major changes that parenthood brings. They thought they could create a show that both celebrated and poked fun at the trials and triumphs of motherhood, and asked former Belfry artistic director Roy Surette to help them. The resulting two shows, the first focused on raising babies and small children and the second on dealing with the turbulent teenage years and aging issues, have been wildly popular. In complete contrast to this comic and feel-good portrayal of motherhood is the Theatre Inconnu production of American playwright Marsha Norman’s 1983 play ‘Night Mother. This 90 minute emotional roller coaster of a play features a poor and uneducated Southern middle-aged daughter, divorced, depressed and living with her widowed mother, who calmly announces at the beginning of the play that she will kill herself in an hour and a half. The rest of the play involves her mother’s desperate efforts to convince her to stay alive and with her. Very high stakes drama indeed and two wonderfully challenging roles for women.
As you say, Mom’s the Word has enjoyed a lot of success and has toured widely. There have been productions in Scotland and Australia. What is the source of its appeal?
In many ways this is a piece of grassroots populist theatre, even though it is being performed in mainstream theatres. Grassroots theatre tells stories of community experience back to communities and this is what we see in Mom’s the Word. All of us have been somebody’s son or daughter and many of us are parents, so this show speaks to issues we can all relate to. Both times I have seen this show, there is that wonderful sense of connection to the material, with audience members nodding and laughing at themselves as well as the women who are telling us their own stories of motherhood and marriage. The show is simplicity itself; it is littler more than a series of monologues where each of the five actresses speaks directly to the audience and is supported through physical action or still pictures by the other four. Interweaving through these extended monologues are stories of normal kids, troubled kids, worries around drugs and sex, stale marriages, aging bodies and, in one case, breast cancer. The major achievement of the show is how very funny these five women are in their storytelling delivery; they turn self-deprecation into an art form. While all five women rise to the material they have created, my favorite performers are Deborah Williams and Alison Kelly, both of whom are gifted comedians. There is also a lovely synergy among the five, even with newcomer Beverley Elliott stepping into the role developed by Robin Nichol. Surette does a terrific job keeping everything visually interesting, as does Pam Johnson in her inventive set design of a wall of shelves filled with the detritus of modern family lives. A highly-recommended show to see with your own parents or children, or with a group of parents like yourself.
‘Night Mother won the Pulitzer Prize for best play in 1984 and the original production featured Kathy Bates, with Sissy Spacek playing the daughter and Anne Bancroft the mother in the 1986 film version. Tough acts to follow for local actors, is that right?
Very tough. This is incredibly high-stakes drama and for the most part this Theatre Inconnu production, directed by artistic director Clayton Jevne, rises to meet its challenges. Jevne makes inventive use of his small theatre space in the Fernwood Community Association hall by incorporating the real kitchen in the space, which is usually hidden behind black masking curtains. The two actors are thus able to make use of the sink, fridge and stovetop range in ways that make the domestic setting of the play very true to life. This is very much an actors’ play so the focus is on how well these two women deal with the psychological and emotional demands of the material. Karen Lee Pickett, a local playwright and actor, plays the daughter Jessie with a mix of matter-of-fact decisiveness and compassion for how her decision to commit suicide is affecting her mother. Jessie is a very hard role to make work dramatically; she is a long-term depressive and shutaway who we hear has very low social skills, and yet she must have the energy to move the play’s action forward throughout. Pickett negotiates the role with success, although I felt that the strangeness of Jessie (she is described as having an off-putting smile that is not in evidence here) was somewhat lacking; her Jessie felt a bit too normal. That said, Pickett does play the role with consistency and connectedness that make her awful choice feel inevitable. Geli Bartlett as Thelma, Jessie’s mother, has I think the harder of the two roles as her journey is one of ignorance through denial through confusion through a kind of terrible helpless acceptance of her only daughter’s choice. Thelma is not a very sympathetic character; she is quite selfish, demanding and embittered by her life. While Bartlett does a convincing job with her caring and concern for Jessie, she did not persuade me of the darker qualities of her character; the whining and wheedling and guilt-inducing ability of a self-absorbed mother. A Toronto review of a recent remount of ‘Night Mother (at Soulpepper Theatre) compares the despair of Jessie with the desperation of Thelma, and I think that the distinction is both right and true. Jessie’s despair is fixed and unchangeable whereas Thelma’s desperation to keep her daughter alive should be the emotional journey that we travel with as an audience. No wonder great actresses like Anne Bancroft and Canadian Dawn Greenhalgh (currently in Toronto) have been drawn to the role; it’s that demanding. Bartlett does not reach the emotional heights called for by Norman’s play; however, this remains a generally solid production which I heard a fellow audience member describe to Jevne after Saturday night’s show as “strong medicine”. Indeed it is.
