Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beauty Queen of Leenane and Jitters Reviews - November 21st, 2011

Images, Top to Bottom: (L to R) Norman Browning as Phil, Kyle Jespersen as Robert, Ted Cole as George (kneeling) and Gerry Mackay as Nick (standing) (Credit: David Cooper); (L to R) Ted Cole as George, Jason Clift as Tom, Laurie Paton as Jessica, Norman Browning as Phil, Kyle Jespersen as Robert (in rear) (Credit: David Cooper); poster for The Beauty Queen of Leenane

1. A busy week last week with two new shows opening at the Belfry and Langham Court. Both shows are comedies, I understand, but very different from each other...what can you tell us about them?

Two very different comedies actually. The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an early play from Irish writer (who actually grew up in London and still lives there, but was born of Irish parents from County Galway). This play certainly sets the tone and style for many of McDonagh’s future plays, which often feature sharply satiric portrayals of rural living in Ireland, and also often contain violence as a key element. The humor is very much there in McDonagh’s razor-sharp writing, which I happen to love, and his characters are always strong, even in the midst of what can become horrific events. Beauty Queen centres around a highly toxic mother-daughter relationship that ends very, very badly as 40 year-old spinster virgin daughter Maureen tries one last ditch attempt to land a man and break away from her poisonous and ever-needy mother Mag. We find ourselves laughing as much in shock as in humor at the way these two women rip into each other, but by the end of this two-act play the laughs stop as Maureen takes action to prevent her mother from destroying her dreams. At the Belfry, we have a far more civilized comedy of manners, really, that pokes quite gentle fun at the egos and insecurities of the theatrical profession. Mounted by the Belfry as a fitting tribute to the late playwright David French, who passed away last year, this comedy gives us, act by act in this three-act play, a disastrous final rehearsal of a new play, the backstage further disasters that befall the company on opening night, and the after-effects of all this the afternoon following the play-within-a-play’s opening as the company reviews the reviews.

2. So let's focus on Beauty Queen of Leenane did director Judy Treloar and her production team deal with this black comedy?

Treloar shows her deft hand as director, as seen many times at Langham Court including last season’s Elizabeth Rex. The back and forth between mother and daughter that forms the core of the play is handled exceptionally well, and Treloar has done what any director must do and has cast these two central roles with actresses who seem born to play these parts: Naomi Simpson shines in the role of Maureen and offers a portrayal that is equal parts tough as nails and fragile as cut glass, a terrific performance; Elizabeth Whitmarsh, a less experienced actress than Simpson, really surprises here and gives an effective portrait of a deeply-embittered woman. Both women are supported by Bill Adams as Pato Dooley, a potential love match for Maureen, and Paul Wiebe as Pato’s younger brother and reluctant messenger boy. While I felt the men’s work was slightly less well-realized than the women’s, I did like Adam’s quiet presence in his role…even though he is not quite the 40 year old burly building site laborer called for in the script, he plays the role with a nice energy and focus. Paul Wiebe is a young actor with lots of energy and is appealing onstage, but still needs to find the particular rhythm required to make an Irish dialect play flow, as he sometimes stepped over his acting partner’s lines. Perhaps he will find this over the course of the run. The set is well-designed, as always, by Bill Adams, whose sets are always a treat to see. I had a few complaints about sound cues which occasionally are too loud and would prefer the radio sound to come through an onstage speaker rather than play in the house, which becomes distracting for an audience when the radio music runs right through a climactic scene.

3. Now let's shift to the Canadian comic classic at the does that production manage the remounting of this 30+ year old play?

The strength of this remount of French’s love letter to the theatre is in its three central characters as played by three seasoned actors: Dean Paul Gibson as cantankerous and alcoholic Irish-Canadian Patrick Flanagan; Laurie Paton as Canadian actress/star Jessica Logan who has played Broadway and is now returning to the Toronto stage before her light dims; and Norman Browning as Phil Mastorakis, an older actor who has never managed to learn his lines properly, or to cope with stage fright. Watching these highly-skilled actors do their thing—under the capable hands of Patrick McDonald’s direction and a lovely revolving set design from Charlotte Dean (stay to watch it revolve during an intermission)—is the highlight of this show, in my view. These three core characters continually bicker and complain, as does everyone else in this dysfunctional ensemble, but in the end, all’s well that ends well, as the Bard would have it. The supporting cast all do just fine in their respective roles, particularly Ted Cole as constantly beleaguered director George Ellsworth and Kyle Jespersen as more than slightly neurotic playwright Robert Ross. The final four roles in this nine-person cast are all handled well, but are not particularly rewarding to play, as they are relatively thinly-sketched characters. In fact, my one issue with Jitters is the play itself. I saw a production of the play in Toronto many years ago, but my husband had to remind me last week that we had seen it way back when. Usually, my habit is to rapidly forget most films, but to remember plays very well. The reason I think I forgot seeing Jitters twenty-odd years ago is, quite frankly, because it is not a very memorable play. While it is charming enough, and elicits some laughs along the way, in my view it fails to dramatically deliver on its implied promise of the first two acts. Unlike the similarly-themed British comedy Noises Off, which eventually does show us how badly things can go when absolutely everything goes wrong in a performance, Jitters skips over the climactic opening night and instead gives us an anticlimactic Act 3 that has the cast bickering at the same level as the day before, after a successful opening night. My response to this is to feel a bit of a letdown, as though French couldn’t quite bear to present the nightmare vision that proves to be beyond hysterical in Noises Off, one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. So, while audiences might chuckle along in Jitters, and certainly will have the chance to admire three very fine Canadian actors doing their thing, overall I found myself wondering what better vehicle might this company be appearing in rather than this. One of French’s (better) dramatic plays, for example, such as Leaving Home or Of the Fields Lately?

4. Are you willing to recommend one over the other for busy listeners?

That’s actually an easier task than it sometimes is for me. I can thoroughly recommend Martin McDonagh’s black comedy in this production with great performances by the lead actresses, but with the caveat that potential audience members should be prepared for some quite devastating violence late in the play. While Jitters is for me not a play for the ages, this is a strong production featuring mostly Vancouver-based performers we rarely get the chance to see here in Victoria…go see them at work as the main reason to go to the Belfry, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy smiling along to the somewhat clichéd but affectionate portrayal of life in the theatre.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review of Mary's Wedding - Monday, November 14th, 2011

Photos, Top to Bottom: POV Chorus and Betty Wayne Allison as Mary in Mary's Wedding (Credit: Bruce Stotesbury,; Thomas Macleay as Charlie (in shirt at top), Alain Coulombe as Sergeant Flowerdew (in hat at right), and Betty Waynne Allison as Mary in Mary's Wedding (Credit: David Cooper,

1) There's been a lot of anticipation around this world premiere of a brand new commissioned opera at the POV. What was your take on this project?

