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.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

First Look: The Tempest

In a joint article with other My Entertainment World website My Cinema, here are some preview photos from one of my most anticipated films of the year: Julie Taymour's adapatation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. Due out on December 10 (in the year of the play's 400th anniversary) from Touchstone pictures, The Tempest stars Helen Mirren as a female version of the film's hero, Prospero. Comedian Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, Alan Cumming and Djimon Hounsou also star.

Taymour, who's direction and design for the stage adaptation of The Lion King won her notoriety, praise and Tony Awards, is tackling her second major Shakespeare adaptation with The Tempest. The first is an iconic Titus that is at once brilliant and bizarre. The Tempest promises to be similarly enthralling.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Schonberg and Boublil Double Feature

Last week was a strange week of musical theatre for a couple of My Theatre writers. Wednesday evening saw us taking in a professional touring company at the lavish Four Seasons Centre in Dancap's production of Miss Saigon. The following night we were sitting in the much more humble Al Green Theatre taking in a company of 12-21 year olds doing Les Miserables with No Strings Theatre. The contrast was startling but the ironic nature of the contrast perfectly delicious.

Both pieces were written by blockbuster musical team Schonberg and Boublil. Both are melodically beautiful musicals with deep characters and dark but inspiring stories. But these 2 productions shared very little.

Let it first be said that I objectively consider Les Mis a far superior piece as written. It's fairly close to perfect in my estimation whereas I find Miss Saigon to be a pale imitation of the opera it's based on. Though beautiful, the characters just aren't quite as engaging, the music not quite as memorable and the story not quite as epic as that of Les Mis. There's also the whole issue of that ghastly engineer robbing the much-more-interesting Kim of absurd amounts of stage time. Nevertheless, in assessing these 2 productions, let's pretend for a minute that they're on equal footing going in.

Dancap's production is brimming with talented, trained professionals. It has professional set designers, directors, stage managers, choreographers, musical directors and cast (not to mention a full pit of the best in the business), all being paid handsomely for their troubles. No Strings (a youth company only in its 6th season) has students as designers, stage managers, associate musical directors, pit and cast, many of them volunteers. Their professional director, musical director and choreographer are also teachers, tasked with giving classes and developing technique while running rehearsals. They have minimal budget to costume a 40-something person cast, cover set and sound equipment. And they have a space crunch that has them using a synthesizer to augment the sound of a small band and take the place of a strings section. Their casts are filled largely with non-singers, only a couple of them possessing strong vocal technique when they reach artistic/musical director Denise Williams at the beginning of July. And they had only 3 and a half weeks this summer to mount perhaps the most ambitious musical in the canon. To compare these 2 productions might not be entirely fair, technically.

But for some reason, no matter how much money and expertise they have, the company of Miss Saigon seems a little lost. The opening number lacks energy. The GIs should have all bro-ish energy and pent-up verve, but they seem comfortable. The chorus of callgirls, on the other hand, should be practiced, formulaic in their seductions, but they seem uncomfortable in their costumes and with their daring blocking. The chorus work as a whole falls completely flat. Add on the imperfections a seat in the front row reveals (stage hands hiding behind set pieces, nervous bit players stepping on their entrances) and the production is definitely in need of some polish. Ma-Anne Dionisio in the title role is perfection (technically, dramatically, in every which way- she even sheds real tears) but her leading man Aaron Ramey (though in possession of a stunning tenor) lacks the charisma and pathos the role demands. Becca Ayers undermines her own performance as Ellen when she grossly overacts and her sublimely strong vocals aren't enough to make up for it. Josh Tower is an excellent John and Kevin Gray handles himself well as the horrid engineer but unfortunately is a victim of his useless character (who unbelievably comes out last at curtain call, usurping the leading lady). Despite some high points (Ramey's voice, some beautiful songs, Dionisio's entire existence) Miss Saigon lives up to none of the potential the company's assets set it up to have.

And then there's No Strings. Not all these kids could hit their notes. Not many of these kids had the life experience to fully realize the complex characters. Their sound board was badly run so some solos got missed, they had to move the set themselves instead of having it on tracks like the pros and they certainly couldn't land a helicopter on stage (Miss Saigon's trademark move). But I left that theatre on Thursday with a song in my heart and the ticket information number in hand, because I absolutely had to go back.

