Thursday, December 30, 2010

The 2010 My Theatre Award Nominees

Today marks the expansion of a tradition at My Entertainment World. Following in the footsteps of My TV, this year My Theatre is giving out our own awards.

The following is a list of the 2010 My Theatre Award nominees. Any production that one of our writers saw between Jan 1 and Dec 31 2010 qualifies for an award. Nominees have been divided into 15 categories in 3 areas: National/Professional, Local/Independent and Student. Performer of the Year Awards and My Theatre's Honorary Award will be announced with the winners in the New Year.

Please post a comment or send us an email if you wish to share your thoughts, predictions or votes. (Nominees can email us any time at to sign up to be included in our 2010 nominee interview series).

Congratulations to all the nominees!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Alumnae Theatre's Hedda Gabler

Photo by Joshua Meles
 In Jane Carnwath's production of Hedda Gabler this fall at Alumnae Theatre, Ibsen's complex play about a caged animal of a woman was done excellent justice. Using Judith Thompson's clever translation, the company effectively turned the beautifully intimate studio theatre into a claustrophobic den of domesticity in which Sochi Fried's Hedda spiraled into fascinating madness.

The enthralling piece was anchored impressively by Fried's cunning performance. From the wild dance prologue straight through to the ending, Fried brought brilliant energy and commitment to the complicated anti-heroine. Her intense professionalism, however, seemed rather out of place among the rest of the cast. Principally, Hedda's bumbling husband (James Harbeck), and a John Slattery-esque Judge Brack (Andrew Batten) led a supporting cast who seemed keen on just having a ball telling the story.
Photo by Joshua Meles
Alumnae veterans Jane Reynolds and Ilene Cummings were absolutely delightful as Aunt Juliana and Berthe and, with few exceptions, the company gave off a distinct sense of joy at working in the theatre.

The smartly-directed piece made great use of the studio space and the lighting was very inventive, creating windows and a fireplace. The pre-recorded gun shot sound effect was a little lame (a simple 2x4 is simpler and far more convincing) but overall the tech was very effective. Carnwath's character direction was also sublime and her interpretation of the text very insightful.

Overall, Alumnae Theatre's Hedda Gabler was a delight to watch and, it was very evident, just as much fun for most of the cast- and isn't that, after all, much of the point?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Coveted Crown

The Actor's Shakespeare Project's Coveted Crown begins and ends each piece of the puzzle with a song. The fabulous Bobbie Steinbach, armed with a tambourine and the acoustic backup of the humming ensemble, tells us everything we need to know going into the prologue (excerpts from Richard II, starring the sometimes affected/sometimes effective Marya Lowry).
Steinbach serves as our guide of sorts through the action of Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and the epilogue from Henry V. The epic double-header can be a chore at times but the capable company and innovative sense of place made for an ultimately pretty fantastic set of productions.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Everything is RENT"

I spent my Thursday night in a packed house. And I don't mean I sat in the 99-seat student theatre with people on either side, I mean I got to the 500-seat auditorium an hour early and had to fight for my prime vantage point. The production played to a competitively sold-out crowd for 3 straight shows, and it's not hard to figure out why. BU on Broadway did RENT this past weekend. RENT!. Arguably the most popular musical of the past 20 years, especially with the college demographic. It's not the most musically sophisticated show, nor is it very cleverly plotted, but RENT is one of the most emotionally evocative things there is to see and that's what OB really got across this weekend.

The whole production was a mixed bag of good and bad, and while I can't resist my need to nitpick the bad, it's important to remember that the good was great. Like the show itself, this production suffered under issues of technique at times, but it's emotional truths made none of that matter. When I left the theatre the only thing in my mind was that triumphant finale mantra of "no day but today" and the enveloping rock beats laid down by the capable pit (led by the always-genius Jonathan Brenner). The only reason I remember how badly the sound board was run, how over-choreographed it was at times or how clunky the blackout/set-changes were is that I took notes for this review.

Despite all its flaws, this was still RENT, 2 hours worth spending, no matter what. However, the clout of the show name comes with some extra hurdles for the cast, none bigger than the shadow of the original actors. RENTheads do love the show relatively unconditionally, but they also know the original performances inside and out. Such a personal piece is intrinsically tied to the people who it was created on, (especially since Jonathan Larson, the composer, died before opening night and therefore never worked with a second cast). There will never be a "One Song Glory" that won't be compared to the definitive performances given by Adam Pascal, the original Roger. No Mark will ever escape the shadow of Anthony Rapp and the gigantic shoes of Broadway's power couple Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs will always be hard for any Maureen or Benny to walk in. That's to say nothing of the legacies of Jesse L Martin and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, the incomparable performers who first gave life to Collins and Angel, the most elusively wonderful characters in the show in my opinion. The weight of RENT's history is heavy on any new cast, especially one made up of students who grew up with those very voices in their headphones. But OB's  cast gave it everything they had, with varying degrees of success.

Rachel Hawkes had the toughest time. Her Mimi was red-hot in the arms of Rylan Vachon's emotional Roger, but fizzled a bit when left on her own. Aesthetically she worked, but was hit-or-miss when it came to her grittier blocking and though Hawkes sold the character for the most part, she was vocally outmatched by the role. 

Actually, that full belting chorus was brilliant, or mostly brilliant, or always brilliant but sometimes misused. Basically, they nailed "La Vie Boheme", and "Seasons of Love" was beautiful (kudos to brilliant soloist Nicole Sorice on this one). But there's a reason "Life Support" and "Will I" aren't written with full chorus, it's too much. Poor little Gordon is singing his sweet poignant solo and then, instead of a soft chorus of 8 voices, he's greeted with a thundering surge of 20 powerhouses "supporting" him. I, frankly, would have been scared and found another support group.

But sometimes, powerhouse was exactly what this production ordered, and Maureen and Joanne, naturally, obliged. Abigail Smith was a bit of an over-actor as Joanne but her vocals were through the roof so she gets a bit of a free pass. On the other hand, evermore-ingenue Sarah Jill Bashein was so much better theatrically and vocally as Maureen than I've ever seen her be. The friend sitting next to me (very picky about her Maureen) literally leaned over after "Over the Moon" and whispered "thank god" Bashein was so good. The tiny, smiley pro seemed set free in the much more daring role. She embraced the raunchy, showy, narcissistic fun of the character with great verve and hollered after her high notes with the audacity of someone singing when no one could hear. "Take Me or Leave Me" was truly a song for starved ears.

Also wonderful was Alex Warren's Benny. Oftentimes the throwaway character of the show, OB's Benny was actually one of my favourites. Warren proved a beautiful singer and an empathetic performer, aptly turning the sometimes villainous Benny into someone I always wanted on the stage.

As for that final couple, my make-it-or-break-it favourite characters, they made it just fine. Bernardo Vargas was a beautiful Angel: sweet and endearing and cute as a button. Perhaps slightly lower heels would have allowed him more comfortable movement (they were seriously high!) but Vargas brought the group's heart to life with great clarity. But it was freshman Carl Welch who truly won my love (though it's not as if Collins doesn't do that no matter what). An impressive vocalist, Welch understandably worked with a slightly adapted score, modifying some of Jesse L Martin's superhuman notes, but he still shone as a standout singer. Warm, fun and charming-as-hell, Welch maneuvered the tricky line of playing an extraordinarily intelligent character as sublimely down to earth, well, extraordinarily.

With intelligent direction by Chris Behmke, perfect lighting design, great costumes, an excellent Brenner-headed pit and fun choreography from Leni Zneimer ("Contact", especially, was very good), RENT overcame anything and everything weighing it down and ultimately touched the whole packed house the way RENT is meant to.

*This article has been edited to exclude a positive mention of a performer who wishes to not appear on the website.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Camelot of Yore

The Stratford Festival has announced even more great casting. In addition to the awesome that is Roberta Maxwell returning to the festival to play The Duchess of York in Richard III, the most exciting news comes from Camelot of all places.