I was quite surprised when the POV project was announced and Stephen Massicotte’s two-hander play was chosen. The play is a dialogue between young Saskatchewan farm boy Charlie and his his girl Mary back home, told in flashback two years after the end of the war, in 1920. Mary is dreaming the night before her wedding, and we see her dreams played out for us, her memories of her first love Charlie and his time in the trenches and cavalry of World War I. She doubles up as Charlie’s platoon Sergeant Flowerdew, so we get the sense of her being with him “over there” through this third character. The play is quiet, filled with the mostly unfulfilled idealized longings of first love, and the inevitable loss and letting go. Wow, I thought, how do you turn a small and intimate play about love, war and loss into anything that might work on a larger stage and in the larger performance form of opera?

2) How did the production deal with these issues of adaptation?

The solution of course, was the addition of an actively involved dramatic chorus, which composer Andrew MacDonald adds and director Michael Shamata uses well in this adaptation. The play is filled with Charlie’s letters home to about his experiences in France. These scenes become much more vivid when we see a platoon of soldiers and hear them singing their way into battle. Sergeant Flowers, as Charlie calls Flowerdew (a real historical figure), becomes a separate third character in the opera, but Mary is seen close at hand through all of these war scenes, right in the trenches with these men, as only dreams can allow. This dreamlike effect transfers very well into an opera format, which generally deals with larger-than-life themes, plots and characters. Certainly, the themes of love, war, loss and grief are large enough for an opera, even if the canvas that Massicotte (who created the libretto from his play) paints is intentionally small scale, concerned as it is with the intimacies of this young couple. So audiences need to be prepared to see a less typically grandiose narrative than seen in Wagner and Rossini—and one that is very Canadian in its historic representation of Canadian troops in the First World War—but is nonetheless a story that still packs an emotional punch. Andrew MacDonald’s music is fairly non-melodic and tonal, as he is a contemporary composer, and this may frustrate opera traditionalists. While his music did not make a huge impression in me overall, it was extremely well-played and sung, and I thought some of the orchestration of the chorus was excellent at key moments in the production.

3) How did you feel director Michael Shamata and the design team did in their respective tasks?

Shamata showed his skills to best effect in staging the show in a fluid way that kept both the eye and attention held. He is well-supported with an elegant design from Ian Rye, and lovely lighting by Alan Brodie. Shamata choreographs the chorus to portray many people and events, although I wondered if it might have been possible to more realistically evoke the sense of the Lord Strathcona Regiment’s ill-fated cavalry charge late in the opera. The central characters and chorus mime horse-riding and show the charge using good use of slow motion, but the lack of any horselike imagery took away some of the power of this climactic moment for me. Perhaps I have been spoiled by having seen the British National Theatre’s amazing production War Horse last year in London? That play, also set in the Great War, has horses sent to the front played by life-sized puppets, and that powerful presence of doomed animals on the battlefield is lost in Mary’s Wedding. But despite this one missing element, overall the chorus is incorporated seamlessly into the dialogue between Mary and Charlie, and they bring to life Mary’s memories of an afternoon tea in her small town, as well as the departure of the town’s men for war, and Charlie’s terrible descriptions of battle, injury and death.

4) Were there any standout performances?

This is Ladysmith-born and UVic-educated soprano Betty Waynne Allison’s role of a lifetime, as she is onstage throughout the two and a half hour long show, and her voice nor presence never faltered. A lovely performance, genuine, nuanced and beautifully sung. Tenor Thomas Macleay makes his POV debut as Charlie Edwards and plays him with bravado and sensitivity, even if his voice cannot quite match the power of Ms. Allison’s. Bass Alain Coulombe brings gravitas to his portrayal of Sergeant Flowers, and a resonant voice to the role. Timothy Vernon conducts the Victor Symphony with his usual passion and panache, and the orchestra is in fine form, as ever.

5) What's the take-away from this opera?

I think it is something to celebrate, the premiere of a homegrown Canadian opera, based on an already celebrated Canadian play. While the contemporary score will interest some more than others, it is a very polished and eventually quite moving musical interpretation of the ancient themes that can be found in all opera: What it means to both love and to lose, and (perhaps) to survive and move on.

NOTE: Mary's Wedding continues tonight, Wednesday and Friday night this week, plus a Sunday matinee, all at the McPherson Playhouse. Tickets are available at 386-6121 or online at

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Review of Gormenghast at William Head on Stage - October 31st

Top to Bottom: Kate Rubin as Gertrude, Countess of Groan in WHoS production of Gormenghast; Ingrid Hansen as Fuchsia Groan and JR as Steerpike in same (

1. The 50th production of William Head on Stage's [WHoS] thirty year history is an adaptation of British novelist Mervyn Peake's trilogy Gormenghast. What can you tell us about this novel and its move from book to stage?

Writer Mervyn Peake was also a well-known artist, book illustrator and poet. He suffered a nervous breakdown while serving in WWII, and no doubt the horrors of war, and the Holocaust, are partly behind his rendering of a stagnant and suffocating society portrayed in the Gormenghast trilogy. The watchwords of the inhabitants of this vast and isolated castle, located in a place that is never fully defined, is “No Change”. When young Titus Groan is born as the 77th Earl of Gormenghast, things do begin to change as he grows up to be a young man who rejects the mindless rituals of the castle and longs for freedom beyond the castle walls. His doppelganger in the novels is Steerpike, a kitchen boy with dreams of revolt who rises up through the castle ranks and threatens to take everything away from the Groan family, unless Titus and his family can stop him in time. The trilogy is often called fantasy, but there is not really any magic in the story, and a more correct genre might be gothic, with is grotesque, satirical and even surreal elements. Considered a major literary achievement in post-war British literature, the books have been adapted many times into radio and TV formats, and more recently as a stage adaptation by John Constable, which is the adaptation being used in WHoS’ production.

