Monday, November 29, 2010


Photos, Top to Bottom: Jan Wood as The Mother in The Life Inside; Elizabeth Duncan as The Eldest Sister, Similkameen O'Rourke as The Youngest Sister and Michaela Holmes as The Middle Sister in The Life Inside (Photos by David Cooper)

1. The Life Inside is one of the biggest shows in the Belfry's history, with a cast of 19, and has taken over three years in its creation. How does the production live up to this kind of anticipation?

I felt very mixed in my response to this show. On the one hand, I admired the quality of the production, the terrific company of actors, featuring a number of local Victoria actors, the musical aspects of the show which were woven into the piece quite seamlessly and supported the storytelling throughout, and the design elements with a lovely painted set and almost note-perfect late 19th century costuming. But, on the other hand, I did feel like there was an awful lot going on up on the small stage of the Belfry and a lot of bodies…perhaps more than might reasonably have been needed in order to tell what is in essence a very small story. So I left the theatre after this quite short 75 minute show with a sense of frustration that a number of actors whose work I admire were constrained in their artistry by the relatively minor roles relegated to them, although I could clearly see a fine ensemble working to the utmost of their professional abilities to tell this sad little story.

2. Director James Fagan Tait has made a name for himself in Vancouver for other literary adaptations, in collaboration with musician Joelsya Pankanea, such as Crime and Punishment and Old Goriot. This time he tackles a short play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Adaptations are only as good as their sources...what do you think of this one?

It is this source material that for me leads to most of the problems I felt with The Life Inside, adapted from Belgian writer (and winner of the 1911 Nobel prize for literature) Maurice Maeterlinck’s short play, most likely intended to be a puppet play, called Interior. Maeterlinck was a somber fellow who took his art very seriously and he was not very interested in many of the elements of theatre that we take for granted. His desire was for theatre to address the existential question, to portray a solitary human struggling for meaning in his life against all the forces of fate. So in The Life Inside we see two men standing outside the window of a village home at twilight, watching the family inside sitting beside the fire, while they delay the inevitable job they are there to carry out; to deliver the terrible news that one of the family’s children has died that day. And that alone comprises almost all of the action in this play, with the exception of a few flashbacks, all of which is told in dramatic dialogue (mostly between the Old Man and the Young Stranger who has found the body of the child), mime, a bit of puppetry and a talking/singing chorus. Now, just take a moment to compare the amount of dramatic potential in this story, which consists of an hour and ten minutes of waiting for the Old Man to knock on the front door and deliver his news, with the dramatic arc of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Balzac’s Old Goriot. The pace of the show is intentionally very, very measured and controlled, with use of slow motion and repetition to reinforce the sense that we are swirling around and around a small moment in time. To misquote an author even superior to those just mentioned, I am left feeling that The Life Inside has a lot of sound and not much fury signifying…not that much.

3. We know about the 'slow food' movement...could this be the beginning of a 'slow theatre' movement, that we should adjust our expectations for fast and slick entertainment and give over to experiences that are more meditative?

I’m sure there will be some who consider The Life Inside to be totally their cup of tea. I can see that if you are of a certain temperament and really give yourself over to this slow and measured production by surrendering to its rhythm, you might find it to be quite beautiful, even (at moments) profound. But for those who expect the theatre to do more than take 75 minutes and nearly 20 actor-musicians to explore a moment-before-something-actually-happens, those of us who happen to like drama that is not static in nature (which Maeterlinck felt was needed in theatre) or that reduces excellent actors to little more than puppets (another Maeterlinck-ian desire) are well-advised to know what to expect here. I happen to like theatre that gives actors something to do and I couldn’t help feeling annoyed that there were enough people onstage to give a rousing production of a Shakespeare, or a Greek tragedy, rather than the minimalist story told here. I began to wonder what it would look like as a puppet play, in fact, and also how it would work with a much smaller cast of actors, musicians and puppeteers. The family we peer at through their living room window for much of the show are silent, their actions remarked on for their quotidian quality that we know will be shattered into pieces when they hear the bad news. Why not make them puppets, thus heightening the sense of alienated voyeurism as we watch them, as if they are in another world and we hold their fate in our hands...literally? If Tait had lifted the show to a higher level of theatricality, if he had experimented more adventurously with multiple ways to tell this story, such as more use of puppetry, symbolic movement and meta-theatricality, this might have been a show that succeeded more than the less than successful effort I saw.

