Thursday, September 29, 2011

At the Shaw: The President

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #1 
Of the 11 productions at The Shaw Festival this year, there wasn’t a single one I enjoyed more than the lightening-paced lunchtime one-act The President. The zippy script by Fenrenc Molnar moves so fast that director Blair Williams seems to have choreographed it more than staged it- the entrances and exits are so precisely planned, the rhythms so crucial that one flubbed line or late cue could send the entire production off the rails. Luckily, Williams’ clever staging and Molnar’s thrilling script are in very capable hands.

At the Shaw: The Admirable Crichton

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #2
What makes The Admirable Crichton so notable is that it’s the only Shaw Festival production in my top 5 that really fits with the festival’s brand. While not a GB Shaw script, This JM Barrie play enjoys the conventional staging, English accents and Shavian commentary on the class system that proved so ineffective in many of the festival’s other productions this season. But The Admirable Crichton is actually pretty great. It’s more than great, actually, it’s my favourite full length production in 2011 at The Shaw Festival.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Hypothetical Tennessee: "His Greatness"

photo by Sean Baker

by Kelly Bedard

His Greatness at the Factory Theatre is an interesting if not totally engrossing production. Writer Daniel MacIvor also plays “The Assistant” with an excellent blend of subtle heartbreak and perfect dry wit. His longstanding relationship with “The Playwright” (Richard Donat) is well established and his constantly moving, ever-tidying movements are wonderfully specific. Donat plays “The Playwright” with excellent entitled exhaustion and world-weary self-destructiveness. The weak link in the cast is Greg Gale as “the young man”. He’s not actually bad but in comparison to the nuanced leading men, his overwrought Newfie accent is a little much, his pretty boy affectations a little grating. The script is a too long, the small story might be better suited to a one-act, but it’s semi-ambiguous tale of a hypothetical Tennessee Williams is a fascinating take on celebrity, artistry and friendship.

His Greatness plays at The Factory Studio Theatre until October 23rd.

At the Shaw: Topdog/Underdog

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #3
I was dreading Topdog/Underdog. I had to read Suzan-Lori Parks’ Fucking A in school and could not have despised it more. I was anticipating an angry, expletive-ridden, crass 2 hours designed to provoke response through discomfort. It’s possible that the script could read that way, but Philip Akin’s production in the Shaw Festival Studio Theatre is so much more than that.

I think what a Parks script needs is to not be just a script anymore. It needs warm bodies and beating hearts, someone to put a face on the rough characters. In short, what Topdog/Underdog needed was Nigel Shaw Williams, Kevin Henchard and director Philip Akin. In their hands, Parks’ characters (the fantastically named Lincoln and Booth) shone through for all their conflicted complexity and subtle humanity, Parks’ pulsating rhythms taking centre stage over the alienating intensity of the dialogue on paper. The beatnik mantra of the card game motif is particularly cool- recurring over and over with slight and beautifully revealing variants. With the help of relatable and engaging actors, Parks’ work goes from hard to read to fascinating to watch.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

At the Shaw: When the Rain Stops Falling

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #4
There are a few truly stunning productions at the Shaw Festival this year- the top 5 in my rankings all really impressed. One of the most creative, most interesting, most effectively executed productions I’ve seen in quite some time was When the Rain Stops Falling in the Studio Theatre. With a criminally short run, you were very lucky if you got to see this special production, a 2 hour and 15 minute, intermission-less exploration through time and the generational ties that bind.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

At the Shaw: Maria Severa

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #5
The new musical from Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli brings something very new to the Shaw, even if the plot is nothing new for musical theatre. Essentially a mashup of Carmen’s tropes and Aida’s plot, Maria Severa tells the story of a young Portugese prostitute (the titular Maria) who falls for a man above her station (the handsome bull fighter Armando De Vimioso), who is, in turn, being forced to marry a woman he doesn’t love for her money (Clara da Silva). Maria’s beautiful and groundbreaking music, fado, makes her an important advocate for her people in the poverty-stricken Mouraria, but her love of Armando forces her to choose between love and loyalty. Most of the songs are as derivative as the plot, but as played by an exceptional cast, Maria Severa’s sultry tones are a breath of fresh air in an otherwise dreary Shaw season full of period English living rooms and parlors.

