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.