The 1997 production of Camelot was one of the first things I ever saw at the festival and to this day holds a special place in my heart. Today it was announced that Dan Chameroy will be returning to the production, this time in the role of Sir Dinadan. That '97 Camelot was when I first fell in love with Chameroy (who's been a favourite ever since), it was his festival debut, he played Lancelot. To see him back on the festival stage in the same show will be a nostalgic thrill.

That '97 production also marked the beginning of my great affection for Michael Therriault. A favourite of mine for years now, Therriault played Mordred way back then and I still remember his blue hair in perfect detail. This season, the role will be tackled by Mike Nadajewski, a company member who's been a highlight of the musical company for 2 seasons now (and made a lovely turn as Amiens in this season's As You Like It).

Promising, wonderful, nostalgic news indeed.

A Streetcar Named Whatever

Clunky direction and unattainable goals quickly became the central problems of BU Stage Troupe's recent production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It's an epic piece, not in the classical sense of scope but in the sense of how famous, how challenging, how iconic the work is. It's a little beyond college students. This group did find some moments of truth, but overall, they got a little lost in the intense text.

Elise Roth's Stella perfectly embodied how I felt about this production. She was good at times, forced at others, but mostly she was unoffensive. She didn't inspire frustration, but her biggest fault was that she didn't inspire much of anything at all.

Travis Cherry's Mitch was a similar phenomenon. He was cute I guess, but he wasn't a lot more than that, a bit of a caricature really.

Like Mitch, Stanley (Mat Leonard) suffered from a mumbling problem. But he also had a bumbling problem. His walk was stiff and strange and he tore around the small set as if he didn't fit (which could have been metaphorically valuable if it had looked more purposeful). I'm not saying he was bad, I liked him better than most of his cast mates, but ultimately there was one big problem with this Stanley, I could see through him. Leonard, despite his hulk-ish appearance, is clearly a bit of a marshmallow. He broke into a goofy smile when curtain call was slightly flubbed and his strongest scene was Stanley's tenderest moment. Leonard may be physically capable of the sort of violence that characterizes Stanley but he reads as someone who wouldn't hurt a fly. Unfortunately, that doesn't really work here.

I really enjoyed Sarah Ann Adams as Eunice, a tragically small part. But it was ultimately Blanche's story. Rebecca Savoy put forth tremendous effort in the role but ultimately fell short. Her Blanche became more accent than character and though she had moments of poignancy, she generally didn't do much with the groundbreaking character.

Mike Carollo's formulaic direction and constant interruptions by drawn-out set changes made for infuriating pacing. The set was nice, the brickwork on the front was particularly meticulous, but little things like the ever-falling Chinese lantern, the strange lobster mold hanging by the door and the terrible fake pregnancy belly were distracting. The fragility of the set in general combined with Leonard's dangerous strength put the audience more on edge than the troubling story itself.

Streetcar is hard. I think that was most of the problem. It takes astronomical skill and work to mount it effectively. Unfortunately, the cast and crew behind Stage Troupe's production wasn't quite up to the task, resulting in a generally unoffensive but uninspiring experience.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Jumping Wholeheartedly down the "Rabbit Hole"

The director's note for BU Stage Troupe's recent production of Rabbit Hole by David Linsay-Abaire was simple and true. Directors Chris Hamilton and Agatha Babbitt wanted the audience to know that what they were about to watch was not a tragedy. Rather it was a glimpse into the lives of a family who'd suffered a tragedy. It was too complicated for a genre label, too funny, too true, too ever-changing, too human. It was this distinction that made this production truly great. Their goal was to tell a story, not make us cry, thus they managed to do both.

In the enormously challenging and mature play, the highlight was, without a doubt, Madeleine DiBiasi in the central role of grieving mother Becca. Under Hamilton and Babbitt's insightful direction, DiBiasi left her 21-year-old self behind and disappeared into her heartrending role. Her more dramatic moments were tackled well but it was the everyday ins and outs of the performance that really inspired. It wasn't the way she cried, it was the way she looked as though Becca was fighting with every fiber of her being to not cry. DiBiasi's performance really lived in the small smiles Becca mustered when she remembered her son, how she rolled her eyes at her kookily predictable sister's antics, the relatable way she didn't know where to put her hands when she was uncomfortable. She had great timing, charm and empathy, but most of all, DiBiasi brought a necessary subtlety to the role, unafraid to play the human mundanity between Becca's big moments.

The other highlight in the cast was Dan Stevens as Jason, the guilt-ridden teenager who's careless driving resulted in the death of Becca's son Danny. For most of the audience, it was moments after Stevens appeared that they began to cry. His earnest and awkward recitation of a letter he wrote to the grieving parents was unbelievable. It was a moment that sucked the audience in so completely that I didn't snap out of it until the girl I was sitting next to leaned over and proclaimed "he was amazing".

The rest of the cast, Vishaal Reddy (Howie), Lauren Kolodkin (Izzy) and Allie Romano (Nat), each had good moments and bad. It was overall much more difficult to see them as anything other than actors trying really hard. They played the moments rather than the characters and the result was a lack of consistency that just didn't stand up to the nuanced performances of their co-stars.

Ultimately, Stage Troupe's Rabbit Hole was a revelation of a play. My first exposure to the remarkable text, I found it inspiring, affecting and remarkably truthful. With Hamilton and Babbitt's direction and the tremendous efforts of DiBiasi, Rabbit Hole is not a production I am likely to forget any time soon.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Totalitarianism, Surrealism and the Woman Who Made Them Not Matter

Photo by Andrew Eccles
I wish I had gotten this review out earlier for many reasons. Of course it would have been nice if the show was still running and maybe some of you reading this could decide to go see it on my recommendation; it's also a lot easier to write with the show freshly in mind. But mostly, I wish I'd gotten this review out sooner because I think the spotlight needed to land much brighter and much sooner on the production's leading lady.

Most reviews of Stratford's As You Like It were pretty favourable. Critics generally applauded director Des McAnuff's bright and bold interpretation, cheered for heavy hitters like Ben Carlson (Touchstone), Brent Carver (Jaques) and Lucy Peacock (Audrey) in supporting roles and were taken away by the show's wonderful music (Justin Ellington/Michael Roth).

Photo by David Hou
Indeed these aspects were incredibly noteworthy. Carlson's Touchstone was a wonderfully pompous study of perfect comedic timing; Carver's unsure Jaques was a unique creature pitch perfectly uncomfortable in his own skin; Peacock's Audrey was adorably simple and grinningly fun.

The music was indeed a highlight (the winning "It was a Lover and his Lass" has been stuck in my head as triumphant moment of theatrical giddiness ever since) and McAnuff's interesting juxtaposed settings of the totalitarian court (ruled by Tom Rooney's proto-Hitler Duke Frederick) and the surrealist forest of Arden (ruled by Rooney's warm Duke Senior and populated by human trees and deer-headed pipe-smokers) gave the play a new kick. Designer Debra Hanson created a visual feast of colour and metaphor, making As You Like It the prettiest play Stratford may have ever done as well as one of the most visually meaningful.

Photo by David Hou
Rooney, Mike Shara (Oliver), Ian Lake (Silvius), Dalal Badr (Phebe), Dan Chameroy (William/Charles) and Brian Tree (Adam) round out the spectacular ensemble with truly excellent turns. Lake, in particular, is a wonderfully mopey and earnest Silvius while Rooney proves once again why he's one of my all-time favourite Stratford performers in his dual role as the Dukes.

Paul Nolan's Orlando is simply a matter of taste. For me, his musical theatre roots shone perhaps a little too brightly, the scrappy Orlando reading as a tad delicate or goofy. My fellow My Theatre writer Tessa, on the other hand, found him irresistibly charming. The issue of Cara Ricketts, however, is not up for debate. For the second time this season, Ricketts brings little depth and an obnoxiously light cadence to her ingenue role. While this may be forgivable in the somewhat shallow role of Perdita (The Winter's Tale), such treatment of Celia is criminal. My favourite ingenue in the canon, Celia is uniquely funny and complicated. Her protective instincts, inferiority complex and fierce loyalty should not, must not be met with simplicity of portrayal. Alas, they were.

