SLEEPING BEAUTY

(The Deliriously Dreamy Family Musical)
by Jeremy Diamond
Directed by Tracey Flye
A Ross Petty Production at the Elgin Theatre
December 1-January 7, 2016

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Sleeping Beauty follows the tried and tested formula of a Ross Petty Christmas pantomime: lots of puns and physical gags, a mashed-up fairy tale mixed together with pop tunes to constitute a rough form of update, strategic breaks for parodic commercials, and a kids’s participatory routine. The libretto is more streamlined than it was in years past, which is all to the good, and the main plot emerges clearly. The newborn royal princess is blessed by three fairies and cursed by Malignicent, the upshot of which is that Her Royal Highness Rose must avoid contact with any sharp object whose prick will put her into a coma. One of the most comic inventions in the libretto is the device used by her parents to protect her from such harm: a large plastic bubble in which Rose is uncomfortably cocooned. Another interesting invention is the irony near the end where the sleeping beauty has to rescue her beau from his own sleeping spell. I leave you to figure out how the plot works itself out, but I can report that on opening night, the audience reaction was modified rapture.

Some of this was, no doubt, due to a sense that the show was somewhat under-rehearsed. Some of it was due to the fact that the show seems to miscalculate its effects. Although the duo of Eddie Glen (Jacob Grimm) and Laurie Murdoch (Wilhelm Grimm) pretend to be as sour as sauerkraut and with a firm taste for grim fairy tales, this freewheeling pantomime take on Sleeping Beauty is joyous stuff for the young. Oh, yes, there is Hillary Farr of Love It or List It television fame, playing the evil witch Malignicent in sparkling black, and she does get booed a lot for her nefarious schemes, but she is a glamour puss with show-off gams, and she doesn’t really enlarge the possibilities of theatrical wickedness. Farr’s singing voice is thinner than her speaking one, her wonderful legs aren’t given much of a choreographic workout, and her acting seems unnecessarily confined. She doesn’t indulge very much in repartee with the audience or encourage its partisan disapproval. So, she is only half as wide in her ham as Ross Petty used to be, and therefore less effective in her villainy than he was in theatrical terms. The comparison is brought home by the fleeting appearance of Petty as Hook via visual projection. He is missed more than even he thought possible.

Also sorely missed is Dan Chameroy, whose transvestite camp Plumbum was an utter scream every year. But Chameroy is starring in the musical Mathilda this season, so the gap is filled to a degree by comedian Paul Constable as cross-dressing Sparklebum, who has his moments as a fairy in training. A.J. Bridel, who was a real hoot as the embarrassingly shy and comic ingenue in Kinky Boots, is not allowed to exercise a similar gift this time around, though her Princess Rose is lovely to look at, and she sings very well. Her counterpart, tall, handsome James Daly makes a nice, shy, clunky lovelorn royal lutist as Luke, even though his lute is really a guitar, and he wears a green wig for much of the show. These two are an effective romantic duo, overbalanced, happily however, by the comic partnership of Laurie Murdoch as the King with a penchant for endless rhymes and Lisa Horner as the henpecking Queen, who has a pronounced taste for tinsel and an equally pronounced distaste for rhymes. The duo later transform in an unnecessary dreamland sequence as pyjama-clad Morpheus and Melatonin, attended by baaing sheep (baaing their puns) and a revival of melodic hits of yesteryear from the Eurythmics, Mama Cass, Aerosmith, the Chordettes, et cetera.

Director Tracey Flye doesn’t show an ability to get the most out of her cast. Neither does choreographer Julie Tomaino. Which is surprising. The best things about the show may well be the set and costumes by Michael Gianfrancesco. They show an extraordinary quality of fantasy, combining glamour, silliness, and playland horror. But, perhaps, the top billing should be shared by the husband-and-wife team of Beth Kates and Ben Chaisson that extends the fantasy by their magnificent projection design. The design is very much the thing this year.

COME FROM AWAY

By Irene Sankoff and David Hein
A David Mirvish Presentation at the Royal Alexandra Theatre
Opened November 23, 2016.