The Huntington Delights and Inspires with A New Candide

photos by T Charles Erickson

by Brian Balduzzi

The rarely-produced Candide is a literary torment to stage; not only does the musical feature an impressive and daunting score, but there is a large ensemble of characters, numerous set changes through magical worlds, and a distinct comedic style that borders on the macabre. I can think of few companies other than the Huntington Theatre Company with the talent, resources and ambition to accomplish such a stunning production of this glorious musical. With the broad strokes of her delightful new adaptation of the classic Voltaire satire, Mary Zimmerman adds an artful eye to the minutiae in her staging and directing of the musical numbers, fluid scene changes, and ingenious relationships between the many featured characters and ensemble members.

Friday, September 23, 2011

At the Shaw: Heartbreak House

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #6
There are a few recurring themes at Shaw this year; the first is conventional staging, the second is excellent design, the third is strong supporting players, the fourth is obnoxiously long productions and the fifth is, well, Shaw I guess. What I mean by that is strong scripts with fantastically clever dialogue and well-drawn characters with obnoxious and preachy social themes. Those are the inescapable features of a Shaw play. And by “inescapable” I mean “the festival’s reverence for the playwright blinds them to the necessity of underplaying such things for a modern audience”. Heartbreak House is a perfect embodiment of everything the Shaw Festival is doing both right and wrong this season (hence it’s sturdy position in the dead centre of our rankings: 6/11).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

At the Shaw: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #7
The first thing that stands out about The Shaw Festival’s current production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Sue LePage’s perfect set. Tennessee Williams is notoriously detailed in his stage directions; he describes the feel of the place just as much as the look- the sounds, the smells, the generally intangible. With her detailed bedroom design, LePage captures all that with great power. Both beautiful and rundown, spacious but claustrophobic, the room the audience finds themselves spying on seems to steam with heat from the oppressive southern sun and repressed sexual frustration. Director Eda Holmes then fills that space with a compelling saga well-acted and staged if in desperate need of a more time-conscious cut.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

At the Shaw: Candida

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #8
Candida is a play that is both fascinating and a little dull at the same time. It’s an inconsequential marital squabble that goes on a bit too long and contains perhaps a bit too much philosophizing on the meaning of love and marriage. It’s also revealing and engaging as a social study and a question of spousal selflessness. The production at The Shaw Festival this year is also all these things: predictable and dull some times, thoughtful and endearing at others. It features a middling performance or two but also a star turn from its youngest player.

At the Shaw: My Fair Lady

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #9
My notes on The Shaw Festival’s production of My Fair Lady contain only one word: “Birds!!!”. The reason for this is that there is very little to director Molly Smith and set designer Ken MacDonald’s interpretation apart from the far-from-novel metaphor of birds and bird-related things (various "spread my wings" themes and such- get it?!) Lerner and Loewe’s classic musical gets an energetic staging that is as entertaining as it is uncreative but even in its deepest moments I couldn’t help but laugh at those damn birds. They fly through the scenes along the animated backdrop, they chirp their way through the soundscape, they feature in set-dressings, props and hair pieces, their cages even descend from the ceiling to indicate that we may now be in Mrs. Higgins’ house but the metaphor isn’t to be forgotten (if that were at all possible).

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

At the Shaw: Drama at the Inish

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #10
Drama at the Inish, a comedy written by Lennox Robinson and directed by Shaw Festival Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell, does nothing in particular wrong. The dialogue is clever, the plotting concise, the staging effective, the set well dressed. The talented cast aptly juggles their quick comic material with excellent Irish accents. But the whole thing is somehow remarkably dull.

Monday, September 19, 2011

At the Shaw: On The Rocks

by Kelly Bedard

Ranking: #11 
At 2 hours and 15 minutes, The Shaw Festival’s weakest production of the year drags unforgivably. The story of a weak-willed Prime Minister whose sudden socialist enlightenment causes great tumult, On The Rocks has within it some great themes of idealism in government and the importance of standing for something, but it falls to George Bernard Shaw’s most obnoxious tendencies.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Ingenues are Growing Up

by Kelly Bedard

This was the year that the Stratford Shakespeare Festival finally saw their ingénues grow up.

Sara Topham, now in older and sturdier roles, is still smattering her characters with a think layer of affected fairy dust, but for the most part the young women of this year’s company are bringing intelligence and guts to their varied and demanding roles.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dion Johnstone on Aaron

photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

by Kelly Bedard

One of the best productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this year is the gruesome early revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. Director Darko Tresnjak's enthralling production features strong performances from the likes of Amanda Lisman, John Vickery and Bruce Godfrey. But much of the play's success rests on the shoulders of one of my favourite actors, a friend of My Theatre and a My Theatre Award winner last year- Dion Johnstone. In the crucial role of villainous Aaron, Johnstone steals the show with a performance that's both frightening and unsettlingly charming.