But ultimately, not much of this mattered.
Photo by David Hou
Not the tree-people, the crazy smoking dear, the giant apple or heart replica suspended from the ceiling or the fact that Adam was inexplicably killed off from the usually happy-go-lucky play. The craziness, the highpoints, the lowpoints, the most established actors in the company, the wonderfully inventive musical style- it's nothing without the leading lady. As You Like It is, at least in my view, the only Shakespeare play with a true heroine. Rosalind doesn't have a male counterpart to overshadow her like Beatrice does (Much Ado About Nothing) and, unlike Viola (Twelfth Night), she commands most of the story herself, instead of being swept along into the action already unfolding. Rosalind moves plot unlike any other of Shakespeare's women, she speaks the most lines in the play, enjoys the most stage time and sets her own tone. The play and the audience (much like Celia) are sad when Rosalind is and happy when she cheers up. It's Rosalind's story. Thus, Stratford's 2010 production is Andrea Runge's play. And boy does she run with it.
Photo by David Hou
A standout last season as Cecily in a brimmingly smart Importance of Being Earnest, Runge is my favourite young actress on the Stratford scene. Beautiful, engaging, emotive and clever as hell, Runge brings a perfect irresistible quality to her roles, enticing us to follow her into the story.

The world of Stratford's As You Like It is a generally beautiful one filled with the occasional over-reaching pitfall. It's populated by characters and performances as handsomely endearing as Mike Shara, as pitch-perfect as Ben Carlson and as formulaically annoying as Cara Ricketts. This maze of craziness (complete with changing seasons, rousing choruses and countless visual metaphors) is a fascinating place to spend 3 hours, but without Andrea Runge to lead us through it, we'd be lost just a few steps in.

Liking and Loathing "Kiss Me Kate"

Photo by Andrew Eccles
Here's the thing: the backstage aspects of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's production of Kiss Me Kate (you know, the parts where the actors are playing actors, not the parts where the actors are playing actors playing some of Shakespeare's broadest characters) made for a cute, light and altogether not all bad musical. That stuff, the character moments in the well-crafted costumes and the clever, subtle staging, was all pretty good. Not groundbreaking or transcendent in any way, but engaging and entertaining and entirely worth the price of admission.

The dancing was sublime, the chorus incredibly capable (especially Kyle Golemba, a standout of the ensemble year in and year out). The leads were pretty good too. Unlike in Evita, here Chilina Kennedy slides easily into her role as ingenue Lois Lane. This was Kennedy's effortless part of the season (comparatively speaking), and that effortlessness showed, her natural charm and airiness shining through (in both good and bad but ultimately appropriate ways). Her rendition of "Always True to You in My Fashion" was perfect. Juan Chioran and Monique Lund anchored the cast well as lead actors Fred and Lilli ("So in Love" was particularly lovely) and Steve Ross and Cliff Saunders were at least mildly amusing as the shticky gangsters.
Photo by David Hou
"Too Darn Hot", as sung by the unbelievable Josh Young, was easily and predictably the show stopper. The best vocals in the piece, it also sported the most impressive choreography from Tracey Flye, perfectly showing off the brilliant dance ensemble.

Unfortunately, the onstage crap (the play-within-the-play Taming of the Shrew stuff) was so broad, so annoying, so flat-out idiotic that the whole thing undermined itself and I left the theatre miserable. Nothing is quite so depressing as squandered potential and Kiss Me Kate at its best showed off the incredible potential of this cast, while at its worst it showed how unworthy it was of their talents. There's always one, at least one production a year at Stratford that is panderingly broad and I simply hate. This year, for at least a couple scenes, the company of Kiss Me Kate had me thinking that maybe it wouldn't be them.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Toronto's Big Tickets for 2011

Dancap Productions announced their new season today. Together with Mirvish Productions, they make up most of the mainstream theatre scene in Toronto. Between the 2 companies, 2011 is already shaking up to be an amazing season. Here's what's on tap:

Fall 2010, Mirvish:  
Rock of Ages (Never seen it, I imagine it's skippable)
Love, Loss and What I Wore (I hear it's fun)
Priscilla Queen of the Desert (No idea)
Wicked (My favourite blockbuster musical of the decade, hands down. If you haven't seen it, GO!!)
The One Man Hit Parade (No idea)

Spring 2011, Mirvish: 
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stratford's 09 production, terribly broad)
Wingfield Lost & Found (Wingfield's funny, a good one man show every time)
Billy Elliot (Cannot wait, it's supposed to be wonderful)
The Secret Garden (I'll see this, why not? I like the story)
The Man in Black (Johnny Cash sans Joaquin? Pass)
Calendar Girls (Great movie- great play? who knows)
The Lion King (Excellent theatrical experience. Again, if you haven't seen this, you need to)
Carrie Fisher Wishful Drinking (I love her so this will be fun!)

2011, Dancap: 
South Pacific (Not so crazy about this show but the production's supposed to have done well)
9 to 5 (Allison Janney was in it on Broadway, that makes me want to see this a lot)
Next to Normal (CANNOT WAIT! The soundtrack is gorgeous and I love small contemporary musicals)
Come Fly Away (The dancing I've seen excerpts of is breathtaking)
The Addams Family (I hear it's actually pretty good. It'll be broad but might be a lot of fun)
Memphis (This is supposed to be awesome. It won the Best Musical Tony, so I'm excited to see it)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This From the Casting Department of "Hells Yeah!"

If you can't tell from the title of this post, I'm incredibly excited about the new casting announcements out of the Stratford. The 2011 season is shaping up to be pretty darn great. Here's the latest from awesometown:

Josh Young as Judas!!!!! My favourite musical performer of the year is returning to the amazing and complex role of Jesus' traitor in Jesus Christ Superstar. Bruce Dow's also announced as Herod, which will be fine, possibly even funny, I'm sure. Mike Nadajewski's in it too, I'm really very fond of him so yay!

Underrated gem Laura Condlln returns to Shakespeare as Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor and the awesome Tom McCamus will play her husband. All sorts of happy happening in that (truly all-star) cast.

MIKE SHARA!! I'd watch him in anything but his particular brand of earnestly egocentric comedy will hit the perfect note as Orsino next season in Twelfth Night. Sara Topham is predictably cast as Olivia to complete the principal casting.

Titus casting is finally up! The wonderful John Vickery is in the title role with Peter Donaldson, a reliable festival vet, taking on Marcus. In the most predictable but still awesome casting ever, my beloved Dion Johnstone will be the badass Aaron (best part in the play, hands down!) and the beautiful Amanda Lisman has the incredible challenge of the traumatic ingenue Lavinia. Claire Lautier will be Tamora, an incredibly demanding role, though I'm not counting her out just yet.

The Richard III casting has me mildly worried though. Peter Donaldson will surely be a solid Buckingham but I'm not fond of Yanna McIntosh, set to play the all-important Elizabeth. A cast of lesser-known company members fills out the rest of the roles (including Lady Anne to Bethany Jillard, who did a good job with a single small role this season).

On cast-strength alone, Merry Wives of Windsor is shaping up to be quite a smash. Though Twelfth Night has its fair share of heavy hitters (and wonderful young actors- here's looking at you Andrea Runge!) I'm still holding out great hope for Richard III and Hosanna based on my love of their leads (Seanna McKenna and Gareth Potter respectively) and with the addition of Young am now quite excited about Jesus Christ Superstar. Titus also promises to be exhilarating no matter what, and I do adore Dion.

With the exceptions of Trish Lindstrom and Bruce Godfree, every one of my festival favourites is returning next year- I cannot wait!

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Theatre Recommends: Romeo & Juliet

At least once a year, my father tells me he'd rather not go see Romeo & Juliet. When I ask why, he always says it's because he's seen it before. Personally, I think the great thing about Shakespeare is that it's always different. No matter how many times you've seen Hamlet, the actors and director will always play it differently. My father disagrees. But even he would admit that he's never seen Romeo & Juliet like this.

