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.