4. Were there any standout performances for you in this very large cast?

The largest role in the show is Richard Newman’s The Old Man and he does a lovely job portraying what little dramatic tension the play holds. His naturally deep voice lends gravitas to the proceedings. I admired UVic’s Jan Wood’s and Theatre Inconnu’s Clayton Jevne’s work as the silent parents for their commitment and deep focus. Rebecca Haas has a beautiful voice which we didn’t hear enough of, as do many others in the ensemble. Elizabeth Duncan plays the drowned child with great sensitivity in her movement and shows a remarkable level of control for one so young. There is lots to admire in this show in terms of its polish, what’s missing for me is the dramatic engine that should move this pretty picture, with its large population, into new territory rather than sit and spin prettily, and a tad preciously, in one place.

Monday, November 22, 2010


Images, Top to Bottom: Langham Court Theatre's poster for Memory of Water; movie poster for Wizard of Oz; VOS poster for Wizard of Oz

The Memory of Water continues until December 4th with tickets at 384-2142. Wizard of Oz continues until November 28th at the McPherson Playhouse with tickets at 386-6121.

1) This week's theatre-going was a bit lighter for you than last week's, I so?

A lot lighter, yes, after the trials of Rodelinda and Yerma last week it was great to get out to a fairly light comedy at Langham Court and the family favorite musical Wizard of Oz at the Victoria Operatic Society. Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water deals with a heavy topic, the loss of a parent, in an accessible way by focusing on how grief pushes people into behaviour they would never engage in otherwise. The endless bickering and chips-on-their-shoulders between three sisters who have just lost their mother is the plotline of this bedroom comedy. We watch these three fall apart in various ways as they prepare for their mother’s funeral. The Wizard of Oz requires no synopsis, of course, but the challenge to be faced here is how a staged version of the film can work when almost every audience member knows the 1939 original film and its iconic performances so well.

2) Let's begin with Langham Court's production of The Memory of Water. This play won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 1997. Did you feel it lived up to this as a successful comedy?

This is not a great play, but it is a good play, and played well it crackles right along. I would call the play more of a dramedy, a horrible word but accurate here. There are a number of pretty serious revelations that occur as the three sisters try to pull themselves together long enough to get through their mother’s funeral. One major problem sister Mary has to face is that her mother Vi keeps turning up in ghost form, which is unsettling to say the least. But it does allow them eventually to put a couple of their own ghosts to bed, particularly in regard to a teen pregnancy that was hidden and kept secret for many long years. Although the play has some heavier dramatic elements it does keep the laughs coming. I think an audience can laugh at the recognition that we all tend to lose a grip on ourselves when placed in high stress situations like a death in the family. Drinking excessively may seem like a good idea at those times, but can also lead to amusing loss of repression and some vicious truth-telling between these three sisters, all of whom have their various axes to grind.

3) Any outstanding performances to watch out for?

The play features strong performances from the three sisters, particularly from Melissa Blank as Teresa, the most repressed of the three…her second act drunken breakdown is worth the price of admission as Blank is a gifted young actor who works very well both emotionally and physically in her role. Lorene Camiade as the successful doctor Mary and Odile Nelson as the flighty Catherine do some good work in their roles as the other two sisters, as does Rob Cruse as Teresa’s henpecked husband Frank. Less successful on opening night were the supporting roles of Mur Meadows as Mary’s married lover Mike and Elizabeth Brimacombe as ghost-mother Vi, both of whom look right in their roles but who would benefit from going more deeply into the emotions they are challenged to portray. Director Angela Henry keeps things moving along quite well but I could do with less of actors facing the audience straight on when making or dealing with some revelation or other, something people don’t tend to do in real life. Theatre for me is about the essential human struggle to communicate, and I like to see actors consistently engaged with each other in that attempt, rather than make it less believable by turning it into a ‘moment’ on stage.

4) Now turning to the latest musical offering from the Victoria Operatic Society...Wizard of Oz. How does a staged version work compared to the movie we all know so well?

I would have thought it somewhat a fool’s errand to tackle a stage version of this universal favorite, but this VOS show does an outstanding job translating the movie onto the McPherson Theatre stage. The professional experience of director Matthew Howe really shows well here as he has created a show that works on almost every level. He has cast talented and appealing young actors to play Dorothy (Chelsea Tucker) and her three friends the Scarecrow (Sean Baker), the Tin-Man (Chris Newstead) and the Cowardly Lion (Jeffrey Stephen). All four of these lead roles find close to the right balance between staying within the familiar parameters of the film and making the roles their own, as does the remainder of the cast. I did find the younger performers fared slightly better overall than their more senior counterparts, but all of them look quite right in their roles and were more than satisfactory actors, singers and dancers. A large chorus has terrific ensemble numbers as Munchkins, Emerald City citizens and the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys and henchmen. Musically and visually the show works as well, with effective sets by Guy Chester, colorful costumes by David Hardwick and solid musical direction by Heather Burns. A great show for the whole family.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Photos (Top to Bottom): Nathalie Paulin as Rodelinda and Benjamin Butterfield as Grimoaldo in Rodelinda (photos credit: Darren Stone, Times Colonist); Two soldiers with Nathalie Paulin as Rodelinda; A scene from Yerma; Kesinee Haney as Yerma (credit: David Lowe, Phoenix Theatres)