2. Sounds like a challenging choice for the inmates at William Head to take does director Ian Case do with all of this?

I think this is a very fitting choice for a prison theatre production, especially given its overall theme of Freedom vs. Tradition. The longing of young Titus to break free of the castle that dominates his life is a powerful metaphor when spoken and performed by an inmate. And the changed mantra “No Change” also cannot help but resonate more deeply when performed in the context of a federal correctional institution. That said, it is not an easy story to tell, as it is quite convoluted. John Constable’s adaptation does away with many minor characters and subplots, but nonetheless it is a challenge for both performers and audiences to make sense of this strange tale. Luckily, local director Ian case (who has directed out at William Head in the past, most recently with the successful production of Macbeth) does an excellent job of crafting a production that is effectively cast and performed. Three actresses from Victoria play the female roles (although one brave inmate does play a role in drag!), and the production is strengthened by the confident presence of Kate Rubin as Gertrude, the Countess of Groan and Titus Groan’s mother, Ingrid Hansen as Titus’ older sister Fuchsia and Michelle Chowns as one half of Titus’ twin aunts Clarice and Cora. While none of the inmates are trained actors, which makes hearing every word sometimes an issue, each one of them is clearly deeply invested in their characters and in the story they are telling. This is in itself a major achievement that I am always so impressed to see at William Head on Stage…the clearly very high level of commitment to each production.

3. What was working well in the show for you?

I enjoyed the overall design of the show very much. The set is made up of three grey castle towers, each with a screen on its front side. A ramp goes down from the stage to the ground level, so actors can use the floor level for some of the action of the play. On the screens, overhead gel projections often appear with simple animations that tell us where we are in the castle, or what a character is doing, like unlocking a door, or climbing a wall, or walking down into the castle’s cellars. When an actor is behind these screens, the use of shadows also becomes a very effective element that Case employs creatively throughout. Also, sound effects are made live backstage and these add suitable background elements that work well to evoke the castle’s atmosphere. Finally, the costumes are very well done, and look suitably both aristocratic-shabby and strange...the women’s costumes are especially effective, as are the use of puppets to show how much the Countess Groan loves her menagerie of cats and birds more than her family, at least in the first part of the play. I did find things a bit confusing at the top of Act One, but the plot soon started to make sense as the characters were introduced. The only other problem I encountered was some slow pacing, as often there were a couple of beats or more between one scene and the next that could have been tightened up, or perhaps covered by some transitional music. However, these are minor complaints, and overall I had a very enjoyable night out behind the razor barb-wired fences at William Head.

4. How does the future look for William Head on Stage, given the Harper government's crackdown on crime...will rehabilitative arts programs like this one be at risk?

I am always inspired, as a theatre educator myself, by how meaningful and powerful an experience it is for the inmates who participate in WHoS shows. Their notes in the program clearly state how putting on a play is an opportunity for each of them to step out of their comfort zones, to escape the drudgery of prison life, and to learn valuable lessons about the necessity of cooperation and communication when rehearsing and performing a play. This program is the longest-lived prison theatre program in Canada. I don’t know what the future holds for WHoS, and mostly due to the institution moving from medium to minimum security a few year back, the organizers are only now ably to put on one show a year. But it is clear to me every time I go out to see a WHoS that this is the best kind of rehabilitative experience, and offers a strong alternative to the punitive and retributive policies that we know generally don’t work very well. I hope the administration of William Head and the government continues to support programs like WHoS, for everybody’s sake, not just for the sake of those involved…it says something good about all of us, I think.

NOTE: Gormenghast runs until November 12th at William Head Federal Institution. Tickets are available at or 250-590-6291. No person under 19 years old will be admitted.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Photos, Top to Bottom: Martha Plimpton as Neasa and Brian F. O'Byrne as Ian in the Broadway production of Shining City (2006); Oliver Platt as John and Brian F. O'Byrne as Ian in same (; Celine Stubel, Caroline Gillis, Dennis Fitzgerald and Mary-Colin Chisolm in And Slowly Beauty...(

1. The theatre season got off to a start last week with shows opening at the Belfry Theatre and Theatre Inconnu. What were your impressions?

I was very happy with both of my trips to the theatre this week. As an experienced theatregoer I was rewarded by both of these new productions. One of them tells its story through a combination of text and movement, French-Canadian playwright Michel Nadeau’s And Slowly Beauty, the second one through the ancient art of storytelling, in Irishman Conor McPherson’s Shining City. So audiences are challenged by getting into the slower rhythm of theatre that is more interested in the journey than the destination.

2. You mentioned that Conor McPherson is one of your favorite current playwrights...what makes his plays work so well?

Well, I admit to a weakness for Irish plays and playwrights, there is such a delicious use of language in my favorite Irish plays…think of George Bernard Shaw, JM Synge, Brian Friel, Martin McDonagh…and Conor McPerson all have terrifically engaging stories to tell and they tell them so well. McPherson’s early hit play, The Weir, was set in a village bar where some locals entertain themselves by telling ghost stories to a woman, new to town. But it turns out that she has the best ghost story of all to tell. His subsequent play The Seafarer is a highly amusing black comedy that presents a particularly Irish working class twist on the Faust legend, when the Devil decides to join a group of mates playing poker on Christmas Eve. This playful interest in the occult and supernatural is also seen in Shining City, his 2004 play. This spellbinding play follows a newly minted therapist and defrocked priest named Ian as he tries to make a new life in Dublin. His interaction with one patient, John, turns on this widower patient’s story of being haunted by the ghost of his dead wife. Interwoven with lengthy scenes, mostly in monologue form from John, are scenes that tell us more about who Ian is, why he left his girlfriend and young baby, and the choices he must make. This excellent production at Theatre Inconnu works very well in the intimate Little Fernwood Hall space and features strong performances from its cast. Michael Shewchuk always impresses and does so here; Dustin Finerty finds his stride with the locacious John and makes us care about this sad and guilt-ridden man; and Christina Patterson as Ian’s girlfriend Neasa and James McDougall as young male prostitute Laurence handle well their respective scenes. Regular Inconnu director Graham McDonald pays attention to what matters in this story, and doesn’t fail to deliver this haunting play’s chilling surprise by its end.

3. Now let's turn to the English language premiers of this Quebec play And Slowly Beauty...your reaction to this production?

This play had me in its synopsis in describing the tale of an unhappy middle aged man who finds reason to carry on after going to see a production of Anton Chekov’s Three Sisters. Belfry artistic director Michael Shamata choreographs this production as much as he directs it, with a company of six actors, five of whom morph into many roles to support the journey of Mr. Mann. This Everyman figure—dissatisfied with his mundane government job and alienated from his wife and children—is beautifully rendered by newcomer to the Belfry, Dennis Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has a slightly sad, slightly clownlike face that allows him to take in the beauty of Chekov, of theatre, of art, and (eventually) of the meaning and meaninglessness of life, and respond in ways we can relate to. The play is an homage to the power of art in general, here represented in the theatre epiphany that pushes the naive audience member Mr. Mann to rethink his life in profound ways. It is also theatrical in its storytelling, with five actors walking in endless circles around Mr. Mann, sliding off chairs, and sliding into another costume, as they give us clear and crisp portraits in a fully realized world. This is all exquisitely presented in Shamata’s tightly constructed and effectively visual interpretation, well supported by his more than able cast. This cast includes local favorite Celine Stubel, who charms as always, and equally strong work from Mary-Colin Chisolm, Caroline Gillis, Christina Murray and Thomas Olajide. The show also features a sharp and evocative design by John Ferguson and engaging background music by Ride the Cyclone’s composer Brooke Maxwell. This is not your everyday theatre piece, it is intentionally fragmented in form, although scenes become longer and richer in the second act, and the use of silence is unusual in most contemporary theatre. But it offers real rewards in its sincere contemplative consideration of the truism that great art can change our lives.

