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.