Now until Sept 25th at the Factory Theatre in Boston, The Independent Drama Society is presenting the classic story in a totally fresh way. As played by a punk rock troupe of 8 actors, Romeo & Juliet is the story of 2 essentially smart kids caught up in an essentially stupid problem. The brilliant frame device allows the actors to interact with the audience in a totally new way, take on more than one character and create multiple layers of interpretation.

Director Sarah Gazdowicz spins the text in deliciously innovative ways, redistributing lines and reinterpreting age old characters while never undermining the heart and history of the matter. The staging is inventive and clever as the company uses the space in unexpected ways, and the flow, though sometimes halted by clunky scene changes, is generally pretty good.

Among the dedicated actors, Megan Cooper stands out as a particularly empathetic and savvy Juliet, while William Schuller's unique Romeo is enigmatically charming. Adam Lauver is the comedic gem of the piece with brilliant timing as both the sniveling Lord Montague and Juliet's busybody Nurse. Rebbekah Vega Romero reinterprets a playful female Benvolio beautifully, especially in her appropriation of Balthazar's lines in Act V. Great company energy is added by Alexa Ray Corriea, Chris Larson and Dave Rogers, each of whom offers up at least 2 polarizingly diverse parts, executed effortlessly. But it's Nic Campos' excellent Mercutio who serves as the pulsating heartbeat of Gaz's punk rock vision. His fearless attack on the iconic role, complete with leather jacket and liberty spiked hair, captures the exuberance at the centre of the production and the 400 year old play itself.

IDS' Romeo & Juliet offers a fresh perspective on a well-told story. It's an expertly executed production that at once pays tribute to the history of the text, the thrill of rebellion and the power of theatre. The sheer fun of the whole thing can't be escaped in the intimate Factory Theatre, nor would this company ever want it to be.

Friday, September 17 @ 8pm
Saturday, September 18 @ 8pm
Sunday, September 19 @ 6pm

Thursday, September 23 @ 7pm
Friday, September 24 @ 8pm
Saturday, September 25 @ 8pm

Click Here to Buy Tickets

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Cathartic Joy of Seeing Her Again

Photo by Andrew Eccles
Easily the most emotional production at the Stratford Festival this year is For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. I'm not usually a cryer at the theatre but I was inconsolably moved by this piece. Here the Canadian master playwright Michel Tremblay shares his most intimate story, that of his mother. That's it; it's just him telling us how he sees her, how she was and recreating her so we can see for ourselves. Through the character of the Narrator, Tremblay relives and pays tribute to life with his mother, an exuberant woman fascinated by stardom and the mysterious inner workings of the arts. He brings her to life to show her off to the world, show her all that he's accomplished that she never got to see and give her an ending much more fitting than reality.

Photo by David Hou
The play, directed by Chris Abraham, is brought to life by the remarkable talents of Tom Rooney (as the Narrator) and Lucy Peacock (as Nana, his mother). Rooney, over the mere 3 years he's been with the festival, has quickly become my favourite actor in the company. A true chameleon, Rooney's most famous roles range from the joyful father Wilbur Turnblad to a weaselly Cassius and an androgynous rockstar Puck. This year he's playing 4 roles in 3 plays: the petty thief Autolycus in Winter's Tale and both the tyrannical and virutous dukes in As You Like It. In Pleasure, he takes the character of the Narrator through the ages with great maturity and subtlety.
Photo by David Hou
From boyhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, Rooney disappears into the age of the Narrator as he leads the audience through a series of vignettes about his mother. He plays all the conflict and frustrations with an underlying sense of empathy and gratitude towards the woman at the heart of his story. It truly is a remarkable thing to see.

But this is really Lucy Peacock's show. The Stratford veteran pulls off a tour de force performance as Nana. What seems threateningly broad at the beginning proves human as the play progresses. We learn that anything less, less boisterous, less animated, more subtle, simply wouldn't do enough to honour the spirit of the character.

Photo by David Hou
The beautifully written prologue (full of delightful allusions and witticisms) transitions into a tiring but oh-so familiar chastising scene, then a riotously funny literary debate, finally we're privy to a snarky whining session about the in-laws. We're right with the Narrator (and, by proxy, Tremblay himself) as his mom's antics tire and invigorate us, challenge and annoy us right up to the rapturous ending.

The whole play is touching, funny, well paced and dynamic, but it's the Narrator's beautiful final gesture that really stays with you. Those final moments serve as a tribute not only to Nana (and Tremblay's own mother) but to the power and beauty of theatre itself. With Pleasure, Tremblay reveals unequivocally his innovation and emotional triumph as a playwright. He truly is one of Canada's greatest gems.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Strange and Beautiful Tale of Two Worlds

Photo by Andrew Eccles
I, like almost everyone else had never seen The Winter's Tale before this year at the Stratford Festival . I'd read it, discussed possible stagings, and analyzed the characters, but never seen for myself the play with 2 worlds. That, I suppose, is a theme at Stratford this year: 2 contrasting worlds in a single story: As You Like It has the court and Arden, Peter Pan has Neverland and the Darling home, The Tempest has the wild island and the unseen Milan, there's the two Italian cities of Two Gents, The private and public worlds of Dangerous Liaisons and Evita, even the stage and backstage realities in Kiss Me Kate. But perhaps the most pronounced contrast is in The Winter's Tale, directed by festival veteran Marti Maraden.

Maraden and designer John Pennoyer create two vivid and entrancing worlds, each rich in detail though somewhat unmatched in poignancy. 

Photo by David Hou
First there's Sicilia, the cold and tethered world where Ben Carlson's complex Leontes reigns with more power than is comfortable. Sicilia is also a showcase of classical talent. The generally strong Carlson is particularly good as the jealous ruler, spinning out of control quickly then slowly building up a layer of empathetic remorse. This is the best I've ever seen Yanna McIntosh, her Hermione is strong but just warm enough to stir her husband's irrational jealousy when he sees her camaraderie with his friend Polixenes. Seana McKenna is perfection as Paulina, the most interesting character in the play. The way she prods at the guilty Leontes is righteous and justified but with an excellent dash of cruelty in retribution for his crimes against her friend.

Photo by David Hou
While the classical pedigree of the actors playing Sicilians brings an interesting sense of method to their world, the musical background of many of the actors playing Bohemians brings a lightness and fun to their performances. The ever-charming Dan Chameroy is particularly warm as Polixenes and Mike Shara is wonderfully funny (outright hysterical at times) as the Young Shepherd. The fun of Bohemia, so forbidden in Sicilia, is seen particularly in Tom Rooney's petty thief Autolycus. Bohemia is a world where everyone is dressed in silly-looking hats and bright colours. They dance, they sing, they certainly joke, and even their criminals are fairly harmless. The always-excellent Rooney drives home the contrast of the worlds in being a lovable "villain" while Sicilia's own king is as cold as they come.

With the exception of Cara Ricketts, who plays Perdita with about as much brain activity as a set piece, the cast is wonderfully energetic and watchable. Randy Hughson as Time is particularly fascinating, seemingly suspended in midair as he delivers his single monologue marking the passage of 16 years.

There are times when Bohemia seems a bit too lovely perhaps, and one begins to wonder if those who live there are missing something. Sicilia, on the other hand, as bleak as it may be, achieves some really poignant moments of happiness that make the tragedy all the more alarming. The contrast of these worlds gives the well-executed play lots of dynamics but while Bohemia can be one-note, Sicilia stands on its own as a singularly complex world.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Taming on Tour

I love Toronto. There are many many reasons for this, not the least of which is the independent theatre scene. Every week it seems I stumble upon another company dedicated to doing theatre their way, whatever way that may be. Often small, rarely well-funded and often brimming with talent, Toronto's many many theatre companies are one of the great delights of running a site like this. Everyone knows to go see the Mirvish shows, I don't need to tout Stratford (even though I do), CanStage and Soulpepper are obvious. I like it best when I go out to support a friend who's producing a show and discover a pair of upstarts running their own company just a few years out of high school (like Cawrk Productions). I take great joy from getting a facebook invite from an old classmate telling me about a BSS alum tackling one of the hardest pieces in the musical theatre canon (Vetoed Productions). I love it when an alternative company sends me their press release and convinces me to love a genre of theatre I've never even liked before (Red Light District) or when an underdog youth company pulls out a truly inspiring piece of work (No Strings Theatre). And I really like writing about those things, in the hopes that maybe you'll discover these companies too.