4. Sounds like the beginning of a promising upcoming season...lots to look forward to...any recommendations?

Quite a few, in fact. The next show at the Belfry is the classic Canadian comedy Jitters, which should be great fun, as will Martin McDonagh’s Beauty Queen of Leenane at Langham Court. And of course I can’t wait to see Langham’s production of Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone. The Phoenix is doing a beautiful play by American Sarah Ruhl called Eurydice in the new year, and there’s a new show at William Head, an adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s satirical and fantastic Gormenghast, directed by Ian Case and opening next month. Inconnu continues its history of interesting programming with revival of 1960’s drama Peter Nichols’ Day in the Death of Joe Egg in November. Plenty to look forward to, so go out and support local theatre!

NOTE: And Slowly Beauty continues until October 23rd at the Belfry. Tickets are at 250-385-6815. Shining City plays until October 8th. Tickets are at 250-360-0234 or

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ride the Cyclone and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf Reviews - July 11th, 2011

Images, Top to Bottom: Movie poster for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Meg Tilly as Martha in the Blue Bridge Theatre production (Credit: David Bukach); Sarah Jane Pelzer in Ride the Cyclone ( ; Cast of Ride the Cyclone (

1) You saw two shows that opened last week; Atomic Vaudeville's Ride the Cyclone at the Belfry Theatre and Blue Bridge Theatre's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf at the MacPherson. Let's begin with the musical at the Belfry...I understand this locally created hit show is heading back out on tour?

Yes, this dark but very funny musical about a group of dead teens entertaining us from the afterlife has played to enthusiastic audiences in Victoria and Toronto over the past couple of years. It was a hit at Toronto’s Summerworks Festival last year and will be going back for a run at Theatre Passe Muraille this fall. The show will also play in Vancouver and Whitehorse. Like Jacob Richmond’s previous play Legoland with Atomic Vaudeville, also directed by Britt Small, Ride the Cyclone deals with disaffected and alienated young people whose lack of ability to fit in earns them both laughs and sympathy. Ride the Cyclone is a musical, with songs by local musician Brooke Maxwell, that presents a mechanical carnival sideshow fortune teller who proceeds to narrate the sad tale of six teens killed in a tragic roller coaster accident in Uranium City, Saskatchewan. These dead young people then come bursting onstage to share with us their deepest dreams and desires, thwarted by untimely death, in a series of monologues and songs.

2) What did you think of it in its newest version?

Unfortunately, I was never able to catch earlier incarnations of Cyclone, but I understand that the show has been trimmed down from two acts to one and a couple of characters have been sacrificed along the way. While I would have liked to have seen this longer version, which a number of people on opening night last week were lamenting on losing out loud, this version is tight and bright and carries its audience along on a roller-coaster like ride that never lets up in its high level entertainment factor. The premise is definitely a little weird, but winkingly so, and we’re all in on the joke. The show boasts an excellent cast of mostly grads from the UVic theatre program (Rielle Braid, Matthew Coulson, Sarah Jane Pelzer and Kholby Wardell) with the exceptions of Kelly Hudson and Elliot Loran (CCPA). They all inhabit their various oddball characters with great glee and each one has their moment to shine in the spotlight. The show has the same kind of sardonic self-aware quality that Richmond is known for as a playwright and he and Small stage it very effectively. The music is a mix of various styles from pop to rap to soul, and although none of it is particularly hummable or memorable, it works within the context of the show, with simple but effective choreography by Treena Stubel. I predict this show could go all the way to New York and beyond as it will definitely appeal to hip theatre-going folk who enjoy shows that mix ironic intelligence with straight-ahead good fun, which is what Ride the Cyclone delivers.

3) Now let's switch gears to talk about Virginia Woolf. Most of us can't help thinking about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the film version of this play. Was that a problem for you?

Of course it’s hard not to think about iconic performances whenever we see a familiar play, as is this one by Edward Albee. It was the same last summer with Blue Bridge’s production of Streetcar Named Desire…who can’t see Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in those leading roles? But all credit goes to Blue Bridge’s artistic director Brian Richmond for yet again giving Victoria audiences fresh-feeling interpretations of classic modern American plays. The biggest risk Richmond took on was convincing retired film actor turned writer Meg Tilly (known for her roles in The Big Chill and Agnes of God in the 1980’s), who now lives in Victoria, to take on the enormously challenging role of Martha. Well, I’m happy to report that Tilly does very well inhabiting what one critic called the “braying sensuality” of this miserably unhappy faculty wife, trapped in an marriage made up of vicious battles, interminable drinking, serial infidelities and desperate delusions. Tilly finds the necessary fearlessness to playing Martha, and has a very effective physicality, although I found she tended too much to lean her head back on her armchair so that we lost seeing her face as it was tilted upwards. Her emotional shattering in the play’s final act is well done, as we see this supposed harpy for the vulnerable and broken woman she really is inside. Tilly is well-matched with seasoned Vancouver actor Andrew Wheeler as George, a tough role as he plays the foil to the more showy Martha until near the end of the play. But Wheeler is convincing throughout as the milquetoast husband who tolerates his wife’s bitter rages while hinting at rages of his own. When he finally turns the tables and gains the retribution he seeks, Wheeler takes over the stage and offers us the unexpected backbone in this beaten down failed academic. Tilly and Wheeler are well supported by Celine Stubel and Alex Plouffe as the young couple invited over for an unwitting game of “Get the Guests” after a faculty party at the Northeastern college that is the setting of the play. Stubel charms as always in the role of Honey, but also finds the fragility and fear that Honey tries to drown in brandy. Plouffe is a recent graduate of the theatre program at UVic and this is a major challenge for such a young actor, which for the most part he rises to very well (although his supposedly naturally blonde hair looks unconvincing and clearly a dye job!). The set is nicely designed by Carol Klemm and well lit by Rebekah Johnson. And Brian Linds gives us inspired snippets of the Swingle Singers before and after each act that effectively take us into the timeframe of the mid-60’s of the play. This is a tough play, and a very long one, that demands much of both actors and audiences. But it is also a necessary play, like Streetcar and Death of a Salesman, which no one who cares about theatre should miss seeing. We are fortunate that Blue Bridge is making these modern classics available in commendable versions for us here in Victoria.