What did you take away from seeing these two shows back-to-back on Saturday, especially given that you are a mother yourself?
I enjoy a great relationship with my own mother and also with my two sons, so seeing Mom’s the Word feels like a kind of positive reinforcement of these relationships. I took my teenage son to the show the first time I saw it and we had a very good time laughing together. The show also has some very honest and touching moments and I really felt for the actresses who reveal that their son has gone off the rails or who are unhappy in their marriage and considering an affair. On the other hand, the simple stories of buying a daughter her first bra, or of finding a son in bed with a girl on Sunday morning, offer me glimpses of experiences I will never have (not having a daughter) or may have at some point (gulp!) ‘Night Mother does not speak as personally to its audience (although anyone who has dealt with suicide should be forewarned) but does offer a penetrating examination of depression, dysfunction and despair. For me, perhaps a warning of what to avoid in seeing Thelma’s failure to mother her child, to love her enough in the unbounded and unhinged way that motherhood demands, to make her daughter want to live.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Kaleidoscope Theatre’s spring show this year is a new adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. What makes this rather dark story a suitable choice for a young people’s theatre company?
Animal Farm is found on school curriculums and that alone makes it a good choice for a TYA company. The question is how to make a sixty-three year old satirical allegory about the Stalinist Soviet Union and the dangers of totalitarianism palatable to students in 2008. Orwell was addressing the corruption of socialist ideals in his barely disguised fable. Of course, political corruption remains just as relevant an issue today and there will always be plenty of valuable learning to be had from Orwell that is timeless. Human nature tends toward a will to power and we see the pigs of animal farm—after their leadership of a great and successful rebellion against the farmer Mr. Jones—become ever-more corrupt and human-like, altering all the established rules along the way. The story does lead us into a dark conclusion, there is no denying the patterns of history, which we should receive as a warning against those who would diminish our collective powers to choose and to act. This is the responsibility of social democracy, to be vigilant about equality, social justice and human rights. Animal Farm reminds us of these important matters in the manner of a fairy tale.
How does this production deal with the challenges of presenting such a troubling political morality tale?
The characters in Animal Farm are mostly animals. The farm setting is simple and pastoral as we meet all the various creatures who live and work on Mr. Jones’ farm, all designed by Sabrina Miller. Three actors introduce a large number of different characters, some of whom will not survive the revolution and life afterwards. The actors, appropriately, also play the pigs by way of simple helmet masks that sit on top of their heads. The puppets are life size and made of thick foam covered with cotton and painted. The larger animals have just a head and neck on a stick, like a hobbyhorse. Many of the puppets have handles sewn onto them, for the actors to maneuver them around the stage. A simple barn frames the stage, with a rolling sheet providing backdrops and information. The actors step in and out of their roles throughout, sometimes wondering aloud about where the story is going. One actor complains late in the show that her characters have all run away or been killed! While this theatrical device can be sometimes pretentious and precious (Brecht notwithstanding), here it seems to work in helping to remind us we are watching a story being told…it is a distancing technique that feels right for this piece. There is music and clever sound and cool lighting effects, all of which draw the audience in quite effectively. So the show takes a somewhat lighter approach to the material, refusing to signal too much ahead until right into the second act. And I wonder how young people will process and make sense of the unhappy ending; I hope Kaleidoscope incorporates postshow talkbacks into their schedule, especially for their school audiences.
What is the overall effect of puppets and humans together on stage?