So when a young actress asks me to review her show, if I possibly can, you can bet your butt I'll be there.

Such was the case when I got an email from Jessica Moss, a spirited and empathetic performer who seems to be everywhere these days, appearing in no fewer than 3 My Theatre-reviewed productions this summer (The Queens, The Witch of Edmonton and The Taming of the Shrew). Ms. Moss told me about a company I didn't know existed and in doing so she's earned them a returning customer for many seasons to come.

I saw The Humber River Shakespeare Company's touring production of The Taming of the Shrew at its final performance of the summer, unfortunately not early enough to promote the show during its run. And it may have taken me forever to finally write this review, apologies to the cast and crew, but rest assured that is no reflection on how good the production I saw was.

First of all, the very nature of the show was endearing. I'm a big believer in low maintenance Shakespeare and these capable actors made a lot out of very little as they toured this outdoor production throughout July. No set, few props and delightfully anachronistic costumes gave the production a sense of rag tag fun that paired excellently with the induction that frames the story of Kate and Petruchio as a play-within-a-play. Director Kevin Hammond navigated the somewhat polarizing text well and the production rarely lagged.

The performances were a bit of a mishmash however. Sara Moyle's Kate was smart and fun, if a little gruff, and Hugh Barnett's Petruchio's was, well, a pirate, which was distracting; but he was otherwise pretty okay. Megan Poole's Bianca fell prey to the common plague of ingenue-iness but Paula Schultz's delightful female Tranio thoroughly counteracted that. Jessica Moss was in top form with boundless energy as the goofy Grumio, her 110% character commitment stealing many scenes. A real delight (and surprise) of the production was Kaleb Alexander as Lucentio. An old friend of mine whom I haven't seen in years, Alexander was as charming as ever in Taming, which is to say very very charming. He brought tons of charisma to the often-dull character of the swoony lover, actually making the love story somewhat believable, something new to the play.

In an uneven production of an oft-problematic play, The Humber River Shakespeare Company managed to put on a thoroughly entertaining piece. It had some moments of real clarity, a couple great laughs and a heart of gold. I'm so glad I know they exist.

Dangerously Awesome Liaisons

Photo by Andrew Eccles
Dangerous Liaisons (at the Stratford Festival this season) is pretty badass. It's badass in embarrassingly large and frilly french wigs (Yanna McIntosh as Mme de Volanges wears a particularly silly one). It's badass in petticoats, badass in tights and badass while perched daintily on lavishly ornate pieces of furniture. This solid piece of badassery is such due almost entirely to the awesome interpretation of director Ethan McSweeny.

Sarah Michelle Geller movies aside, Dangerous Liaisons (adapted by Christopher Hampton in 1985 from the 1782 novel) really does belong in its original 1780s french setting. And that's where McSweeny lets it live, mining that setting for all the deliciousness it's historical context provides and adding clever modern tones in unobtrusive yet illuminating ways. Perhaps McSweeny's most interesting contribution is that he lets the future linger dangerously over the play. The reprehensible antiheroes of Dangerous Liaisons are allowed to enjoy their malicious romp for the time being, but the audience never fully forgets the impending french revolution and accompanying fall of the very aristocracy the characters luxuriate in. The final deafening moment of the play drives that wonderful point home in a memorable and unmistakable way.

Photo by David Hou

This production's other great achievement manifests itself in the work of designer Santo Loquasto, lighting designer Robert Thomson and sound designer Todd Charlton. These design aspects expertly mix the superficially historical with a modern essence of rock and roll. Sound weird? The clever chess board floor, the strange anachronistic mix of classic design and clear plastic furniture, the music and lights reminiscent of a rock concert, all of it folds into the characters beautifully; their mix of court decorum and devilish impropriety, strategic and thoughtful yet foolish and rash manipulations, it's all there, visually supported in the ingenious design.
Photo by David Hou

As for the performances, anyone unaware of the brilliance of Seanna McKenna needs to do something about that this very minute. Her La Marquise de Merteuil is brilliant, though to expect otherwise would simply have been ignorant. She's a master and I expected nothing less than the mastery she exemplifies in this role. Tom McCamus as Le Vicomte de Valmont is every bit as brilliant in a role that's clearly a joy to tackle. Here he is set absolutely free, allowed the delight of complicated calculated villainy that he is denied in his role as the cartoonish Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Sara Topham and Michael Therriault, on the other hand, are much more at home in Peter Pan than in Dangerous Liaisons. Topham's frothy, high-pitched ingenue shtick, so effective as the iconic Wendy, is annoying as La Presidente de Tourvel (as in so many things). And Therriault, a long time favourite of mine, seems miscast as Le Chevalier Danceny. He, frankly, gets out-acted, a terrifying and disappointing reality for me and my 13-year-old love of him as a performer. Festival icon Martha Henry plays the small but important role of Mme de Rosemonde, her amazing pedigree working on so many levels.
Photo by David Hou

The sparkling dialogue and superfun characters more than make up for slightly muddled plotting and the sheer confidence of the production is enough to make absolutely anything fly. Ultimately, this highly entertaining piece soars on the shoulders of McSweeny, Loquasto, McKenna, McCamus and the balls-to-the-wall way they attack their roles. Lucky for the festival, those are some pretty badass shoulders.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Stratford 2011 Casting So Far

Casting is ongoing for Stratford's next season before this one's even over. Here's what we know so far:
- super exciting choices are marked with * or **, depending on the degree of awesome.
- terrible ideas are marked with an x or xx, depending on the degree of horror. 

Richard III:
Seana McKenna as Richard **
Gareth Potter as Richmond*
Martha Henry as Margaret*

Twelfth Night:
Andrea Runge as Viola**
Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby
Stephen Ouimette as Sir Andrew
Ben Carlson as Feste*
Tom Rooney as Malvolio*
Cara Ricketts as Maria xx

Merry Wives of Windsor:
Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff **
Tom Rooney as Ford *
Janet Wright as Mistress Quickly
Lucy Peacock as Mistress Ford
Andrea Runge as Anne Page*

Titus Andronicus:
nothing yet

Jesus Christ Superstar:
Paul Nolan as Jesus x
Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene x
Brent Carver as Pontius Pilate

Geraint Wyn Davies as King Arthur*
Brent Carver as Merlyn and Pellinore*
Lucy Peacock as Morgan le Fey*

Gareth Potter as Hosanna** (Let's hear it for bravery and breaking out of the romantic hero mold! Bravo Mr. Potter)

The Little Years: 
Evan Buliung as Roger

The Grapes of Wrath: 
Chilina Kennedy as Rose of Sharon x
Janet Wright as Ma
Evan Buliung as Tom Joad

The Homecoming:
Brian Dennehy as Max
Stephen Ouimette as Sam
Cara Ricketts as Ruth x

The Misanthrope:
Ben Carlson (Alceste)
Brian Bedford

Shakespeare's Will:
Seana McKenna as Anne Hathaway*

A True One Man Show

Do Not Go Gentle, Geraint Wyn Davies' one-man show at Stratford, was a strange experience for me. I didn't care about the life of poet Dylan Thomas going in and I can't really say the play convinced me I should change my mind. But it didn't seem to matter if I cared about Thomas, as long as I invested in Wyn Davies.

It has its moments of wonderful writing for sure and Thomas proves an occasionally interesting character. His Shakespeare obsession is both fun and poignant as he ultimately concludes that his "life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", following that statement with "God, I wish I wrote that". The man is generally funny in quirk, topic and timing, a highlight being the conclusion of a particularly melodramatic poem recitation with a bright "well, I don't know about you, but I could use a piss" as he disappears for intermission.