4) Any final thoughts on these two shows, or a recommendation of one over the other?

Well, Ride the Cyclone is a fun and quirky show that clocks in under 90 minutes and has lots of entertainment value. However, if you are up for a more meaningful encounter—and are prepared for a late night out that will clearly demonstrate Edward Albee’s fitting place alongside Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller as giants of 20th century American playwrights—then you really shouldn’t miss Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

INFO: Ride the Cyclone continues at the Belfry Theatre until July 17th. Tickets are at 250-385-6815. Virginia Woolf continues at the MacPherson until the 17th as well with tickets at 250-386-6121.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Photos, Top to Bottom: Cast of Theatre Inconnu's Pornography (Credit:; Jessica McCool in VOS' production Broadway: Decades in Revue (Credit: David Lowes).

1) I understand you saw two very contrasting shows last week...what can you tell us about them?

The Victoria Operatic Society's spring production is a revue of well-known and a few not-so-well-known songs from Broadway musicals, mostly from the 1960s to the present day. The show features a six person onstage orchestra led by musical director Heather Burns and a cast of dozens, both adult and young people, singing and dancing their way through this two hour show. In stark contrast to this light entertainment, Theatre Inconnu new show is a tough-hitting British play called Pornography by Simon Stephens. This play, a collection of mostly monologues and a couple of scenes, performed by a company of eight actors, was written after the London bus and subway bombings in 2005. It is a dramatic investigation of the kinds of disconnection and alienation that can lead to the violence carried out by British citizens against their own countrymen.

2) Let's begin with the Victoria Opera Society's Broadway: Decades in Revue. How does it deliver on its promise to survey Tony award nominated or winning musicals?

This show, created and directed by Sylvia Hosie in collaboration with choreographer Tara Britt and musical director Heather Burns, offers a loosely organized grouping of songs from the 60s and 70s in Act One and from the 80s through to the present in Act Two. I can appreciate how a revue approach offers an ensemble lots of opportunities to showcase its talent, and this is in evidence here as a number of company members have a chance to shine. Hosie stages the show very effectively, making good use of the central staircase that is the one set piece of the show, and she is more than capable of dealing with the large numbers of people, who are well-choreographed by Hosie assisted by Tara Britt. This is a very enjoyable show, with some excellent musical performances. But I imagine any musical lover will note what is missing in this show; for me, that was more from Stephen Sondheim, who I consider to be the giant of American musical theatre in the past forty years. While I appreciate the popularity of such shows as Disney's Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, Andrew Lloyd Weber's shows, and Mamma Mia, I can't help wondering how many of these more recent Broadway hits will stand the test of time. Personally, I'd walk a mile on my knees for a Sondheim revue, or a revue of Gershwin or Porter tunes from an earlier musical era.

3) Any standout performances to mention?

There is good work to be seen from a number of performers in the show, although overall I felt the women slightly outdid the men. VOS regular Chelsea Tucker shines in her solo numbers, as do Francesca Bitonti, Pam Miller and Susan Wilkey. From the men I enjoyed John Pugh, Quinn Stevens and Brian Christensen. And I should make mention of excellent solos by young company members Sunny Sheffman, Elizabeth Duncan, Mariah McDonald and Hunter Watson, all of whom assure the future of the VOS is safe as they grow into leading roles. Many costume changes keep the production looking good, and it is well-lit as well. The orchestration could have been a bit tighter and brighter to my ear, but the Sunday matinee crowd I was with seemed to enjoy every minute of this upbeat show.

4) Now onto the new show at Theatre Inconnu. It sounds like it's not a play for the fainthearted, is that right?

Absolutely. The title alone is enough to put people off and to be sure this is mature and challenging theatre. Theatre Inconnu regular director Graham McDonald has a taste for darker fare, and this play is another selection, like Harold Pinter's The Caretaker, Martin McDonagh's Pillowman and last season's hit Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, that invites theatregoers to address difficult topics onstage. Playwright Stephens has created a fairly postmodern script in that he does not indicate how the play is to be presented, or in what order, leaving it up to each company to decide how they wish to interpret these impressionistic narratives and scenes of a number of characters living through the first week of July in 2005. This week included the announcement that London was selected to host the 2012 Olympics and the Live Aid concert and culminated in the bombings on July 7th that killed 56 people including four suicide bombers. These events recur woven throughout stories that take us into the lives of a working mother who betrays her boss, a schoolboy who stalks one of his teachers, an old woman who watches pornography on her computer, and a pair of brothers who are drawn into a sexual relationship, among others. One monologue we realize with growing horror is from one of the suicide bombers who is making his way into London the morning of the bombings. He relates what he is thinking to us in a remarkably matter-of-fact way that does not include any mention of motive, only simple daily observations of the people around him and how the plan is unfolding. McDonald directs the eight person ensemble to remain onstage throughout this nearly 2 and a half hour long show, so they become an almost silent chorus that supports each person's story through movement. This is mostly successful, although I did feel that a more judicious use of the actors may have created a bit more variety in the tone and style overall. The company does excellent work with this very tough material, and not one of them backs away emotionally from the challenge. My concerns around their somewhat generic British accents nothwithstanding (and in London accents signal worlds apart, even if people are living literally side by side, so I would have preferred no accents to this choice), and that the pace could drive forward with more anger and urgency, I remained engaged with each actor and his or her storytelling that reminds us how easy it is to fall into isolation and hopelessness in our ironically evermore "networked" world.

5) What do you recommend for a listener who wants to head out to the theatre this week?

Well, the choices this week seem pretty clear. Musical lovers should head to the McPherson or to the Belfry for a walk on the lighter side with two solid shows on offer at both theatres. Those who prefer their theatre a bit more weighty should venture into the Little Fernwood Hall to catch the final weekend of Pornography.

PLUG: The Victoria Operatic Society's Broadway: Decades in Revue continues until May 15th at the McPherson Theatre. Tickets are available at 250-381-1021 or the McPherson Box Office at 250-386-6121. Pornography at Theatre Inconnu continues until May 14th with tickets at or 250-590-6291.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Photos, Top to Bottom: Richard Greenblatt as Richard and Ted Dykstra as Ted; Ted Dykstra as Ted and Richard Greenblatt as Richard in the original production of 2P4H; Patrick Burwell as Richard and Tom Frey as Ted; Tom Frey as Ted and Patrick Burwell as Richard in the Belfry Theatre production of 2P4H (Credit: David Bukach)

1) 2 Pianos 4 Hands (2P4H) has been a smash hit for its co-writers and performers over the past fifteen years. What can you tell us about how this show came together?