Rodelinda continues this week at the Royal Theatre with tickets at 385-0222. Yerma runs until November 27th with tickets at 721-8000.

1. Two new shows opened in town last Thursday night and our theatre reviewer Monica Prendergast got to both of them. Both Rodelinda at Pacific Opera Victoria and Yerma at UVic's Phoenix Theatre feature female leading roles...anything else these two productions have in common?

The two women who have the title roles in Handel’s 1725 opera and Garcia Lorca’s 1935 play both live in pre-feminist times, of course, both are married and both are striving to free themselves from a situation over which they have little or no control. Rodelinda is a queen and loyal wife who has lost her crown and believes she has also lost her husband through the victory of her husband’s brother in a civil war. Her grief is fully explored throughout the opera and she is considered to be the quintessential portrait of a loving and faithful wife. Yerma is also a loving wife when the play begins, albeit in very different circumstances. She is a simple Spanish peasant woman married to a shepherd and her grief is that they cannot conceive a child. This grief swallows her up so much that by the play’s end she commits a desperate act that makes her almost the polar opposite of the ‘perfect’ wife we see in Rodelinda. But both women are products of their historical times.

2. Rodelinda by George Frederic Handel premiered in 1725 but in fact the story in it takes place a long time before then. What can you tell us about that?

The story Handel draws loosely upon is of the 7th century Germanic tribe called the Lombards (Longbeards) who fought endlessly amongst themselves for control of Northern Italy. Handel’s opera is quite small in scale, featuring only six singing roles and no chorus, but the emotional canvas he paints on is typically operatically large. Each of the six characters is fully developed, even the servant character of Unulfo, and we hear in detail how each of them responds to the demands made to Rodelinda to accept her husband’s death and marry her brother-in-law. What we see is a society that is tipping toward chaos and anarchy at any moment, and the decisions made by these leaders will affect which way things go. Rodelinda’s decision to accept her captor’s proposal under one terrible condition is a high point of the opera, as is her joyful reconciliation with her husband Bertarido who has been in hiding. What makes the opera most interesting, at least for me, is that Handel has two of the male roles sung by countertenors, a male voice in opera that is close to a female mezzosoprano…in other words, quite high pitched to our 21st century ears. Once I became accustomed to these voices, however, I was quite enthralled with them and both Bertarido and his loyal servant Unulfo have some of the most beautiful arias in the opera.

3. And how did the POV's production live up to the challenges of a Handel opera?

Director Oriel Tomas and designer Nancy Bryant create a strong sense of a world controlled by barely contained savagery, as seen in the monumental, yet off-kilter, stone castle of a set and the heavy furs, leather and brocade fabrics worn by the characters. Characters are often being spied upon throughout the opera and are constantly maneuvering to get what they want. The cast of this production all do very well in their roles, in both acting and singing. I enjoyed seeing Victoria’s Benjamin Butterfield clearly relishing his portrayal of the usurping brother Grimoaldo and found his conversion late in the opera to be quite moving and convincing. The countertenors Gerald Thompson as Bertarido and Matthew White as Unulfo are both excellent in their roles, and Thompson’s final aria was a showstopper. Bruce Kelly as the villainous manipulator Garibaldo and Megan Latham as Rodelinda’s sister-in-law Eduige both do well with the vocal and emotional challenges of their respective roles. And Nathalie Paulin, a POV favorite, does lovely and affecting work as Rodelinda, especially in the scenes at Bertarido’s grave and when she makes her brother-in-law an offer with conditions she is betting, with very high stakes, that he cannot possibly accept. Timothy Vernon leads the orchestra with his usual flair and the Baroque music sounds as glorious as it should. All in all, another most successful production for the POV, their third Handel opera, and a strong sign that the company is becoming recognized for their commitment to this great composer’s operatic works.

4. Now turning to the UVic theatre department's production of Yerma by Frederico Garcia Lorca. I understand Lorca's poetic language can be challenging for anyone to perform, nevermind theatre do they fare in this show?