Ensemble of 'Come From Away' (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Ensemble of ‘Come From Away’ (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Canadians have reasons to celebrate. The new musical by Sankoff and Hein is a genuine Canadian heart-warmer that puts a spotlight on the amiable, goodhearted citizens of Gander, Newfoundland at a time when the U.S. in particular and the rest of the civilized world in general were wrenched with fear over the atrocious September 11 attacks in 2001. A toe-tapping musical about terrorism, you ask incredulously? Not really. Terrorism does rear its ugly head (or heads) in context, but this musical isn’t about catastrophe—not in any major sense. Rather, it is all about benevolence, good will, generosity, charity, compassion, kindness, understanding, and any number of other virtues you care to think up in connection with the people of Gander who overcame their shock, fear, and perplexity to give shelter and sustenance to 7,000 international travellers of 38 airplanes stranded by emergency necessity at the time of the terrorist attacks on U.S. airspace and soil. And this upbeat 100-minute musical (with no intermission) finds a very simple way of driving its narrative so that multiple characters (based on real-life counterparts) remain distinctive and their individual or group feelings are made palpable largely through sung narratives.

Come From Away (the title is a Newfie way of acknowledging people who are not from their home province) is a musical that does not pretend to be a mega musical or a diva musical or a trendy pop musical. It simply commemorates and honours some simple Newfoundland folk for their unforgettable goodness over five days in 2001 when the world reeled at the staggering evil of a handful of hate-driven Islamic extremists. There is no need of a massively ornate falling chandelier or a helicopter hovering above the stage; no need of national anthems or flamboyant arias. On Beowulf Boritt’s largely bare stage, marked by tree trunks (a few shattered and spikey) and a long rear wall of peeling wood, what unfolds is a thoroughly human comedy of survival and co-existence in The Rock, given illumination by Howard Binkley’s array of top lights or background colour washes. Backed up by an onstage band of strings, pipes, and percussions, under the supervision of keyboardist Ian Eisendrath, a dozen performers (most American) perform multiple roles apiece, ranging, for example, from a gay couple on the verge of fission, a black mother worrying about her son back home, a Muslim mid-easterner treated with malevolent distrust, an English oil-company unmarried executive and the American divorcee with whom he finds love, the first American female pilot who battles misogyny in the profession, to the Newfies who extend all the understanding and generosity they can muster without expectation of anything but decency in return.

Director Christopher Ashley ensures that the pace is never leisurely or laboured. The libretto drives the story forward largely through sung narratives and spoken commentary, and the book-scenes have a distinct documentary feel to them. The songs are infectious (especially those set in a pub), though largely not chart-busters, so, the musical never seeks to enlarge its story, never reach for anything approaching something mightily apocalyptic. Only Beverley’s “Me and the Sky” has the heartache of an individual (“the one thing I loved more than anything/was used as the bomb”), but there are other stirring pieces, such as “Prayer” and “Something’s Missing” (the penultimate number). Yet, there is considerable charm palpably felt in many of the performances, and even in Kelly Devine’s choreography that only lets loose in two or three ensemble numbers. A modest stage revolve is used pragmatically rather than to call attention to itself. And the refusal to over-sentimentalize moments breeds genuine life-size emotional effects. The wide distribution of roles means that no character really is developed in the tale. They all feel schematic. Because the ensemble is polished, this deficiency is not as obtrusive as it might have been. Jenn Colella’s female pilot allows us to feel the stress of misogyny, just as Caesar Samayoa’s Egyptian Muslim is a strong reproach to Western bigotry. And there is an effective representation of Newfie benevolence in the forms of Astrid Van Wieren’s Beulah, a big-bodied schoolteacher with a mighty Karoake voice and a heart to match that size, and Joel Hatch’s organizing Mayor. Rodney Hicks supplies some sexy sass in his role as a Caribbean pilot, just as Samayoa is comically sexy as one half of the troubled gay duo. Lee MacDougall and Sharon Wheatley supply some romantic middle-age moments, and comedy comes mainly from Petrina Bromley as a timid schoolteacher and later as an inveterate animal lover.