Toronto actor-directors Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra had very similar childhoods spent training and practicing to become classical pianists through the Royal Conservatory of Music program. Both were very talented young musicians, yet neither ended up with a career in music; rather, both ended up with very successful careers in the theatre (what this says about theatre as a second-best arts profession I’m not sure I want to get into!) Back in 1994 they got together and created a 20 minute piece for the Tarragon Theatre’s Spring Arts Fair that told the story of this shared history, using two pianos as their framing device. The show was very well-received and was developed into a full length production in 1996 which became the surprise smash of the season at the Tarragon Theatre, winning a number of awards. Mirvish Productions picked up the show which went on to play six months off-Broadway, in London and Tokyo, all to rave reviews. Greenblatt and Dykstra eventually left performing the show themselves, but have stayed connected to the many touring versions that have gone on to play at more than 150 theatres across five continents and to over 2 million people. This makes the show one of, if not the, most successful Canadian theatre production of all time.

2) How does the show work with actor-musicians other than Greenblatt and Dykstra in the roles?

As the play is quite autobiographical in nature, with the two characters named Richard and Ted, I wondered how it would work with others in the role. Certainly, in this production the answer is very well. Patrick Burwell as Richard and Tom Frey as Ted have been touring for some time now and the Belfry brought Richard Greenblatt in for a week of refresher rehearsal before opening night last week. These two actors, who must also necessarily be very competent classical pianists, make the roles their own. Patrick Burwell is more of the straight man here, although each actor plays multiple roles so he does get a chance to play more overtly comic roles throughout. However, I found his scene as Ted’s father, where he threatens to take away his son’s lessons and piano, was one of the best dramatic moments in this generally quite light show. Tom Frey is a gifted comic actor who inhabits all of his many roles with great physicality, and is especially good playing the younger versions of Ted, sitting in boredom and frustration over endless hours of practice, practice, practice. The show clips along at a good pace, and keeps the laughs coming, as we watch these two young pianists suffer through a sequence of eccentric piano teachers, high pressure competitions and battles with their parents. Things get a bit more serious in Act 2, when we see both of them try to get into advanced training programs, one in classical music and the other in jazz, and beginning to come to terms with the limits of their talents. As the show ends, we grasp how these two characters have moved on in their lives to accept that while they may never be the best pianists in the world, the country or the city, they can live with being the best in their neighborhood. And for audiences around the world, that seems to be good enough for us as well.

3) What does an audience take away from this show...what is the secret of its success?

As Richard Greenblatt writes in the Belfry program, the Law of Specificity in art dictates that artists need to be as specific as possible in order to potentially achieve universality. There is a huge power in telling our own stories as artists…autobiographical theatre has a long history, from Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams to Spalding Gray’s one-man shows and Pamela Gien’s Syringa Tree. Intrepid Theatre’s UNO and Fringe Festivals are often dominated by these kinds of shows, for better or worse. But a real-life story must contain a way in that allows audiences to connect, to feel like there is something in this true story that they can relate to their own lives. While I am sure that 2P4H has had many audience members who have had vivid memories of their own experiences as piano students brought back to them (as my son did watching the show with me last Thursday night), there are many other points of connection in this show. I found myself remembering, for the first time in years, competing in an elocution competition in Regina, Saskatchewan when I was in grade six and seven. I experienced the same kind of terror, pressure, pleasure in performing and winning and frustration in coming in second as Richard and Ted did in their childhood. Anyone who has ever tried to master an instrument, an art form, a sport or a discipline will find both a way to laugh at and remember fondly when seeing 2P4H. Obviously, given the enormous success of this show, Greenblatt and Dykstra have tapped into a specific life history that has remarkable universal resonance. I’m very tempted to hop a plane to Toronto this fall to see them remount the show one last time in celebration of its fifteenth anniversary!

4) The Belfry has just announced its new season...what can we look forward to next year?

Well, first of all we can look forward to not one but two shows over the summer at the Belfry. Jacob Richmond’s hit show Ride the Cyclone is back in July, followed by a greatest hits version of the Mom’s the Word gang (another example of successful autobiographical theatre!) Then we will be seeing a new French Canadian play And Slowly Beauty, a co-production with the National Arts Centre, followed by a welcome remount of a Canadian classic backstage comedy Jitters by the sadly departed David French. These two shows are followed by a new play from Vancouver playwright Michele Riml called On the Edge and a production of French playwright Yasmina Reza’s comedy God of Carnage. It’s wonderful to see two French plays in translation and two plays by women programmed for next season, which looks like another winner for the Belfry.

2 Pianos 4 Hands continues at the Belfry Theatre until May 15th. Tickets are available at 385-6815 or online at

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Lady in the Van and Influence Reviews - March 7, 2011

Photos, Top to Bottom: Alan Bennett and Maggie Smith in the BBC Radio version of The Lady in the Van; Tony Cain as Alan Bennett 2, Sylvia Rhodes as Miss Shepherd and Roger Carr as Alan Bennett 1 in the Langham Court Theatre production of The Lady in the Van (Credit: David Lowes, Monday Magazine); David Radford as Apollo and Karen Lee Pickett as Athena in Intrepid Theatres' Influence; Elliot Loran as Keats and Paul Terry as Haydon in Influence (Credit (both): Darren Stone, Times-Colonist).

1) The two plays you saw this past week at Langham Court Theatre and Intrepid Theatre had a few things in common…what were they?

Both Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van and Janet Munsil’s Influence at Intrepid Theatre draw on real life characters in their storytelling. Bennett’s play is based on the true story of his relationship with a mentally unstable elderly woman who lived in a decrepit van on his street and he allowed to move her van into his back garden, where she remained for the last 15 years of her life. Munsil’s play is built around the Romantic poet John Keats’ first encounter with the famous Elgin marbles, taken from the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena in Greece, when they were put on display in the British Museum in 1816. What ties these plays together, in my mind, is a playwright’s passionate struggle for seeking truth and creating art out of this perceived ‘truth’. Bennett himself is in his play, twice over, once as the play’s narrator and again as the remembered Bennett who interacted with the crazy old woman he tolerated and supported, despite receiving little by way of thanks in return. And yet, this difficult and cantankerous woman obviously had a significant effect on Bennett, and perhaps even teaches him some important life lessons. Munsil’s passion is for the big questions of Art with a capital “A”: Where does inspiration or genius come from? Why is art important? How does an artist prevent art from consuming his or her life? So these are two plays that are not afraid to tackle some big questions about art and the meaning of a life.