This is tough material indeed, as with Lorca’s other plays Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba and a few more. Lorca was a young radical artist who paid the ultimate price for his socialist politics by being executed in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. His tragic death cut off the possibility of more great poems and plays from this passionate man who died at the age of only 38. Lorca’s plays are very poetic in form and take on a nearly mythic or ritualistic quality that often reminds me of Greek tragedy, but that also makes them pretty tough going for undergraduate theatre students. Luckily, theatre department Chair Warwick Dobson has given us a very clear-headed production of this challenging material that makes effective use of music, song, chorus and movement to help a contemporary audience make sense of a play with which many might find it quite difficult to relate. Seeing the character of Yerma as a metaphor for Spain at that point in history—struggling to bring new life (a new republic) into being but thwarted by fate (in reality the military dictatorship of General Franco)—helps us to place the story into the proper context. The production is aided by a simple yet strong set design by theatre professor Allan Stichbury and costumes (that include references to another great Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso) by the always creative design professor Mary Kerr and student Patricia Reilly. I love the use of live music in the show, the flamenco guitar played by Gareth Owen, as it helps to drive the story forward and to give the play the necessary Spanish flavour it needs. The large cast does well overall, with Kesinee Haney as Yerma reaching the necessary emotional peaks and valleys of the role very well, supported by Graham Nathan as husband Juan, Alex Plouffe as a potential rival Victor, Sarah Koury as neighbour Maria, and Hayley Feigs in the demanding role of the Pagan Woman. It may be difficult for us in 2010 to relate to the agonies of a young wife, loved by her husband, but who ends up turning on him simply because he cannot give her a child. For me, understanding what the fearless Lorca was trying to do with his art, to create serious Spanish theatre that took direct aim at the sexual and religious hypocrisy and oppression of his times, helped me to appreciate the deep power, even the profundity, at work in Yerma.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cinderella and Odd Couple Reviews - October 5, 2010

Images, Top to Bottom: Cinderella's ball gown and model of the Magnifico's house, both designed by Judith Bowden (; Poster design for Langham Court Theatre's production of The Odd Couple: Female Version

1. We've been hearing quite a lot about the Pacific Opera Victoria's opening show of this season, Rossini's Cinderella. How does the production live up to its advance publicity?

When I began reviewing for CBC Victoria's On the Island I agreed to cover the POV’s season even though my area is theatre and not opera. Over the past four years I have come to learn more about opera and to appreciate it much more than before. I have enjoyed a great number of POV’s past productions, but I don’t think I’ve ever had such a good time than at the opening night of Cinderella last Thursday night. The reasons for this lie first in the universal familiarity we all have with the fairy tale Cinderella and second in the comic approach that composer Giachino Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti took in creating this 1817 opera. All the elements of the story are here: the poor abused but lovely and innocent stepdaughter Cinderella (here called Angelina) who loves to read romantic stories in the cinders; her vain and selfish stepsisters and greedy and ambitious stepfather; a noble prince who in this version disguises himself as a servant in his search for his one true love; and a fairy godfather in this variation is a philosopher who calls on higher spiritual powers to help Cinderella triumph over adversity. Regular POV director Tom Diamond draws on elements of traditional British pantomime—including a number of exits and entrances through the audience and characters acknowledging both the audience and the fact that they are ‘performing’ this story with a nod and a wink. This works extremely well from the opening scene, where fairy godfather Alidoro opens a huge picture-book onstage and we see each main character walk straight out of its pages, right through to the final fairytale wedding’s happy ending. This playfulness continues throughout the show and gives the production a suitably light-heartedness without sacrificing any of the musical quality, with Victoria Symphony members sounding wonderful as always under the direction of conductor Guiseppe Pietraroia. The set and costume designs by Judith Bowden in her POV debut were outstanding …inventive and surprising and lovely to look at…I hope the POV will bring her back many times again.

2. What were some other highlights of the show for you?

Opera singers these days are trained much more as actors and this leads to strong acting as well as singing performances from all the leads in this show, which features a number of POV debuts. Newcomers Brian Stucki as the Prince, Tyler Duncan as his valet Dandini (who has the time of his life pretending to be the prince for a day!), and Marianne Lambert and Marion Newman as the wicked stepsisters were all most effective in both their singing and interpretation of their roles. POV regulars Terry Hodges as the Stepfather Don Magnifico and Chad Louwerse as the fairy godfather Alidoro both played their respective roles with relish and in great voice. But the showstopping performance of this production is seen in the title role of Angelina by Julie Boulianne. What a debut performance this was! Boulianne is heading to the Met next year as well as the Opera Comique in Paris and we in Victoria are lucky enough to be seeing a star on the rise in this coloratura mezzo soprano who sings this role so gloriously and with such accomplishment with this challenging material that the opening night audience waited to rise to their feet as one until when she entered for her curtain call. As a theatre person who is still learning about opera, I feel I caught a glimpse of the kind of particular joy an opera audience sometimes experiences when they see and hear a performance as fine as Boulianne’s and can say, “I saw her first” as they watch her rise in the ranks of great singers. Not to be missed.