The company of three actors works well together and all create a number of different characters. John Emmet Tracy moves seamlessly from animal to animal and provides a distinct vocal quality for each one; I especially liked his dogs as they move from benign and harmless to vicious police dogs of the state. Leslie Bland does a good job with the evil pig leader Napolean, playing him as a wiseguy gangster, and does nicely with the devoted (if dimwitted) loyalist Boxer the horse. Kirsten Van Ritzen plays Snowball the pig, the Cat, Muriel the Goat and Mollie the horse; all sympathetic characters who find themselves victims of the revolution on the farm and Van Ritzen gives us an interesting female perspective on events in her effective portrayals. The puppets are less successful for me. They impress at first due to their large scale. But they are very bulky and blocky, they are not really animated and so the actors are left with little range of physical movement with them (the exception is Tracy’s Moses the Crow who can fly…and we feel the difference)…a bit like working with sofa cushions. Because the actors play the pigs throughout, they are often manipulating a puppet and speaking in its voice, but still with their pig masks on. This can become a bit confusing at times, and I wonder how a younger audience will do with it. I would prefer smaller and more animated puppets, or even just props and simple costumes worn by the actors to shift characters…it would give them more to do creatively in physical ways as opposed to the running from puppet to puppet that we mostly see here. But those points aside, there’s a lot to like in this show and director/playwright Ian Ferguson has done a very good job in bringing Orwell’s warning about the corruption of power to a new audience.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Yes, The Violet Hour is by US playwright Richard Greenberg, most known for his Tony award-winning Take Me Out that dealt with gay players coming out in a professional baseball team setting. Greenberg is fascinated with the theme of time, the meeting points between past and present, present and future. Most of his writing addresses this topic, directly or indirectly. This 2003 play includes the presence of a kind of futuristic time machine that allows characters in 1919 a glimpse of the rest of the 20th century, much to their dismay. Regina is composed by American Marc Blitzstein and is based upon Lillian Hellman’s famous 1939 play The Little Foxes, with the title role of Southern cotton plantation owner Regina Hubbard Giddens premiered by Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, later seen on film with the lead played by Bette Davis.
Let’s begin with Violet Hour…this seems to be a very mixed genre play…comic, dramatic and science fiction all at the same time. How does it work on stage?
This play is a bit of a mishmash, not quite sure of what it really is or is all about, but still with lots of charm and lots of challenges. Greenberg has been compared to Tony Kushner and I see the love of talk as their main shared quality. Greenberg’s characters are a young trust-funder, John Pace Seavering, who is setting up a publishing business in New York City following his stint in the Great War, his fey and funny assistant Gidger and his friends and lovers; Dennis McCleary, his best friend from Princeton and his older lover, famous Black singer Jessie Brewster both of whom have written books they want him to publish. All love to talk and to talk in the style of post WWI flappers-to-be; urgent, passionate and idealistic. There are frank discussions of art, literature, race, ambition, truth and lots of thinking about the future. These young people seem to have their lives spreading out in wonder before them. As Seavering says at one point, the worst is over, how can life not be anything but better after the war? In response, the future sends Seavering a mysterious I (and never-explained) printing machine that spits out books published throughout the rest of the 20th century, many featuring the fates of Seavering, Denny, Denny’s meat heiress girlfriend Rosamund and Jessie. There’s a lot going on in this play, a bit too much for me at times, when I felt like I was being spoken to rather than presented to. Greenberg is a playwright of intelligence and wit, and many ideas, some of which can make his characters feel like mouthpieces rather than flesh and blood (and complex) real people. This makes the show an uphill climb for actors, and although this is a fine production directed by the Belfry’s outgoing Artistic Director Roy Surette, the actors need to be top-notch to make the play work. My feeling was that the men in the show did better with the material overall, with Vancouver actors Bob Frazer, Alessandro Juliani and Allan Zinyk finding nuance and depth in their portrayals, especially the fine physicalization of the text given by Juliani. Vanessa Richards did a nice job with the tough role of singer Jessie (I liked her ability to be very still and to use gesture sparingly) as did Emma Slip as Rosamund, although I feel her work needs to hint more at the darkness in her soul as she becomes a suicidal depressive in her later years (as we learn from one of the machine’s books). The play looks terrific and demands some thinking from its audience; although Greenberg could benefit from a few sessions with a dramaturg who might knock this overwritten play down to a more acceptable size (and allow the actors to show more than they tell), it clearly gives us a look at a contemporary American playwright interested in presenting ideas on stage…how refreshing is that?
Now let’s move on to the opera at the Royal Theatre, premiered in New York in 1949. What were your impressions of this play to opera adaptation?