2) Let's focus on Lady in the Van first. How does this play measure up against his more well-known plays such as The History Boys and The Madness of King George?

I would say this is a less successful play overall than Bennett’s bigger hits, but it still has a lot of merit. It was originally produced as a radio play, which explains its general lack of dramatic action, with the central role played by the great Maggie Smith and Bennett playing himself. Bennett later rewrote the piece into a stage play. The central role of Miss Shepherd is a fantastic role for a talented senior actress and longtime Langham Court actor, director and producer Sylvia Rhodes fits the bill here extremely well. Her portrayal of the religiously-deluded, filthy, incontinent and yet somehow dignified tramp Miss Shepherd is truthful, funny and ultimately quite sad. She is the main reason to see this show, which is well-supported by Roger Carr as the narrator Bennett and Tony Cain as the Bennett reliving the time spent with Miss Shepherd, and other cast members in smaller roles. Directors Keith Digby and Cynthia Pronick keep things moving along, although I did find there were some pacing issues and some clumsy exits and entrances and a few line issues that will most likely improve over the course of the run. I was somewhat disappointed with Bill Adams’ sparse set design, as his fully rendered sets at Langham are usually a treat to behold. But there is a surprise visual pay-off in store for audiences around the halfway mark, which brought a round of applause on opening night.

3) Now let's switch gears to Influence? How does the production do in presenting such heady material?

Munsil is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights, as I am always fascinated with the aesthetic and arcane topics that seem to fascinate her. She is interested in the historical workings of art and artists and does a very effective job in this new-ish play (which premiered three years ago in Vancouver) in showing us how the artist’s passion can often be his downfall as well as his glory, with liberal splashes of comedy to lighten the tone throughout. Keats’ mentor, the failed historical painter Benjamin Haydon, shows Keats the remarkable Elgin Marbles for the first time hoping they will spur his apprentice on to greater poetic heights. Elliot Loran as the young Keats and Paul Terry as the maniacally-driven Haydon create a believable relationship and play their roles with clarity and gusto, although Haydon’s endless artistic fervour is a bit wearing on both Keats and the audience alike (much as he was in real life, I am sure!). Yet, we also see the cracks of desperation and grief of an older artist in Haydon who, despite his best efforts, will be largely forgotten by history, and the spark of genius in the young poet that will burn brightly but be snuffed out by tuberculosis all too soon (Keats died at the age of 25). Off-setting this dynamic is a godly visitation by Apollo, Athena and Hephaestus from Mount Olympus. Athena is furious that relics from her temple have been stolen and is seeking revenge. Apollo has descended to protect his new ‘hero’ Keats. Hephaestus, the blacksmith god of industry, comes as Athena’s besmitten bodyguard, but also brings with him a dark foreshadowing of the Industrial Revolution that is soon to arise. Karen Lee Pickett, Ian Case and David Radford do some wonderful work in these juicy and fun roles, but I do feel an audience member who is not familiar with who these Greek gods and goddess are will lose something in trying to sort out their background and actions…perhaps a note in the program here would help, along with some biographical notes on Keats and Haydon. Munsil does reveal who everyone is over the course of her two hour play (which she also directs very well); I am a former English teacher, so I was familiar with both Keats and the Greek pantheon. But I did hear puzzled comments from other audience members during intermission and after the show who were still trying to figure out what was going on. The production is a lovely looking one, with the Metro Theatre transformed into alley style seating on both sides of the stage, so we have an intimate view of the museum gallery where we see three recreated Elgin marbles (no small feat) that form the focus of the set, designed by Munsil, which is also well lit and has an effective sound design.

4) Which of these two shows would you recommend to a listener who can only get to one of them? Or perhaps to something else coming up in town?

Both of these plays take a comic approach to stories that have some quite touching and truthful moments about human nature, relationships and the trials of artmaking. Those who enjoy witty and well-wrought plays will enjoy either of these productions. And there are many more shows coming up this month, an exceptionally busy one in Victoria, with four shows in the Belfry’s Spark Festival premiering over the next two weeks, and the final show of the Phoenix’s season, a much-anticipated new play by Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor. So get out into the spring sunshine (whenever it manages to arrive!) and see some great theatre.

NOTE: Influence continues at the Metro Theatre until March 13th with tickets online at Intrepid Theatre or at 250-590-6291. Next Wednesday's show is Pay What You Can. The Lady in the Van continues at Langham Court until March 19th with tickets at 250-384-2142.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Pacific Opera Victoria's La Boheme

Photo: Left to Right; Doug MacNaughton (sitting) as landlord Benoit, Alexandre Sylvestre as Schaunard, Alexander Dobson (kneeling) as Marcello, Giles Tomkins as Colline, and Luc Robert as Rodolfo. Creit: Megan Kamocki, The Martlet (

1) Puccini's opera La Bohème is one of the most popular in the repertoire and is performed regularly and repeatedly around the world. What do you think is the secret of its success?

Many listeners will know that the rock musical Rent was based on La Bohème, which testifies to its long-lasting appeal.
La Bohème premiered in 1896 and at first was considered by critics to be a less successful opera from Puccini than his first big hit Manon Lescaut. But it gained in popularity with audiences and has since become an all-time favorite of opera lovers. I think the secret lies in in two things: the romantic beauty of its music and the romantic tragedy of its story. Puccini's music in La Bohème sweeps you up into its warm embrace from the moment the doomed seamstress Mimi knocks on her equally impoverished neighbor's door to ask for a light for her candle. This love-at-first-sight encounter involves two gorgeous arias followed by a duet that would melt even the coldest of hearts. The story of this fateful young love moves along at a fast clip in this 2 hour opera, so we soon find ourselves watching this couple split apart and reconcile with yet another beautiful duet where they pledge to remain together until spring arrives. But Mimi's consumption worsens to the point that she returns to Rodolfo's apartment to die and he is left grieving over her body. The simplicity of both the storyline and the characters, two poverty-stricken young Parisian bohemians and their friends, allows an audience to quickly relate to them as they are pulled from real life rather than the more traditional operatic roles of kings and queens, gods and goddesses, or aristocrats.

2) This POV production features the Belfry's Artistic Director Michael Shamata directing his first opera. How did he do?