But Thomas proves ultimately inconsequential in this tour de force performance. This is a true one man show if ever there was one. Sure there's a director, a writer and a production team. Someone designed the simple set and someone else runs the lights. But none of those things have anything to do with what makes Do Not Go Gentle great. Wyn Davies could have been reading the phone book on a bare stage in total darkness and if he'd done it with as much conviction as he brings to the character of Thomas it'd be almost as engrossing. The man is unbelievable.

I've seen Wyn Davies on stage 6 times now, not to mention his brilliant turn as narcissistic actor Henry Breedlove in my beloved TV series Slings & Arrows. I've never seen him be anything other than extroardinary, but it wasn't until Do Not Go Gentle that I realized that I might just be in the presence of the greatest actor of his generation. He embodies Thomas like a second skin. The Welsh accent sits on him like a Canadian one and he delves into the complexities of a mixed up mind as if it were effortless. It's as if you're watching a person, not a performance. Thomas' psychosis brings him swiftly from hilarity to tragedy and every crazy human place in between, the links not always evident to the audience, but Wyn Davies makes sense of it all and makes us feel everything alongside the crazy man he embodies. His psychological complexities are so realistically played that the audience, accustomed to linear theatre where one can always see the cause before the effect, was at times left behind his performance. At one point, Wyn Davies breaks from a previously unrelenting slew of hilarity into a thundering of pent-up anger towards society, towards the literary elite, towards the audience, towards himself. The sudden unleashing is so sudden and so genius that some audience members are left tittering, unsure if his emotional outburst is sincere (and therefore terrifying) or more humourous exploit. That kind of uncertainty is unbelievably rare in the theatre but in life it's more common than anything.

Without Wyn Davies, Do Not Go Gentle would be the decently written story of a man who's not that interesting. But Wyn Davies in the role is so superb that you can't help but hang on his every word.

The Myth of Peter

I find it singularly difficult to review a production that everyone seems to love. Everyone I've spoken to about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Peter Pan has told me they loved it. And I don't mean casual love, I mean "that was the best thing ever!", rave reviews that tell me the production will surely blow my mind. Invariably, after such reviews, I leave the theatre underwhelmed.

My experience of Peter Pan was not much different. The actual production is nothing compared to the triumph that lives in the imagination after leaving the theatre. Which is not to say these people are wrong in their assessment. I adamantly believe that one's impression of Peter Pan has less to do with what you're seeing and everything to do with what you believe in. If you leave the theatre inspired, your mind will fill with fantastical memories that may or may not be accurate: the pirate ship will be bigger, tinker bell a bit brighter and Peter will fly a bit higher. All the while you will never see a single wire or harness. Oh how I wish my reviewer's mind had allowed that to be my impression of Peter Pan. I desperately wanted to fly off to Neverland with Michael Therriault (whom I've loved since I was a kid watching Camelot). But try as I may, my body never left my seat and I saw every string before me.

Call me critical, closed minded or cynical, go ahead, I've heard it all before. But I will say that there are other productions this season that live in my mind a little brighter than they actually were. Some things convinced me that I was watching characters not actors and that magic was really happening. But Peter Pan didn't. So I ask you to be patient as I give Peter Pan a thoughtful and technical review with only a small touch of sentiment; a review that you undoubtedly may find harsh.

Technically, the spectacle of Peter Pan is well executed. I saw the wires but they could not feasibly be any more invisible. Everyone flies when they are supposed to and I'm sure an untrained theatre eye may even be baffled at how many effects are achieved. Classic (and some innovative) theatre tricks are performed with ease as pirates toss helpless lost boys off the balcony, shadows move of their own accord and Tom McCamus appears in two places at once. That last one is particularly fun since they go so far as to use a pseudonym for the actor playing JM Barrie in the program, my mother didn't even realize it was the same person until well into the play. The pirate ship is suitably impressive and, providing you possess a child-like sense of wonder, even the waves are pretty cool.

The performances are consistently solid, though few stand out as exceptional. Michael Therriault is well cast though a little caricaturish in the part. As is Sara Topham, generally one of my least favourite actresses in the company, who's annoying barbie doll mannerisms are actually perfect for Wendy. Perhaps the biggest problem with the performances in Peter Pan is that to play the characters well, the seasoned actors have to play up the cartoonishness they so often try to avoid. McCamus shows great range as he plays the over-the-top villain Captain Hook but also gets the more low-key opportunity to portray the warm and human author narrating the story. Paul Dunn and Stacie Steadman clearly have great fun playing John and Michael and are consequently great fun to watch. Similarly, the lost boys are a hoot and a half. The pirates are icky as all get out, which I suppose makes them good, but Sean Cullen's Smee is altogether uninteresting. Jay T Schramek's turn as Nana the dog is remarkable to behold, but that was obvious going in.

For me, the greatest assets of Peter Pan are the generally under-appreciated characters of Mr. and Mrs. Darling. Sanjay Talwar, a master of distinguishing small roles, is a charmingly flawed father figure. But it's Laura Condlln's sympathetic mother who provides the real heart of the piece. As we near the end of the somewhat slowly paced play with which I've been struggling to connect all night, the character of author JM Barrie turns the attention away from the fantastical pirate ship and back to the lonely bedroom where Mrs. Darling sits crying by the open window through which her children had flown away. He tells the audience that he expects many of them really like Peter, others prefer Wendy. Then he points to the tearful mother and says "but I like her best". Here is where the play makes the jump from impressive (in production value and energy) to meaningful, a truly necessary jump. Throughout the piece we are bombarded with stories of terrible mothers: those who've lost or abandoned their children, those who've generally not cared. But JM Barrie won't let the audience leave with that. He needs them to know that they're not all like that. Sometimes there are mothers who care for their children more than anything in the world. There are mothers out there who would give anything to keep their children safe, no matter how much they may try to fly away; mothers who will leave the window open for eternity, holding on to a tiny shred of hope that their children may fly home.

Mrs. Darling, a small character with few lines who doesn't get to fly, fight or do anything cool really, she's the heart of the story. It's not about pirates and amazons, fairies and poison and sword fights or any of Peter Pan's theatrics. Without Mrs. Darling, it would all be empty production values and cartoon characters. In her few lines, Mrs. Darling makes Peter Pan a story to care about.

In case you were wondering, that's the moment I stopped seeing the strings.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Jaques Brel IS Alive and Well...

... but he's not living in Paris. He's in Stratford, hanging out with Brent Carver and having a grand old time. Jaques Brel himself may just be the star of this show, no offense to the four sensational performers featured in The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's staging. It's his songs that really make the piece fly. They are haunting and clever, funny but poignant, beautiful and affecting. A song cycle in which the performers float between seemingly unlinked numbers and the characters within them, there's nothing really for a director to do with this piece other than to cast great people, stage it fluidly and depend on Brel's songs to carry the show.

And carry it they do.

It would not be humanly possible to find a cast more talented than the one that takes on Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris this season at Stratford. Jewelle Blackman, Mike Nadajewski, Nathalie Nadon and Canadian theatre icon Brent Carver take on equal roles as the uber talented vehicles of Brel's unique brand of genius. Mort Shuman and Eric Blau's English translations are inspired, but not quite as inspired as director Stafford Arima's decision to leave a one or two to shine in their original glorious French. The delicious "Ne Me Quitte Pas" is a perfect example, as well as my favourite number in the show.

I'd never heard of Jaques Brel going into this Stratford season and will most likely never hear him after. But this beautiful production is as much an expected delight as anyone could ever ask for.

The Two Leading Men of Stratford

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is my favourite production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this year. If you know me at all, it wouldn't have been very difficult to predict that.

First of all, it's the first show I've ever seen in the festival's relatively new studio theatre (a beautiful and intimate space with a thrust stage and no bad seat in the house). Consequently, it's a small production: small cast, small audience, relatively low pressure. It isn't required to fill thousands of seats and therefore is allowed more room to breathe. It's allowed to be a simple character piece, to tailor to a niche market if it so chooses. The actors don't have to holler to the back of a huge theatre, they play to the people right around them, making eye contact and really reaching people. A play in the studio theatre is allowed to be intimate, and that's what Two Gents is.