This is a very handsome production, designed by Pam Johnson and directed by Glynis Leyshon. The set gives us the interior and rear garden of an Alabama mansion owned by Horace Giddens, his wife Regina Hubbard Giddens and their young daughter Alexandra. Two massive winding staircases, overhung with mossy tree branches, frame the stage and the sense of Southern opulence comes though with lovely costumes designed by local Erin Macklem, especially the lush burgundies in silk, brocade and velvet worn throughout by Regina, played by Kimberly Barber. The theme of greed and oppressive capitalism, as seen in the Hubbard clan of Regina and her two brothers Oscar and Ben, is followed as we see Regina plot to gain even greater wealth by manipulating everyone around her to get what she wants. Regina is a terrific character to play, an anti-heroine whose ruthlessness brings to mind the ambition of Lady Macbeth mixed with the charm of Scarlett O’Hara. The plotting of this privileged white family is counter-pointed in the appearance of African-American plantation worker Jazz who brings the new music of New Orleans onto the fields and into the house. Blitzstein and Hellman were both dedicated socialists, both called to testify in the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and both blacklisted because of it. The negative portrayal of unbridled and unprincipled capitalism is clear in both the play and the opera; the Hubbard brothers think nothing of theft and fraud to achieve their ends and Regina thinks nothing of threatening her own brothers with imprisonment and speeding her sick husband’s demise…all in the name of wealth. The moral centre of the story is Regina’s daughter Zan who realizes she must get away from the corrupting atmosphere she has grown up in. We are left seeing in her essential goodness the hope of a better future.
Who were the standout performers in the production?
I felt the women outdid the men in the production, with Barber’s portrayal of Regina a standout. There is acting as well as singing in this opera and Barber plays the role with great relish, strong physicality and steeliness of will. She also sings her role very well, as does Robyn Dreidger-Klassen as Zan, Tracy Luck as housekeeper Addie and Kathleen Brett as Birdie; the latter is Regina’s frail, abused and alcoholic sister-in-law who was a clear audience favourite on Saturday night. Birdie’s aria of despair in Act 3 is a highlight of the opera, which features many different styles of American music from ballads like Birdie’s to folk song, Broadway show tune and blues and Dixieland jazz. Playing the role of Jazz in the opera is local legend Louise Rose and it is a pleasure seeing and hearing her onstage at the Royal in this role. Of the men, Dean Elzinga did a nice job with Horace, Regina’s unloved husband as did Lawrence Wiliford as Leo, her spineless and amoral nephew. Leyshon keeps the action moving along, especially in the climactic party scene where a large chorus enters singing their collective loathing of the powerful Hubbards. Musical director Timothy Vernon does a terrific job with a large orchestra including unusual operatic instruments such as banjos and trombones. Like the play at the Belfry, this is a somewhat challenging opera for those used to more classical fare, but Regina has some lovely music—I really enjoyed the slower pieces What will it be? and Consider the rain –and tells a fascinating, dramatic and still-relevant moral tale.
Monday, March 31, 2008
My Chernobyl continues at the Belfry Studio Theatre until April 5th. Tickets are available at 385-6815.
This show is the final one in the Belfry's Festival season and features both Victoria and Vancouver theatre artists. What can you tell us about it?
Vancouver-based playwright Aaron Bushkowsky has been writing plays for over twenty years that have been produced by many Vancouver theatre companies as well as at the Belfry. This recent play was just produced at Richmond's Gateway Theatre before transferring here and features three very well known Vancouver actors working alongside Victoria's Jacob Richmond, Celine Stubel and director Britt Small. The play is a dark comedy about a somewhat down-and-out Canadian theatre artist (perhaps the playwright himself?), played convincingly by Andrew McNee, who is returning for a visit to his ancestral homeland of Belarus after his father's death. What he encounters there is a village close to the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster where people's lives have been devastated economically, environmentally, emotionally and physically. The naïve Canadian is set upon by family members and strangers alike, who see him only as a privileged Westerner they can take advantage of by fleecing him of every last penny. This makes for a very original but rather odd setting for a comedy, as we are supposed to laugh at the backwardness and poverty of these people (never mind the endless plague of radiation-caused cancers and other diseases they have suffered) as they walk all over the rather spineless and far too nice David. However, we do laugh, even to our surprise, as Bushkowsky has the gift of creating likable and believable characters even in the most unlikely of circumstances.
2. So what is it about these characters that makes them so likable?
These are very poor people who live a hardscrabble existence and are tough as nails...not one of them is anybody's fool. The first two Belorussians we meet are Yuri, a jovial hard-drinking roadside potato seller and Katrina, a sourpuss hard-smoking mechanic. As played by Allan Morgan and Colleen Wheeler (two of my favorite Vancouver actors), they almost become versions of the clowns in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, sitting in the blasted countryside waiting for the end of the world. But their self-awareness and grudging mutual admiration makes them hard to resist, and Morgan and Wheeler pull out all the comedic stops to portray them with great physicality and assuredness. Jacob Richmond plays a government bureaucrat who confirms all our stereotypes of the insanity of Russian-style bureaucracy and then surprises us by turning out to be a decent fellow who is in love with David's second (or is it third?) cousin Natasha, played by Celine Stubel. It is this final character who totally steals the show; as played by Stubel in a stellar breakout performance, Natasha is by turns manipulative, honest, contemptible and heartbreaking...she is also very, very funny. As she tries to convince her distant cousin to marry her so as to allow her to get into Canada, we see her dishonesty but understand her motives; she is a cancer survivor who has also lost a young child to the disease, so why wouldn't she do anything in her power to escape?