Shamata quite wisely keeps things as simple and straightforward as possible. He and designer John Ferguson move the timeline forward from 1830s to 1930s Paris, which works well. He keeps stage movement to a minimum and gives the singers plenty of space to do what they do best...sing. The relationship between Mimi and Rodolfo, and the secondary one between Rodolfo's friend Marcello and his girlfriend Musetta, are clearly defined and believable. The only aspect that I felt got away from Shamata somewhat was the difficult cafe scene of Act 2. The chorus looked cramped on Ferguson's set and are kept clumped uncomfortably upstage of the cafe so that we didn't get the sense of the characters people-watching from the cafe windows at various passersby. The other set pieces, on a large and impressive revolve, work very well, especially in the garret room occupied by Rodolfo and Marcello, with historic photos of Paris serving as an effective backdrop.

3) I understand that due to tenor Luc Robert falling ill, a replacement for the lead role of Rodolfo was flown in at the last moment for opening night. What was that like?

This was one of those events that makes me realize what an extraordinary art form opera is. When a singer's voice is compromised by illness, as unfortunately happened to tenor Luc Robert, a call is made to locate someone who can immediately step into the role. Luckily, American tenor Gerard Powers was available and flown in from New York to play Rodolfo on opening night. He has played this role a number of times before and amazed the audience with his confidence and wonderful singing, richly deserving the standing ovation he received. When you witness an opera singer achieving this seemingly impossible task with such flare, it is a rare and wonderful experience.

4) What were your impressions of the other performances?

Sopranos Rhoslyn Jones as Mimi and Marianne Fiset as Musetta both gave strong performances in their respective roles. While it may be hard for us to suspend our disbelief that the clearly healthy Ms. Jones is suffering from consumption, she made up for it in filling the Royal Theatre with her powerfully resonant voice. And Ms. Fiset reveled in the feistiness of the mercurial Musetta, working very well with her romantic counterpart baritone Alexander Dobson as Marcello. The small cast is rounded out well with accomplished work from Alexandre Sylvestre as Schaunard, Giles Tomkins as Colline and Doug MacNaughton in two roles as landlord Benoit and Musetta's elderly admirer Alcindoro. The members of the Victoria Symphony sounded fine as always under conductor Timothy Vernon's baton. All in all, a simple but effective rendering of one of the great romantic Italian operas, not to be missed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Images, Top to Bottom: Cover of script version of The Laramie Project; cast of the Langham Court Theatre production (from Times Colonist website)

1. The Laramie Project is a documentary theatre piece...can you explain briefly what exactly that kind of theatre is?

Documentary theatre is a theatre piece, often created collectively by a company of actors, as in this play, and based on documented materials of some kind…interviews are the key material used in this play, but also makes use of news broadcasts, trial transcripts and journal entries written by the members of New York’s Tectonic Theatre Project who traveled to Laramie, Wyoming after the beating death of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998. Documentary theatre is really nonfiction theatre in which we are aware of the truth of what we are seeing, that it is put together and presented in creative and theatrical ways, but that the story being told is factual.

2. This play premiered in 2000...does it hold up after over a decade in time from the murder of Matthew Shepard?

I am sure that director Moises Kaufman and his company could never have imagined how The Laramie Project would take on a long life after their original performances in Denver, Laramie and New York. Since then the play has been performed in dozens of high schools and colleges across North America and around the world. It has become one of the best known plays to tackle the sadly ever-present problem of homophobia and violence against gay people, especially in performances by and for young people, who are in many ways the ideal audience for this story. I saw a production by drama teacher and local actor Alan Penty at Vic High a few years back and found it packed quite an emotional punch when done by teenagers for their own peers. While the timeliness of the events of the play may have faded since 1998, the problem is still with us, and in recent days the bigger problem of violence in America, with the shootings in Tucson, made me see the play through those lenses as well. So I think that there will always be an audience for a play dealing with these real-life issues…particularly, as I said, an audience of young people who can create very intolerant homophobic environments in some schools.

3. How did the Langham Court production do with this challenging topic?

Director Roger Carr is a retired drama educator and directed the play in his former high school in 2005. I admire him for taking on the challenge of programming Laramie Project into the Langham Court season as it is definitely not the typical play seen there. Carr has chosen to populate the play with a very large cast of 33 actors in total, some of whom double-up on roles to present the over 60 interviews and excerpts from other documents included in this nearly 3 hour production. The show is presented on a bare ramped stage, designed by Julius Maslovat, with multiple side entrances that facilitate getting cast members on and off efficiently. And the upstage end of the ramp features the barb-wire fence that Shepard was bound to in his attack by two young men who were angered by his overt homosexuality. There is judicious use of lighting by Karrie Wolfe, and slides and video designed by Nancy Roach, on the scrim at the back of the stage, which mostly work well.

While I felt the production was quite strong overall, with some very good work from a number of company members, my main quibble with the production was the choice to expand the cast number from the original 8 to the 33 we see at Langham. Why is this a problem? For me, the theatricality of watching a small company of actors morph themselves into so many different characters is what keeps the play from being basically a staged version of dozens of talking head style interviews. While Carr has staged the show with his usual high level of capability, there is a sameness to the way the four or five Tectonic Theatre actors introduce someone they interviewed and then stand there with a microphone or pen and notebook while another actor comes out to give that interview. This becomes a bit wearing in such a long show, even though I did find myself moved to tears at times simply due to the empathy almost anyone would feel when hearing the details of this murder.

4. Were there any standout performances in such a large cast?

I was impressed with the work of a number of younger actors in this show, although it also features solid work from more seasoned Langham Court regulars, such as Kevin Stinson, Penelope Harwood, and Eric Holmgren. I really enjoyed seeing all the new faces and work from Sean Baker, Giordana Venturi, Melissa Taylor, Jared Gowan, Joanne James, Gary Garneau and James McDougall. Henry Skey does very well in his role as the bartender who served Matthew Shepard the night of his attack, and Nicole Evans and Gloria Snider do well in one of the very few actual scenes in the play, between the female police officer who was first on the scene when Shepard was found tied to a barb-wired fence outside of Laramie (over 18 tortured hours after being beaten) and the officer’s mother. The whole company is to be commended for the depth of commitment they bring to the play, which is clear and consistent throughout its long running time.

5. Any final thoughts on the play or production?

The Laramie Project offers a serious theatregoer much food for thought. My concern is, quite frankly, that Langham Court regulars will stay away because it is such a challenging play, which would be a shame. If the show had been judiciously trimmed down to a shorter running time that might have helped quite a bit, as the first act is 90 minutes right now. And I also hope that this production attracts an audience who needs to hear this story, to have their own values questioned and shaken, rather than the kind of liberal and progressive crowd who will come only to have their values affirmed.