Monday, March 31, 2008


Photo (above): Allan Morgan, Colleen Wheeler and Celine Stubel in My Chernobyl []

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


Clockwise, from bottom: Poster for the 1992 film version of Enchanted April [] ; Salvatore Antonio as Leo; Salvatore Antonio, Sergio di Zio and Cara Pifko in Leo [,]

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