Those kids went after that show with more determination than I've ever seen. When they punched the air and declared revolution, the audience was on their side. When they grieved we grieved, when they cheered we cheered and by god when they died we wept. Each performer in the 2 casts (A:Thurs/Sat matinee and B: Fri/Sat evening) brought something different to their part. Valjean A, Kurtis Whittle, delivered a heartbreaking "Bring Him Home" during which I was incredibly happy I'd worn waterproof mascara. Valjean B, Jonathon LeRose, was the consummate actor of the cast, all strength and warmth from curtain up to curtain call. Eponine A, Amanda Li, infused the role with vulnerable sincerity while Eponine B, Lauren Voorpastel, conquered the trademark songs "On My Own" and "A Little Fall of Rain" like a lifetime student of the role. Madame Thenardier A, Tinishya Gillis, brought the house down with impeccable timing while Fantine B, Olivia Cox, was the most warm and sympathetic Fantine I've seen in quite some time. Conor Ling's Enjolras was a sight to see with incomparable charm, commitment and a leadership quality so pronounced that I was surprised the audience didn't jump up and join the revolution alongside him. Gavroche A, Isabel Terrell, mastered the fun role with great pluck and youthful maturity (does that make sense?) but it was Cara Tors as Gavroche B whose perfectly executed death scene really stayed with you. 14-year-old Lucas LaRochelle (Marius A) carried off the challenging ballad "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" with technique far beyond his years and I would happily listen to Cody Weldon (Javert B) sing "Stars" anytime. James Donaldson and Maral Chouljian anchored the student revolutionaries well and the pit band, led by the remarkable Sean Mayes, was brilliant. These kids were, well, they were the whole point. The point of youth programs, the point of community arts support, the point of theatre.

At the end of the day, the trappings don't mean a thing. For all its flash and professionalism, Dancap's Miss Saigon inspired nothing compared to No Strings' little Les Mis school edition. Give me commitment, give me energy, give me a solo-less 12 year old belting from the back of the chorus alongside an 18-year old leading man who's been with the company for years and worked his way up from playing a monkey (true story). Give me heart and I'll choose it over prestige any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"These Violent Delights have Violent Ends"

Stage Fighting
Choreographed Violence for Violence’s Sake

by James Melo

There are a few things that people always find memorable when they go to the theater. For my purposes, I’ll use Shakespeare’s Hamlet to illustrate (I have a theme, and I like to stick to it).

People will always remember “To be or not to be” (but few will remember the following lines), they’ll always remember “Alas poor Yorick” (even though EVERYONE misquotes that line—it’s not “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him well”, it’s “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio”), and they will always remember the duel between Laertes and Hamlet. It’s unfortunate, but one of few things that are really memorable to people who aren’t “theater people” are the bits of violence that permeate plays, and even more so with Shakespeare.

Of course, that’s really not all that bad for people like me. I’ve been involved with choreographing staged violence for the better part of the past three years, so the fights in plays like Hamlet are a chance for me to really create something special that’ll completely wow the audience. But that also presents a bit of a problem. The problem is that for some people, the fights become violence just for the sake of violence.

Now, that’s fine if the point of the play is that it’s a statement on the use of violence in a modern society, but when it isn’t, there has to be a purpose to violence. Fights have to be believable to really have any kind of impact on the audience, and that means that they have to tell a story. One of the fight directors that I worked under told me a story about one of his teachers who would hand out acting and diction notes to the people in his fights, because without acting, the fights were just not worth watching.

The biggest place that this is seen is in the intent of the characters during the fight. For example, I played Sampson in a production of Romeo and Juliet, and the script called for me to fight with Balthazar. When the fight director sat down with the two of us, one of the first things that he asked us was “why are you fighting?” The answer? Sampson just wanted to knock Balthazar’s block off. We weren’t fighting to blow off steam, or to protect someone, we were fighting to hurt each other as much as possible. And then he asked me if I knew how to do dive rolls. That was a really fun fight to do on stage.

In contrast, if you’ve read anything else I've written, you’ll know that I also played Demetrius in Titus Andronicus, and that script calls for Demetrius to brawl with his brother, Chiron. Again, we sat down with the fight director, and he asked us the same question (it was the same person). The answer this time? Chiron was trying to rough Demetrius up a little bit, and Demetrius was just trying to remind Chiron that he was the older brother. Completely different dynamic to the fight, even though the “danger” level was technically higher, because both characters were armed. Rather than clearly being a fight to hurt each other, it was much more like two dogs romping around and crashing into each other in terms of the vibe that I got from it as a participant. Also a very fun fight.

I guess the point that I’m trying to across here is that a fight is never just violence. Each fight that happens on stage is like a play unto itself. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and each involved character has a distinct personality, style, and intent, and that these are the things that a fight director is able to draw out of the fight. Of course, to make it all work quite right, there has to be communication between the stage director and the fight director, but ultimately when the two agree on a vision for the fight, staged violence can become something really special and memorable for the audience.