3. Moving to Langham Court Theatre's production of the female version of Neil Simon's popular comedy The Odd Couple. Why would Simon write a female version of this play?

The Odd Couple was a huge hit when it opened on Broadway in 1965, was turned into an equally popular film with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and then a TV sitcom series from 1970 to ’75 with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success, so Simon revisited the play 20 years later by rewriting it into a female version. Rather than Oscar Madison the sloppy and slovenly sportswriter who takes in his recently divorced and ultra-tidy and neurotic friend Felix Madison, this version has news journalist Olive Madison trying to live with separated housewife and high school friend Florence Unger. The buddies’ poker night in the original play becomes a girls’ night out Trivial Pursuit game in this version. And the date night with the British Pigeon sisters who live upstairs becomes a date night with the Spanish Costazuela brothers. In both versions, the humor lies in the always snappy and quick-witted dialogue Simon so capably writes and the growing impossibility of these two friends ever being able to live together.

4. And how did you feel about the production at Langham?

Neil Simon is a quintessentially New York playwright and it can be a real challenge for non-New York, or even non-American actors, to play these roles. The Langham Court production succeeds somewhat in making us believe these characters are New Yorkers, although the accents are wisely not over-emphasized by director Sylivia Rhodes. Shelly Superstein is a small and wiry and very suntanned Olive with an appropriate gravelly voice and Christine Karpiak plays the uptight Florence as constantly fussing, cleaning, cooking and worrying. The scenes between them work quite well, although I think there is more physical comedy for them to find in their characters throughout the course of the run. However, it is essential in this version that the Spanish brothers Jesus and Manolo be convincing and in here we are relieved to have these roles well-played by Brian Adams and Langham regular Wayne Yercha in what I found to be the funniest scene in the show, when they come for dinner and the misunderstandings run fast and loose amongst everyone on stage. The pace of the show is pretty good and may pick up as the company gets more comfortable over the next two weeks. This is not a stellar but is certainly a competent production that will keep you chuckling along if not laughing out loud to the misfortunes of two friends who are simply too opposite to make it work as roommates.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Trespassers Review - September 20, 2010

Photo: Amitai Marmorstein as Lowell and Jennifer Clement as Roxie in The Trespassers (Photo by David Cooper)

1. The Belfry Theatre says that the plays of Canadian playwright Morris Panych have been seen on its stage more than any others. What is it about Panych's plays do you think that makes them so popular?

Panych is an actor and director himself and I can’t help but feel that these additional theatre abilities help him in his playwriting. Panych writes plays that must appeal greatly to actors, as he writes very quick and witty comic dialogue and also creates characters who in their ways are very often not quite ‘normal’ and yet who have to deal with bizarre sets of problems. The word ‘quirky’ is often applied to Panych’s work, much to his irritation I’m sure, but it is an accurate word to describe his dramatic world. It’s a world that is recognizable and yet somehow also a little bit askew, things are not quite ‘right’ somehow, either in the protagonists he creates or in the world they inhabit. For example, in Panych’s one-man play Earshot (produced by the Belfry some years ago), the main character suffers from highly over-sensitive hearing that torments him as he is forced to listen in on the lives around him. I think this is very much the kind of thing that makes Panych so popular with audiences…we are always delighted to be brought into this world that is not quite like ours and within which most often overly sensitive characters are struggling to cope or to conform to supposedly acceptable norms of behavior. Many of these characters, including in The Trespassers and a number of one-person plays written for young audiences in the 90’s, are teenagers dealing with challenging situations in their family lives or coming to terms with things like their sexuality or aging and death. The last Panych play seen at the Belfry was the Governor General award-winning The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl in which a young girl named Iris tells us in flashback about the series of events leading up to her mother leaving the family…not a happy plot and yet the play itself is filled with laughs.