Which isn't to say that it's not accesible or wouldn't appeal to tons of smart viewers. Director Dean Gabourie gives the play a vaudevillian twist. His characters are performers, an astute choice when dealing with such inherently dramatic creatures. And aside from one bewildering performance number tagged onto the end of the play, the concept only adds to the story; it's fun and brings a (comparatively) modern sensibility to the action without ever becoming distracting or broad.

I also love a Shakespearean comedy with great women. Sophia Walker's fiesty Julia is just that. She really gives Proteus the business when they're together and when he leaves, oh hell hath no fury and all that. She is spunky without being abrasive, flirty without surrendering her power and in posession of just enough resourcefulness to forge her path in search of the departed Proteus in male attire (a trademark move of some of Shakespeare's most kick-ass comedy women). Walker will also break your heart when she (in disguise) hears Proteus declare his love for Silvia. Her Julia is a truly sympathetic creature, proving once again why she's one of the company's most solid female performers year after year. Claire Lautier's Silvia is less noteworthy, though she does provide ammo for the anti-ingenue rant I'm going to try to convince myself not to publish. At worst, Lautier is predictable and a bit tiresome, certainly not bad or even annoying enough to slow down the lovely production. In a supporting role, however, Trish Lindstrom (The Tempest's wonderful Miranda) is laugh out loud funny, proving that the ladies of Two Gents are ultimately awesome.

Now, I'm not usually a big fan of clowns. A well-played Touchstone can be great and an inspired Feste can elicit a laugh or two, but generally I can do without the easily overplayed characters. But Speed (Bruce Dow) and Launce (Robert Persichini) are wonderfully suble creations. Dow, not at his Nicely Nicely best but happily neutralized from his Trinculo self, is amusing, but it's Persichini's Launce that is the star of the comedic subplot. Or maybe it's his dog Crab. Or maybe it's the two of them together. Either way, Launce and Crab inspire belly laughs all around with deadpan deliveries and perfect timing (especially the dog's).

But the thing that would most give me away as a predictable Two Gents fan is my love of a good bromance. I love a well-played boy story, a "you've had my back as long as I can remember", "love you like a brother" kinda thing. And to cast two of my favourite actors at the festival as the friends, well, that's just plain manipulative. Gareth Potter (Proteus) and Dion Johnstone (Valentine) are the inarguable top of the young-leading-man pyramid at Stratford. Potter, the romantic go-to, is a recent Romeo, last season's Malcolm and this year's Ferdinand, to name a few. Johnstone, a bit edgier casting-wise, is Caliban this year, Macduff and Oberon in 2009, among other roles. Together, they are so charming and engaging I could watch them for hours. In a nice twist, Potter plays the more complex role (very well, I might add) with Johnstone as the much more straight forward good guy (something that sits simply but very nicely on him). I bought the friendship, but also bought that Proteus might throw it away. They are suave and debonair in their tuxedos, charming while wooing with red roses and love songs and endearingly bro-ish as they tease, fight and reconcile their deep friendship.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona feels like it was made for me. It's hopelessly romantic, simply staged, clever yet well-developed, deep but still sweet and ultimately brotastic. I loved every minute of it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Tell Me About the Storm"

That quote is actually referencing Lear but seems somehow appropriate to The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's current production of The Tempest. First of all, it's from Slings and Arrows, a television show based on the festival. Second, it's addressed to William Hutt, a Stratford star with insurmountable gravitas (not unlike Christopher Plummer), who's final role before he died was Prospero. Finally, it sums up exactly what I will attempt to do in this review: tell you about the storm, in all its metaphorical and literal manifestations.

The Tempest is Stratford's flagship production of the year. It's on all the posters, the cover of the yearly festival guide and outside the venues themselves (even the ones where it's not playing). International superstar, Stratford vet and recent Oscar nominee Christopher Plummer has returned to take on the lead role, and by god everyone wants you to know it. His face is everywhere, special signings of his book are tauted at some performances and every review I've read of the production merely mentions his co-stars offhand (if at all), in favour of the star. I by no means mean to diminish Plummer's performance or star power. He is a superb Prospero, taking memorable time out from thunderingly impressive theatrics to play the small moments. In little laughs and simple gestures, Plummer's Prospero lives as a flesh and blood person and not just a grandiose Shakespearean magician. Clearly, Plummer anchors the piece, but I feel as though it were about time his supporting players got their due praise. So I will forgo the accolades for now, limiting myself to this one paragraph on the star and leaving you with just the knowledge that he is tremendous in the role.

The only other actor given great critical attention for this production is Julyana Soelistyo as the spirit Ariel. General buzz coming out of The Tempest is that the pint-sized actress is a revelation. As I have a tendency to do with things everyone else agrees are awesome, I took a more cynical view on the subject. While I think Soelistyo's Ariel is a wonderful interpretation (child-like, optimistic, somewhat fragile) I get the feeling that much of what the audience is falling in love with is actually the work of director Des McAnuff; it's the fact that she's blue, seemingly omnipresent, slightly glowy and able to fit into tiny spaces from whence she can appear almost magically. That's pretty cool, but it's direction and casting, not acting. I fear Soelistyo's haunting vocalizations and focused physicality are being overlooked as solid performance aspects while her very presence on stage is being sold as a revelation that it surely is not. A good interpretation? Yes; a truly inventive one? No.

But it is easy to be overlooked in a Des McAnuff production. The artistic director's fine sense of character is almost always missed as his own showy production decisions undermine his better work. Just as Soelistyo's beautifully subtle performance is overshadowed by her tiny-and-blue-ness (she literally glows in a blacklight used in the opening moments), Dion Johnstone's wonderfully detailed Caliban is blocked by a distracting spandex suit that covers almost every inch of him, including his expressive face. Both of these aesthetic decisions have some merit (Caliban's links him to the native creatures that roam the stage at Prospero's command and Ariel's is magical and pretty) but both do their actors little good. Johnstone, for example, is one of the greatest talents on stage at the festival in recent years. Making his way through many of the most challenging roles ever written, Johnstone isn't limited by age, race or even species. His Caliban is a heroically athletic performance as he layers the character with movement and voice completely foreign from his own. He's funny, terrifying and strangely empathetic and fragile. Between Johnstone's performance and McAnuff's character direction (including a small but defining moment at the end of the play that clarifies the character as more human than monster after all), Caliban is a truly fascinating invention. It's a pity it takes so much determination to see the brilliance hidden underneath the costume.

The other grossly overlooked star turns in The Tempest belong to a celebrated veteran and an unsung ingenue. Geraint Wyn Davies' Stephano is flat-out hilarious and perfectly executed (drunken stumbling, Scottish accent, red-faced narcissism and all) while Trish Lindstrom's Miranda brings admirable fire to an overwhelmingly male cast of characters. Lindstrom's ingenue plays by none of the rules of modesty and grace that other young female characters do. But why should she? From her dreadlocked red hair to her intrepid curiosity, bare-footed daring and romantic forwardness, this Miranda is a product of a single dad on an untamed island, and it shows. The audience laughed perhaps a bit too much at her wide-eyed discovery of the human race and I do wish she were allowed more strength in the log scene, but even such girlish trappings can't undermine the spunkiness of Lindstrom's creation.

In contrast, Miranda's love interest, Ferdinand, is played with princely charm and a touch of sheltered caution by go-to romantic lead Gareth Potter. Meeting Ferdinand, it seems as if he would have to be shaken to his core to take a great risk or abandon his princely ways (not to mention partake in intense manual labour). The fact that he does all those things for love lends the central romance gravitas, something it does not usually have. Miranda changes Ferdinand from a literal prince into a metaphorical one, and Gareth Potter plays that arc gracefully, bringing his unmistakable classical energy to every line. His long wig is undoubtedly silly looking, but we can't have everything now can we.