3. And what happens to David in the middle of all of these people...does he continue to let them walk all over him?
Thankfully, no. David is a bit too Canadian even for a Canadian audience and finally, late in the play, he locates his spine and lets everyone around him have it in a welcome blast of anger. The play feels a bit unresolved at the end right now, with an false-seeming death thrown in and a kind of anti-climactic reconciliation. Bushkowsky would do well to think through where the play goes in the second act...tragicomedy is a challenging dramatic genre and I think the play could let us into these characters' histories and struggles with a bit more focus and commitment than the fairly light approach we see now.
4. What about the direction and design of the show?
Britt Small directs the play with great assurance and pulls an outstanding performance out of Stubel and strong work from the rest of the cast. She creates a nice transition motif using Russian music and dance that seems suited to the play. Local designer Janis Ward gives us a simple outdoor set with a real dirt floor, a rusted sewer pipe and truck tires and assorted broken down folding chairs, all placed against an impressionistic backdrop of a changing sky. Her costumes are very effective, especially Natasha's ensembles that try to be stylish but look kind of dated and sad (despite her obvious sexual appeal). The production garnered rave reviews in its recent run in Richmond, and I am happy to report that this is a show with lots of appeal, despite my belief that it could use another round of rewrites.
Monday, March 10, 2008
Enchanted April continues at Langham Court Theatre until March 22nd. Tickets are available at 384-2142. The Belfry Theatre box office is at 385-6815.
Enchanted April is a stage adaptation of a 1920s British novel that has also been turned into a popular 1992 film version. Does the story deserve all this attention?
I can understand the popularity of this piece, absolutely. It fits nicely into the Shirley Valentine school of romantic comedy in what NY Times theatre reviewer Ben Brantley calls a “harmless exercise in wish fulfillment not unlike those television commercials in which harried housewives escape their lives by slipping into bubble baths”. While that may seem a somewhat masculine and harsh assessment, it is accurate in describing this story of two bored and unhappy post-World War I London housewives who contrive an escape to a sun-soaked castle in Italy for one enchanted April. Like Shirley Valentine, these characters, Lottie and Rose, find themselves literally transformed by the experience, although in this play the husbands are also included and forgiven in the process. In this two-act play we spend the first act in rainy London in February and the incessant sound of rain alone is enough to make the audience long for the Italian countryside along with Lottie and Rose (Note to sound operator...turn down the volume on this cue!) Lottie is our narrator and is a very engaging character, one of those kind of people who simply sweep you along on the waves of their boundless optimism and enthusiasm. Nobody can say no to Lottie (although her stuffed-shirt husband does his level-best to squelch her), and so the dream of a month in Italy quickly becomes a reality as she organizes her reluctant and depressed friend Rose and a couple of other women to come along for the ride. While Act One is the set-up, and requires some patience to get through (as we are also waiting for these women to get to Italy and out of the rain!), Act Two delivers the goods as we spend time in Italy with these four women, their crotchety but lovable Italian housekeeper Costanza, the charming and eligible bachelor owner of the castle and the aforementioned husbands who are invited into this paradise on Earth as a way to improve these two miserable marriages. In then end, everyone is happily paired-off and even the dour Mrs. Graves, a Victorian widow of doom and gloom and judgment who joins Rose and Lottie for the trip, becomes more human.
And how does this production fare?
I found the Langham Court production a bit of a mixed success. On the design level, Bill Adams gives us such a minimalist Act One setting (as most of the set is hidden behind two folding panels) that we are not given much to look at except a video image of the driving rain that begins to grate before long. The pay-off for this wait comes after the intermission when we are treated to a glorious set that very effectively transports us to a small castle surrounded by gardens. It is a stunning set, an example of the kind of high production values that Langham can do so well. The women's costumes are also mostly effective, with lots of changes throughout. As for the performances, the play rests on Rose and Lottie and I found Melissa Blank as Rose and newcomer Alison Preece as Lottie both very engaging and believable in their roles. Blank creates a nice journey of transformation from a miserable and bereft housewife with a philandering husband to a woman reborn into her marriage and her sexuality. Preece avoids the easy trap in this role of Lottie to become cloying and overly-sweet and keeps Lottie on track quite well, although I hope she may find some moments of doubt and anxiety to balance out the character a bit more. The supporting roles in the production are a bit less successful, partly because they are somewhat underwritten and therefore a bit one-dimensional. Generally I found the women to be stronger than the men, with quite nice turns from more senior (as in experienced) actors Elizabeth Whitmarsh as Mrs. Graves and Lesley Gibbs as Costanza.
