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 first...how 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 Belfry...how 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 clich├ęd but affectionate portrayal of life in the theatre.

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