After his great interview in the 2010 Nominee Series, I asked him if he would take some time out during the run of Titus to talk about his experience in the complex role. The gracious actor generously obliged, rushing over after a matinee to meet me for coffee and wax poetic about one of my favourite characters in the canon.

Read on for my candid (and spoilery- just a warning if you haven't seen the show) conversation with Dion Johnstone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Company at the Cineplex

Company, is a masterpiece in Sondheim's body of work. The simple story is so nuanced and steeped in human reality that it is actually one of the composer's most complex works. So when the NY Philharmonic announced that they'd be assembling an all-star cast to take on all the "Sorry/Grateful" contradictions of the piece, I couldn't have been more thrilled at the prospect of seeing the play tackled by the best of the best (even if it was streamed to a movie theatre instead of live in concert).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Soulpepper's White Biting Dog

by Kelly Bedard 

The final show of Soulpepper's summer season baffled me a little bit.

Judith Thompson's White Biting Dog was effectively executed by first time director Nancy Palk and Soulpepper's stellar acting company, but the point somewhat eluded me. It had its moments of poignancy, some of them very pronounced, but overall left me some mixture of confused and impressed more than moved or inspired.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Summerworks 2011: the top 5

by Kelly Bedard

In our first year covering Toronto's Summerworks Festival we saw a total of 10 vastly different productions. From the beloved to the despised; from uber professional to pathetically amateur; pretentious to earnest; new works, established favourites, ensemble projects, two person vignettes, musicals, absurdist parables, dance pieces, hits, bombs, comedies, dramas and every possible thing in between. Our week at Summerworks had it all.

We've already detailed the 5 productions about which we were maybe a little less than enthused, so without further ado, here's the lowdown on the 5 that we absolutely loved.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Summerworks 2011: the bottom 5

by Kelly Bedard

In our first year covering Toronto's Summerworks Festival we saw a total of 10 vastly different productions. From the beloved to the despised; from uber professional to pathetically amateur; pretentious to earnest; new works, established favourites, ensemble projects, two person vignettes, musicals, absurdist parables, dance pieces, hits, bombs, comedies, dramas and every possible thing in between.

Our week at Summerworks had it all.

With so much to talk about, we've divided our coverage into 2 parts: the best and the worst. For the sake of ending on a high note, we thought we'd start with our disappointments first.

So here's the lowdown on our 5 least favourite shows from Summerworks (from worst to best).

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Soulpepper Navigates the Delicate Menagerie

by Kelly Bedard

As the background notes in Soulpepper’s Glass Menagerie playbill remind us, Tennessee Williams had a preoccupation with delicate people. He loved them. Himself being a fairly delicate person, he found them the most sympathetic, the most relatable. I, who greatly admire Williams’ poetic language and unrelenting dedication to emotional complexity, really struggle with the plight of the delicate. I’m a rare harsh creature vastly more interested in those who can help themselves than those who will break if the world moves naturally around them. So, while over the years I have found that The Glass Menagerie is my favourite of Williams’ creations, I’ve come to see its literal and metaphorical preoccupations with delicacy as hurdles a strong company has to clear on its way to a great production.

Soulpepper’s recent take on the great play cleared the issues effectively, with only the occasional stumble over some of Williams’ more unavoidable insecurities.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Living in Arcadia with Bad Habit Productions

by Kelly Bedard

Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is one of the most interesting theatrical pieces written in the 20th century. It’s quick-witted and academic, funny and touching, thought-provoking, heart-breaking and wildly entertaining. With heavy parallelism linking the superb characters between two eras in a single household (1809 and 2011- the studied and the studying), Arcadia becomes a sort of puzzle for the audience, putting the pieces together as Hannah and Bernard try to, discovering the missing links and the importance of the character connections. It’s one of those pieces that when directed and acted competently can be a lightning-fast night at the theatre that’s memorably rewarding for the audience.

Boston’s Bad Habit Productions was far more than competent in their handling of such precious material this August. Director Daniel Morris both designed the beautiful and functional open-concept set and used it perfectly, negotiating his actors around a tricky four-sided audience setup. The work of lighting designer Michael Clark Wonson and sound designer J Jumbelic added wonderfully to the tone of the piece and Barbara Crowther’s costumes were wonderful.

But it was the altogether very strong cast that really brought Stoppard’s largely character-driven piece to life.