The overall feeling is that of a better humankind rather than the rancidity so revoltingly promulgated in the recent U.S. Presidential election where Hate and Pathological Lies Trumped Decency and Good Will. Perhaps Broadway (where this musical is now headed after its Toronto run) will benefit from its moral uplift that makes the human heart soar higher than any deplorable Trump tower.

CHASSE-GALERIE

By Tyrone Savage
Music and Lyrics by James Smith
Produced by Kabin and The Storefront Theatre at Soulpepper
November 12-December 1, 2016

In semi-circular order, left to right: Shaina Silver-Baird (Toba), Kat Lewin (Michelle), Hunter Cardinal (Uriel), Michael Cox (Michel-Paul), Tess Benger (Alex), Alicia Toner (Jaune), Ghazal Azarbad (Lucy Ferr), Nicole Power (Lea), and in the center Tyrone Savage (Damien) (photo: John Gundy)

In semi-circular order, left to right: Shaina Silver-Baird (Toba), Kat Lewin (Michelle), Hunter Cardinal (Uriel), Michael Cox (Michel-Paul), Tess Benger (Alex), Alicia Toner (Jaune), Ghazal Azarbad (Lucy Ferr), Nicole Power (Lea), and in the center Tyrone Savage (Damien) (photo: John Gundy)

There is much to like and be amused by in this musical adaptation of an old French Canadian legend—a folktale that adds a twist to the Faust tale and a few more twists to French-Canadian history. Set in a rough-hewn tavern where drinks, music, and dancing are very much part of the fun, the tale is about four female lumberjacks and runners of the wood who are exhausted, starving, and lonely in their camp on New Year’s Eve, and wishing dearly to be reunited with their beloveds in Old Montreal, some seventy leagues away. When roguish Damien appears in their midst dressed as a monk and offers to use rough magic to transport them in a magical flying canoe (chasse-galerie), under three strict conditions, the women rush to accept. They do not know, of course, that he is a devil incarnate, and that his conditions are possibly too much for them to meet for they are required to refrain from searing or uttering the Lord’s name, and must not touch crosses or any objects connected to God. The four young women are roughly charming and roughly ignorant of the perverse ways of Damien (Tyrone Savage), a charming devil, and of Lucy Ferr (Ghazal Azarbad), his partner, a wicked parody of satanic evil. Alex (Tess Benger) is clearly the youngest and most innocent of the female quartet, her mind and heart bound to Baby Jesus, when they aren’t dwelling on her lesbian lover Jaune (Alicia Toner), while Michelle (Kat Lewin) is the least innocent, with her hard drinking, rowdy profane humour, and candid sexual yearning for her Michel-Paul (Michael Cox). In between them are bespectacled Lea (Nicole Power) and Toba (Shaina Silver-Baird), both yearning for love, though in quite different ways. The actresses who play them range from the most effective in characterization (Benger) to the least persuasive (Power), though Power has the finest singing voice of the female quartet.

I did not see the musical when it debuted a year ago, but the trouble is that this re-incarnation is a case of too much self-love—so much so that it doesn’t recognize its own limitations and self-indulgences. Whimsy can go far but even then, it has limits, no matter how charmingly whimsical the visual projections that accompany the fantasy of a flying canoe. Savage’s adaptation has teasing references to the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare, but doesn’t make very much of them. Indeed, his libretto is a hectic of facile parody, no more so than in the case of Damien, played by Hunter Cardinal as an intriguing cowboy invert of the Archangel, though with an indecipherable accent.

James Smith’s rollicking music is well presented by Justin Han on drums and Jason O’Brien on bass, assisted by Benger on cello, Power on piano, Toner on fiddle, and his lyrics are charmingly rhymed for the most part, but apart from a drinking song and the blasphemous audience-singalong “Esti tabernak, tabernak , esti, esti tabernak vierge!” too many of the numbers lack a distinct Quebecois sound and style, and, to be brutally honest, they don’t get the best vocalizations. Savage seems to be in love with his own suave performance as Uriel, but his singing voice is not of the finest quality; in fact, it is quite flat or pitchy at times. And the dance numbers, though infectiously energetic, don’t get far beyond a repetitiveness in Ashleigh Powell’s choreography. Moreover, the story goes on far too long and wouldn’t have lost very much if condensed to just over an hour’s playing time. Two and a half hours of stage musical time are far more than I could bear for a tavern musical, however admirable and ebullient the effort at an indigenous concoction.