2. And how does this new play compare to The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl?

Unfortunately, I found this new play somewhat derivative of The Girl in the Goldfish Bowl. Like Goldfish Bowl, The Trespassers has a teenage main character who tells us the story of what has happened to him. This character’s name is Lowell and whereas Iris in Goldfish Bowl has an overactive imagination and may be a bit ADHD, Lowell suffers from depression and bipolar disorder…a tougher set of circumstances altogether. However, also as in Goldfish Bowl, these kids are in dysfunctional families as the result of impending or actual abandonment by one parent. In this new play, Lowell’s father has left a year ago and Lowell is trying to keep it together with his Christian mother Cash and his atheist grandfather Hardy. But the small interior mill town they live in is in decline after the closing of the mill (partly due to the grandfather’s role as union rep) and the mother is spending more time at church. Lowell spends most of his time with his beloved grandfather and his grandfather’s ‘paramour’ Roxie (a highly entertaining riff on the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold motif) as they try to educate him about the ways of the world. In their working class view, this education involves learning about sex, gambling and how the rich rip off the poor. This is all very engaging and funny but leaves us feeling a bit ‘So what?’ until we hear that Hardy is dying of cancer and wants either his daughter or grandson to help him shuffle off this mortal coil. [Spoiler Alert] This explains why the play is framed as an interrogation by an RCMP officer who seems to be accusing Lowell of murder. As the play proceeds, we see in fragments how this all happened, although we are never certain when Lowell is telling the truth or bluffing as his poker-loving grandfather has taught him to do. The play in its second act becomes a lot more serious as we witness, in very nonlinear and sometimes frustrating partiality, what happens to Hardy after Lowell and Roxie rescue him from the hospital and take him to the peach orchard on the neighbours’ property. The abandoned orchard is ‘Private Property’ and the source of the play’s title as Hardy and Lowell steal peaches as their socialist right. The play ends in a way that felt to me a bit ambiguous (okay, so what actually did happen and if Lowell did kill Hardy, how has this affected him?) and also with a bit too much sentimentalizing of death including vague illusions (or delusions) of angels and reincarnation. So, for me, although I thoroughly enjoyed the show I couldn’t help but feel a bit frustrated and even slightly cheated out of a story that, as fragmented as it may have been constructed (which is fine), felt like some pieces had been left out by the end.

3. So the play may not be one of Panych's standouts...but how were the performances?

This is the strength of this production, which is very well cast and directed by Ron Jenkins. Lowell is effectively played by UVic theatre graduate Amitai Marmorstein, who has been seen locally in Jacob Richmond’s play Legoland and other shows. Marmorstein looks much younger than his actual age of 24 and looks and sounds very believable as a 15 year old boy. He plays Lowell with sensitivity and often great humor as we see him soaking up his unusual grandfather’s life lessons. However, I was less convinced by his occasional bursts of yelling that seemed to supposedly represent his mental instability. Surely a young person on lithium with this serious condition, who we hear has had suicidal episodes, would appear to be a little bit more ‘unusual’? Perhaps this is underwritten in the play itself. The wonderful role of Hardy is played to perfection by veteran Canadian actor Brian Dooley who gives us a fully rounded and accomplished portrayal of a man at the end of his life who is realizing how small his life has been, and filled with failure, at the same time as he is committed to leaving the best of himself behind in his much-loved grandson. Vancouver’s Jennifer Clement gives us a rollicking and fun-loving Roxie and seems to be enjoying every minute of this over-the-top character. The other two roles in the play are in my view the most unrewarding ones; Natascha Girgis does excellent work as the bereft and increasingly desperate mother Cash but I couldn’t help feeling how stuck her character is, and how little room she has to grow as her job is to be more reactive than active. And the final role of Officer Milton is such an unrewarding part, although played capably enough by Raphael Kepinski, that I began to wonder if it couldn’t be done as an offstage voice interrogating Lowell, as the poor actor is left sitting and watching the action for so long we forget he is there.

4. And how did you feel about the other elements of the show...the set the lights the sound...did they add to the overall effect of the play?

I very much liked the set design by Narda McCarroll that effectively evokes a peach orchard with dozens of real (or maybe plastic?) peaches and peach-colored globes hanging from the flies and a wooden floor and backdrop that resemble a fruit crate. Kerem Çentinel offers a lighting design that successfully snaps us back and forth from the police interrogation into the various scenes where Lowell’s memory takes us. Brian Linds creates a subtle sound design that effectively underscores the action. So, in the final count, I can heartily recommend this as a well-produced, directed and performed production of a Morris Panych play that may not reach the heights of his best plays but offers plenty of entertainment and things worth reflecting on—the right to die with dignity being the most significant—to make it worth a trip to Fernwood.

Monday, July 19, 2010


Images: Top - David Radford and Paul Terry in The Importance of Being Earnest; Bottom - The company of Good Timber [Photo credit: David Lowe].