And what about the direction of the show by Langham long-timer Judy Treloar?
There are some pacing problems in Act One that may improve over the run. I am never a fan of extended blackouts covering scene changes and there are too many of these in Act One for my liking. Can we not simply have the actors do this work in role and with lights up, or at half? All the blackouts slow the pace and work against the text which should be full-steam ahead with Lottie as engineer pulling everyone along for the ride. And some of the weaker performances in the show demonstrate a lack of understanding of how to play subtext in this company. In Act Two a highly-unlikely coincidence occurs that, played with greater subtlety, could be quite moving but in this production feels both awkward and obvious. And key character transitions in Act Two are also a bit muddied, as for instance when Lottie and Rose are reunited with their husbands...I'm not sure these reunions should be as effortless as they are portrayed. These quibbles aside, Treloar shows her ability to work with actors of all ages and experiences and to create a team effort that was clearly enjoyed by the full house on Saturday night. I'm sure this production will be yet another big hit for Langham.
Let's turn now to a production that played last week as part of the Belfry's spring Festival, Léo by Canadian playwright Rosa Laborde. We don't usually review short-run shows, but you wanted to mention this particular show this morning. Why?
One of the frustrations of reviewing in Victoria is that many of the best shows of the season are touring productions that only play for 4 or 5 days. To review a play after it's closed is not a happy thing for listeners who have missed their chance to see a terrific show, and I get that. At the same time, to never mention the sometimes outstanding productions brought in by the Belfry each spring, or by Intrepid Theatre in January/February, is to do listeners a disservice. Many of these touring productions have been nominated for or won Dora or Jessie awards and feature some of the best writing, directing, acting and design work to be seen anywhere in Canada. This is the case with Toronto's Tarragon Theatre production of Léo, nominated for the Governor General's award for playwriting last year as well as a number of Toronto theatre Dora awards. For me, this show was the highlight of the theatre season so far in Victoria, a very well-written, well-acted, well-directed and well-designed professional production that about three friends growing up in Chile before, during and after the brief socialist government of Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. Highly-esteemed Canadian director Richard Rose creates a minimalist production on a bare stage with a grey carpet triangle that accents the interrelationships between talented but troubled narrator Léo and his childhood friends – the politically passionate Rodrigo and the betraying and betrayed survivor Isolda (the only one of the three who manages to escape the clutches of the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that overthrows Allende and his democratically-elected government). The play has substance and meaning; we care about these characters and also learn something about what it was like to live as a middle-class young person in Chile at this point in history, and the kinds of life-or-death choices they are pushed into as a consequence of the political atmosphere. The production is as tightly-directed and performed a show as I've seen in a long while...not one moment is insignificant to the overall texture of the play and the three actors are intensely connected to each other in fully-committed and realized portrayals. The lighting and sound in the show do not dominate but effectively support the story and we are left feeling the kind of conflictual and unresolved emotions that I believe all meaningful dramas should challenge audiences to take on.
So it's too late for listeners to see Léo but not too late to see a couple more Belfry Festival shows, is that right?
Yes, this week sees the opening of the Belfry's incubator project, a Phoenix student-driven production called The Shoes by Lee Cookson that is described as a magical fantasy and later this month we can catch Vancouver playwright Aaron Bushkowsky's new comedy My Chernobyl that features a great cast and is directed by Victoria's Britt Small. Details are on the web at http://www.belfry.bc.ca/
Monday, February 18, 2008
I believe this is the Pacific Opera's fourth production of Madama Butterfly. What makes it such a popular choice?
The composer Puccini himself considered Butterfly his favorite character and operatic creation. It debuted in 1904 and was not an immediate critical success, but has since grown to become one of the best-loved operas of all time. It's not too difficult to understand why as the story is an incredibly touching one of hopeless cross-cultural love between the young and innocent Nagasaki geisha Cio-Cio- San and the heartless American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton who weds her, beds her and abandons her, leading her to eventual suicide. Puccini was inspired, as were many of his European artistic contemporaries, by all things Japanese in the wake of Japan's opening up to the rest of the world in the mid-1800s after 200 years of relative isolation. Variations of the Butterfly story had appeared as stories and plays, and Puccini saw a play in England called Madame Butterfly that inspired him to compose the opera. But of course, it is not just the lovely and tragic story that makes this opera so well-known, but the gorgeous music that Puccini has composed, interweaving Japanese folk melodies and even the Star Spangled Banner into the more familiar Italian operatic style.