The beached nobles Alonso (Peter Hutt), Sebastian (Timothy D. Stickney), Antonio (John Vickery), Gonzalo (James Blendick), Adrian (Robert Persichini) and Francisco (David Collins), are boring. Very boring. I blame this at least in part on the decision to stage the play in Jacobean period (always an unenlightened choice in my opinion). A modern sensibility may have infused the murder plot with a little more verve. Vickery is the best of the lot with refreshing comic timing, but lacks the depth that is possible to attain in the usurping brother of Prospero. Hutt's seemingly guilt-free Alonso is interestingly helpless, though "interesting" and actually interesting are not always mutually inclusive. It is almost as if McAnuff worked so diligently developing the characters in the other plotlines that when he reached the nobles he called it a day and settled for established actors reading the lines correctly. Not an unforgivable offense I suppose (better them than someone else) but not exactly reassuring either.

A character that was clearly not ignored in the rehearsal process is Bruce Dow's Trinculo. Overcooked, overplayed and over-costumed, Dow's Trinculo is a particularly obnoxious version of the standard Dow character. This one's big gimmick (for there is always a gimmick) is flamboyancy. The caricature is good for a few lazy laughs (lazy in that they are lazily obtained, the sound itself is quite hearty) but also serves up a depressing reminder that Stratford's demographic (whether it be because of age, geography or whatever) is all too keen to laugh at a man for no reason apart from general flamboyancy.  I suppose the argument can be made that this (and any, really) interpretation is valid but something about it rubbed me the wrong way. It offended me for some reason and I sat there convinced that the same performance 20 years from now wouldn't get a single laugh.

McAnuff's signature over-the-top elements are thankfully otherwise absent from much of The Tempest (Ariel and Caliban aesthetics aside). The set appears largely barren and is quite clever (it rotates, rises, sinks and sparkles, but never annoyingly). The storm itself is excellent: using sound, light, performance and a cloth overhang to get the point across. And for the most part, even the magic is executed with nuance. The invisible or flying Ariel, floating Prospero and magical feast are handled cleverly with varying degrees of success in theatrical smoke and mirrors. The trademark theatrics actually make for a couple particularly beautiful sequences when the spirits Ceres (Claire Lautier), Iris (Amanda Lisman) and Juno (Sophia Walker) appear to celebrate the betrothal of Miranda and Ferdinand and when Ariel swims down from the ceiling to begin the play. The only obnoxiously "Des-y" moments come with Ariel's gaudy and unnecessary wings and Prospero's mysteriously electric "magical garment". The later actually prompted a child sitting behind me to ask "was it supposed to do that?" after the strange leafy coat appeared to electrocute Christopher Plummer. (The answer is "yes", by the way, in case you were wondering).

But ultimately, The Tempest is a very restrained production for Des McAnuff. With a few exceptions, his direction doesn't interfere with itself and his excellent sense of character is able to shine through. Perhaps it really is on the capable shoulders of Christopher Plummer's superb Prospero that this production is so successful, but I honestly believe that it's the bench depth of the Stratford company that makes it really shine. With erstwhile leading ladies (Lisman, Walker) playing single-scene spirits and a 27-season vet (Blendick) as a supporting player, the whole cast manages to stand up to its magnificent star and shine almost if not quite as brightly as he does.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Devils of Trinity Bellwoods

The more I see of the Red Light District Theatre Company the more I like it. That distinct world of experimental theatre in which the RLD so comfortably dwells has never quite been my cup of tea, but after their enlightened Woyzeck and now with an innovative Summerworks offering, I'm finding that this quirky company is steadily changing my mind.

I spent my night tonight traipsing around Trinity Bellwoods Park after 9pm as the sun set on Toronto's Queen West. As part of the annual Summerworks festival, the RLD presented their version of The Witch of Edmonton by Thomas Dekker, William Rowley and John Ford. I say "their version" because nothing the RLD ever does belongs in any way to anyone else; they re-invent everything they do, no matter how old or established their source material. This production, for example, saw a mismatched company of mime-faced players leading their audience through a pedestrian play in the park, lit entirely by flashlights. Seriously, at one point director/actor Ted Witzel got in a barking match with a local pet cavorting at the nearby dogpark- you just can't make stuff like that up.

The Witch of Edmonton as a whole was a remarkable piece of theatre. The largely omnipresent actors improvised in character as they led their herd of onlookers, often to great comedic effect. The beautiful park was used effectively and the sometimes disruptive and unpredictable surroundings were embraced as characters unto themselves. RLD regulars Marcel Dragonieri, Lauren Gillis, Kat Letwin  and (the especially brilliant) Eve Wylden each brought a great sense of invention to their 400 year old parts. Reid Linforth (an erstwhile tortured Woyzeck) gave a beautifully endearing turn as the town innocent Cuddy Banks, and Jonah Hundert gave the questionable character of Frank a fascinating hipster edge. Michael-David Blostein's Sir Arthur Clarington was a terrifying blend of authoritative charisma and pure creep factor, though his sitting comfortably in Blostein's usual character wheelhouse made the character pop a little less than he otherwise may have. Jessica Moss, a vibrant young actress quickly becoming a My Theatre favourite, was heartbreaking as Frank's jostled first wife Winnifred. And great praise is deserved by Mina James, who gave a stunning performance as the titular Mother Sawyer, a demandingly physical and pathetic role which she absolutely nailed.

However, in my mind, there was one true star turn in The Witch of Edmonton, that of Ted Witzel (on 2 counts). Firstly, the artistic director's performance as Tom the devil dog was nothing short of staggering. He was terrifyingly alluring, dangerously aggressive and inexplicably convincing as a talking dog who looked nothing like a dog. His movement, posture and sounds were so precise that he seemed as if he'd been through extreme canine observational training. Witzel was at once all dog, all devil, all charismatic stranger and all sexual fantasy. His performance was obscenely committed and consequently the kind of good that leaves you unsettled for the rest of the night.

On the flip side of Witzel's contribution to The Witch of Edmonton was his artistic vision with co-director Chatherine Dunn. When I interviewed him about his production of Woyzeck earlier this summer, Witzel stressed the importance of helping those ostracized by society. The uber intelligent and focused director's point of view on that subject came through loud and clear in The Witch of Edmonton. Armed with that insight going in, I knew what to expect from the play about a persecuted innocent who succumbs to the role society presses on her (as much as one can know what to expect when facing an RLD production). But it was the reach of that message that was truly impressive.

The characters of Edmonton have their corruptions revealed throughout the course of the play; we clearly see their hypocrisy, their blindness, their lack of compassion. But Witzel and Dunn take it a step further, testing the modern audience against the same standards as their characters... a test we collectively failed. This production didn't play by regular theatre rules: we could eat, we could sit or stand, we could even talk to the characters if we liked. Essentially, we were given the power to interfere. But no one took it. We became bystanders, guilty by association as we watched Mother Sawyer's persecution, Susan's murder and Cuddy's abuse and did nothing to stop it. We stood idly by as Sir Arthur fondled the praying Winnifred, stepped over a broken Cuddy as he attempted to drag himself up a set of stairs (he was in our way, after all) and only one reluctant audience member responded to Mother Sawyer's call for help, after much prompting. And while our apathy made it a struggle for Tom the devil dog to engage mob mentality against Mother Sawyer, he was tragically successful in the end as the audience joined in his chants for her destruction.

As a reviewer, I made the conscious decision to stay out of it all, watching Witzel and Dunn's social experiment unfold without participating in the abuse or the rescue. I'd like to believe that if I'd been less committed to my neutrality I would have done something, help Cuddy up the stairs at the very least. But alas I didn't, and neither did anybody else.  

The Witch of Edmonton was written in 1621, based on supposed true events, and revealed the corruptions of English society at the time. The RLD's production was performed in 2010 and aptly showed us a cast of hypocrites throwing stones, teaching us a lesson about who the bad guys truly are. Witzel and Dunn's larger experiment wasn't about some bad people in an English town 400 years ago, nor was it really about Mother Sawyer's tormentors at all, it was about us and the fact that we're no better.