1. It's been an exceptionally busy month for summer theatre in Victoria. You saw two very different shows last week. What made them so different from each other?

Well, other than one of them being a musical revue and the other one a comedy of manners, what really struck me was the class difference between the two. Good Timber offers a musical portrait of the lives of working class people, specifically the loggers of British Columbia in the first half of the 20th century. The Importance of Being Earnest, on the other hand, gives us a satirical picture of the lives of the British upper classes at the turn of the 20th century, the idle rich who ate lots of crustless cucumber sandwiches. So, quite a jump from one show to the other.

2. Let's begin with the musical revue Good Timber at the Royal BC Museum. How does this collaborative project work on stage?

I didn’t know what to expect from this collaborative venture between the local theatre production company The Other Guys, headed by Ross Desprez, and the Royal BC Museum. I was delighted with the show, which is an 80 minute musical presentation of the poems of BC’s version of Robert Service, Robert Swenson. I have lived in BC for 12 years, but I am ashamed to say I had never heard of Swenson, who spent time with loggers in the BC forests and wrote poems about their lives. As with Service’s poems about the goldminers of the Klondike, Swenson created an invaluable record of a life that is now mostly lost, the tough work carried out by loggers with little technology to help them fell giant trees in the BC interior. No matter how we feel about logging in general (and in a nice touch, the show begins with an offstage song to the trees and the spirits that inhabit them), we can’t help but be impressed with the amazingly difficult and oftentimes dangerous work these men undertook. The show features a number of Swenson’s popular poems set to music that are performed with great energy and skill by a company of very talented local actor/musicians, all of whom play a number of different instruments. Kelt and Colleen Eccleston, of the folk group The Ecclestons, are in the company, along with musician John Gogo, director/producer Ross Desprez, and actors Mark Hellman and Sarah Donald (Donald was seen in Blue Bridge’s season last summer). Tobin Stokes is the musical director and the show sounds terrific with songs created by various company members, in various musical styles and often with plenty of humor. Behind the small stage in the museum is another feature of the show, a slide and video show created from the BC Archives by John Carswell. These evocative images add a valuable educational element to the show.

3. Now for the contrasting production at Craigdarroch Castle. Oscar Wilde's ever-popular comedy of manners seems a good fit...what was it like seeing this play on the grounds of the castle?

The play and the castle came into being at the same time, in the 1890’s, and therefore are a great pairing. However, director Ian Case—who has mounted a number of shows in the castle that move from room to room—is doing something new with this summer production. An open-ended tent has been sent up on the castle grounds with the castle itself serving as a backdrop. The production features a number of well-known local actors; Paul Terry as John Worthing, Karen Lee Pickett as his love interest Gwendolyn, Geli Bartlet as Lady Bracknell and Kate Rubin as Miss Prism. The remainder of the company keeps up very well with these more seasoned performers; David Radford as Algernon Montcrieff, Christina Patterson as Cecily Cardew, and Simon Cowie as Dr. Chasuble. Case has directed a faithful version of the play that offers about one laugh for every two lines and clips along at a good pace. The women’s costumes are very attractive and the men’s serviceable and the minimal sets and lights create the needed atmosphere. The night I saw the show there were a few distractions with castle visitors coming out the back door of the castle, clearly unaware a play was being presented, and unwelcome mosquitoes descending at dusk. However, these were minor problems compared to the pleasure of seeing Wilde’s great comedy performed with accomplishment by this company. I was sorry to see a small house at the performance I attended; I hope Victoria theatre-goers will turn out in large numbers this week for the final shows.

4. Victoria theatregoers have an embarrassment of riches these days, with more to come. Does this surprise you in the wake of the significant funding cuts to the arts here in BC this year?

Yes, this has been an unusually active theatre month in town and another show is opening this week (Billy Bishop Goes to War at the Belfry). The deep funding cuts to arts groups in BC this past year have been severe and very damaging; however, artists and companies will try to survive and create new works, as we are seeing here in Victoria. The major shift is in how much more important a good box office becomes when a company lacks the financial cushion of provincial funding support. That means it is that much more important for theatre lovers to get out and support the productions being mounted…the producing companies’ survival may literally depend on your ticket purchase. Luckily, there are a number of wonderful shows to see, as I have found this past week with these two productions at the museum and the castle.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Image: Top: Tim Campbell, Celine Stubel and Thea Gill in the Blue Bridge Repertory production (Credit: Tim Matheson); Bottom: Poster for 1951 movie version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

1. Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire is yet another American classic play presented by Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, following last year's Death of a Salesman. How does this production measure up against the 1951 film version, with Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, that is burned into our memories? A tough act to follow...