2. And how does this production do on the musical front?
Maestro Pietraroia guides the orchestra beautifully and with lots of feeling throughout. And the singing is also uniformly strong, with outstanding performances by the leads of Sally Dibblee (debuting in this role) as Butterfly, Kurt Lehmann as Pinkerton, Michele Losier as Butterfly's maid Suzuki and Bruce Kelly as the US consul Sharpless. All of these singers carry off their roles with great confidence and depth of feeling, and I particularly enjoyed Dibblee's careful physicalization, centred on Butterfly's delicate and floating hands.. I was very moved by the love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton that closes Act One and by the famous aria of longing ('Un bel de vedremo') sung by Butterfly at the beginning of Act Two. These leads are well-backed by other supporting characters and a chorus that does not feature as much in Butterfly as in other operas, but has some haunting offstage singing in Act Two that is very effective.
3. And how about the look of this production, and its direction?
The show is designed by quite a young designer, Elli Bunton, a graduate of the National Theatre School, and I think she's done a terrific job in creating what she calls an impressionistic (as opposed to naturalistic) Japanese house. The set is all curved graceful lines and rice paper panels. Sometimes the main panels centre stage have back projections that take us out into the world beyond or offer metaphoric images that connect with the emotional journey of the characters. Her costumes are also well-done, although I wondered about the puffy skirt she puts on Dibblee that makes her seem a bit rounder than she is, when the more traditional straight-cut kimono might make the petite singer seem even more tiny and fragile as Butterfly. Director Francois Racine gives us a very clean and clear interpretation that suitably focuses on the protagonist and enhances the dramatic tensions in the storyline. All in all, an excellent production of a marvellous and moving opera.
Now we move to the latest show at the university theatre department, a world premiere of a Canadian play called Lionel the Miracle Man. What is it all about?
The play by Montreal playwright and writer Pan Bouyoucas was actually written over fourteen years ago, but this is its first production. It tells the 1920s tale of a poor young Quebecois boy Lionel who is only 4 feet 4 inches tall, but is blessed with a great singing voice. When he decides to leave his mother and small village behind, he sets out on adventures that include becoming a sideshow freak, a street busker and eventually a 'miracle man' who begins to grow (and grow and grow) in a somewhat messianic fashion, for the greater good of mankind. He becomes a film star, but his ambition leads him to evil deeds and in despair his life comes to a sad end. We cover a lot of territory in this strange play, and I have to confess I had a hard time in engaging with this central character and his journey and in making sense of what it's all supposed to mean. Quite frankly, there's usually a pretty good reason that a play hasn't been produced in more than a decade since its inception, and unfortunately those reasons seem in evidence here. Many of the characters' actions feel highly unmotivated and it remains unclear why anyone cares for this very self-involved and pompous protagonist who claims to love all mankind but can't even return the love of his loyal girlfriend and best friend. The fact is, Lionel is a rather unsympathetic character, yet not quite a villain, so we as audience members are left confused about how to receive this story: Is it a satire? An allegory? If so, what is its intent?
Does the production manage to overcome the problems with the script?
All the male actors in this show (save one) have appeared in a number of other Phoenix shows where I feel they have shone more than here. But, again, I believe this is mostly due to the material they are working with. Lead Carey Wass as Lionel is onstage almost throughout this 100 minute play and does his level best to bring energy, focus and meaning to the role. He manages very well with the physical demands of playing a dwarf and a giant (the latter on stilts!) but is generally reduced to the ranting and raving of a deluded man who compares himself to Jesus. Nicole Fraissinet acquits herself very well in the role of Lionel's girlfriend Maggie, but again, there is little change in the character which gives her not much to work with. And MFA directing student Ewan Mclaren has a lot of comings and goings that might have worked better with keeping the company onstage and moving in and out of the action to keep the pace up. He also has a white actor playing a black character in a way that may make some uncomfortable, as well as adding strange facial makeup and hair to some characters that seems neither justified or explained. The one element of the show that did work quite well was the simple but effective set design by student Jennifer Quinn which has some nice use of back projections and silhouettes. However, overall I have to report that the show leaves an audience at quite a distance and leaving the theatre shaking their heads about what they have seen. I wonder if a more highly-stylized physical approach that moves more towards cartoon and even puppetry might make the hidden meanings of the play more clear? But in this production, we just don't know what to make of it at all.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Moon Over Buffalo continues at Langham Court Theatre until January 26th. Tickets are at 384-2142.
