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.

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