It is indeed a tough act to follow the Elia Kazan filmed version of this great play, however, it is a play written for the stage first and foremost, so it is a rare treat to see a production of it here in Victoria. Director Brian Richmond offers a clear and clean interpretation of the play that sticks to the essentials, which is all to the good. The set and costume designs by Patrick duWors work very well and I like this set design far more than the somewhat over the top one he did for Death of a Salesman last year. His design gives us a squalid wooden warehouse-like one room apartment in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1940s. Stella and Stanley Kowalski are happily married and living together here until Stella’s sister Blanche arrives on their doorstep. Over the course of a number of months, marked by Stella’s pregnancy and childbirth, we see the tensions in this household alternately simmer and boil over. The DuBois sisters come from a dead culture, that of the plantation aristocracy in the south. Stella left the failing family home at 18 and is content with her working-class lot and her sometimes brutish but loving Polish-American husband Stanley. Blanche, on the other hand, clings in desperation to a past that no longer exists and is spiraling ever-downwards into drunkenness and delusion.

2. The character of Blanche Dubois is onstage for most of the nearly three hour running time. What did you think about Thea Gill's interpretation of the role?

Blanche’s deterioration is provoked by the hostility she develops toward her brother-in-law and how appalled she is that her sister would choose to live with such a man. Her defense system lies in the romantic memories she has of a lost time when she was a southern belle. In this way, Blanche reminds me of Amanda Wingfield in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie who also pines for a lost world in which both women grew up as spoiled and wealthy young women. Thea Gill gives a strong portrayal of Blanche that I appreciated for a particularly tough-minded interpretation of the role. This Blanche Dubois is no pushover and we see throughout the play the terrible choices and mistakes she has made over many years that have led her to penury and her sister’s door. Her monologues are especially effective for their lack of sentimentality, which is a great risk in this role that Gill manages to neatly avoid. Rather, Gill plays Blanche with her eyes wide open to the tragic death of her very young and very gay husband many years ago that was the first step on her road to devastation. Gill is a statuesque woman and not afraid to play Blanche in heels so that she has a kind of ruined majesty about her which quite compelling. Gill is well-supported by the rest of the company, especially Toronto actor Tim Campbell in the challenging “He’s good but he’s not Brando” portrayal of Stanley and by Victoria’s own Celine Stubel as a clear-eyed Stella who calmly informs her shocked sister that she’s staying in her occasionally abusive marriage because of the sex…a scene that audiences in the 1940s must have found difficult to take (although the 1947 opening night audience in New York gave it a 30 minute ovation). Smaller roles include Jacob Richmond as Mitch, a pretty socially-challenged beau for Blanche in this portrayal, but not lacking in honest emotion, and Marci T. House and Christopher Mackie as the upstairs neighbours, the Hubbells, here presented as an interracial couple which I thought worked very well.

2. Anything in the production not working as well as it could, in your view?

I was sitting in the third row on the left-hand side of the house and found some sightline problems with the stairs on the set that are somewhat blocked for audiences in this section. Also, I’m not sure that the entrance to the apartment is placed well as actors have to negotiate a pretty tight turn to make it in and out as the door opens onto the staircase. However, these slight problems are more than offset by effective lighting design from Kerem Cetinel and a more subdued than usual sound design from John Mills-Cockell. My only other minor complaint is around projection and enunciation..I have a friend who saw the show from about halfway back in the house and complained of missing quite a bit of the text. Most Canadian actors whose work I know, with very few exceptions, would do well to work on their voices, making them more resonant instruments and articulating each syllable of the text with clarity. Williams’ dialogue deserves no less.

3. What are your thoughts on the selection of plays that artistic director Brian Richmond is bringing to summer theatre in Victoria?

I am delighted that UVic theatre professor Richmond has brought Blue Bridge into being. Most summers in Victoria are limited to the amateur productions of the Victoria Shakespeare Festival or a light musical presented by the Belfry. It is wonderful to see classic American, British and Canadian plays onstage at the McPherson Playhouse, which has sat empty for too long. As a strong supporter of Canadian theatre, I might wish that Richmond consider a Michel Tremblay or a George F. Walker play for next year, as these two Canadian playwrights measure up well as writers of ‘classic’ modern plays, even against powerhouses like Arthur Miller, Joe Orton and Tennessee Williams. These are tough times for the arts in BC, so the fact that Blue Bridge has managed to produce a second season is something to celebrate…and to go out and support.