What can you tell us about this comedy of backstage theatre life?
Well, as another critic pointed out astutely, this is Waiting for Guffman meets Noises Off and playwright Ken Ludwig is clearly tapping in to a more traditional farce form involving mistaken identities, ambition in the face of failure, deception and drunkenness and backstage and onstage disaster in this play about a couple of over-the-hill repertory actors, George and Charlotte Hay, touring the backwaters in 1953 with tired versions of Cyrano de Bergerac and Private Lives. This 1995 play brought Carol Burnett back to Broadway after 30 years, for which she received a Tony nomination. Interestingly, a documentary film was made about this comeback and the play's trial run and Broadway premiere, called Moon Over Broadway, that shows a lot of the tensions during rehearsals among the playwright, director and the actors who were trying to make the play work. In many ways I can't help wishing it was this film I was able to review rather than the play itself, which, for me could only rise above its mediocrity with actors at the level of Carol Burnett playing it. In a community theatre production, as seen onstage at Langham Court, the weaknesses of the script become all too clear, even in what is a very serviceable production.
And what did you feel the weaknesses were in the play?
There is not one character in this 8 person play for which the audience can care about in even the smallest way. Total lack of empathy signals a kind of theatre that is veering hard toward cartoon-land where you don't really care what happens to these people and therefore laughing at their misfortunes becomes easy. But at the same time, there is a lot of real misfortune packed into this two-hour show; a husband cheats on his wife and impregnates his ingenue; his wife seeks revenge by planning to run off with their lawyer; the couple dreams of making it to Hollywood and into a Frank Capra movie, but it becomes all too clear that they are both well past their sell-by dates. Meanwhile, their daughter is trying to separate herself from the 'life of the theatre' by marrying a boring weatherman (who in this production has a problem with somersaulting over furniture a lot) rather than the supporting actor in the company who is her true love. The climax of the play involves a drunken George playing Cyrano while everyone else onstage is performing Private Lives. All of this screams 'formula' to me and seems to be a mish-mash of themes and characters taken from Ludwig's own past shows (Crazy for You, Lend me a Tenor) and from, quite frankly, better plays such as Michael Frayn's Noises Off.
How does the Langham production do in the face of what you consider to be a pretty shallow farce?
There is a lot of experience up there on the stage at Langham, and in the hands of equally experienced director Dick Stille the show moves along at the necessary fast clip and with the quick timing needed in a show with five doors on the set that are constantly opening and closing with characters running in and out of them in constant manic energy. However, the mania of this production begins to grate as right off the top there is a lot of yelling (not helped by the fact that one character is deaf and requires being yelled at all the time) that only increases into Act Two. But leads Alan Penty and Fran Patterson play their roles with lots of physicality (as seen in the band-aid and bruises on Penty) and the appropriate ham acting called upon by the play itself. They are well-supported by the rest of the company and by the set and costume design. I would just like to see a moment or two of genuine feeling from this couple that has been together, through thick and thin, for 35 years. Surely it must hurt very deeply to have your husband cheat on you or to have your wife want to leave you for another man. At no point in this production did I feel for George or Charlotte, so their eventual (and in the world of comedy, inevitable) reconciliation held no satisfaction. The risk of farce is that of making the audience indifferent, even cruel, in their attitude toward characters and that is unfortunately what I see happening in this production, mostly due to the shallowness of the play itself.
It's kind of surprising that you in particular, as a theatre person yourself, could not warm up to a play about actors and a life in the theatre...any final thoughts about that?
There are many terrific plays about the theatre: Noises Off (as mentioned before); Life in the Theatre by David Mamet; The Dresser by Ronald Harwood. Of course, Noel Coward wrote plays about the theatre, including Waiting in the Wings that Langham mounted last season. What holds all these plays above Moon Over Buffalo in my estimation is that they are all love letters to the theatre, as much as they may also satirize the form. This play lacks this loving aspect and instead makes a life in the theatre look both dated and foolish, especially when set in the context of the early 50s and the rise of television. If George and Charlotte Hay were still in love with the theatre, despite their mediocrity, we could love them as well. What we are given by playwright Ken Ludwig is quite a bitter and cynical view of theatre as a dying art form, where the most these down-on-their-luck stage actors can dream of is success in the movies. A bit sad for those of us who cherish this live performing art form so much.