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.