CONSTELLATIONS

By Nick Payne
Directed by Peter Hinton
A Canadian Stage Company Production
At the Bluma Appel Theatre, November 10-27, 2016

Cara Ricketts (Marianne) and Graham Cuthbertson (Roland) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Cara Ricketts (Marianne) and Graham Cuthbertson (Roland) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Probably the most fascinating aspect of Nick Payne’s 75-minute two-hander is the manner in which the playwright shows how chance and free will influence our lives. Marianne specializes in quantum cosmology at Cambridge, and Roland is a professional beekeeper who has just come out unhappily of a serious relationship. The two meet at a barbecue party, and this sets in motion (literally in Peter Hinton’s emblematic production) their shifting interactions and relationship. The two move tentatively into romance, overcome versions of fidelity after versions of bitter anger, and face versions of tragedy. In a simple sense, it is a story of girl meeting boy, girl losing boy, girl regaining boy, folded over itself and repeated in a different way. But Payne ensures that his play is not so simple. Although Marianne struggles to articulate her intimate feelings, she does rehearse a rather corny ice-breaker multiple times that first makes for comic awkwardness that morphs into shy charm that melts away. The repetitions of phrase, with varying inflections, mirror Marianne’s driving belief that we could be part of a multiverse in which several different outcomes could exist simultaneously. An intriguing intellectual subject but not so easily dramatized as a romance or even a problem romance because just how many versions of entire stories unfold simultaneously or even successively within 75-minutes? It is similar to the problem that Brian Yorkey’s musical If/Then couldn’t satisfactorily resolve.

All we can get in a compressed state of time are snippets or vignettes, rendering the idea of multiplicity a theatrical illusion, and not very satisfying, at that. The problem is three-fold in a radical way: the first is in the very nature of the writing (as outlined above); the second is in the acting; and the third is in audience involvement. Peter Hinton’s production compounds the second and third aspects of the problem. It has a gleaming set (courtesy of Michael Gianfrancesco’s design and Andrea Lundy’s lighting), spherical but mainly metallic, with a wall of clear plastic set against black, a circle of stage lights suspended overhead and a revolve at the centre of the floor, with a single large white balloon to impart a sense of something buoyant yet accidental. And the two performers (Cara Ricketts and Graham Cuthbertson) literally spin slowly around on the revolve while scenes unfold and a solo cellist (Jane Chan) supplies musical accompaniment or counterpoint with gravitas. As in the Cabaret Hinton misdirected at the Shaw Festival, the set is put ahead of the story, with metaphor taking precedence over human interaction. Consequently, the performers do not easily achieve or retain any palpable sense of intimacy, especially as Hinton’s choreography keeps them at more than arms apart and spinning slowly as separate planets in the director’s idiosyncratic cosmology. Ricketts manages to be shy yet sexy, intellectual yet sensual, while Cuthbertson conveys a bearded earthiness that has its own charm at times. When the play’s subject becomes that of mortality, the dark mood is palpably human, yet Hinton’s direction retards an audience’s engagement by treating the characters like figures on a grid.

The recent Broadway production starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson had a lighter, airier set design, festooned by balloons that gave it a semblance of buoyancy, and director Michael Longhurst even choreographed a dance for the two characters that enhanced the mobility of the romance. But in Hinton’s production, the pair’s “dance” is reduced to their positions on the spinning revolve, without the characters’ hearts moving deeply and affectingly.

BUNNY

By Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
At the Studio Theatre, August 18-September 24, 2016

(L-R): Krystin Pellerin (Maggie) and Maev Beatty (Bunny) (photo: David Hou)

(L-R): Krystin Pellerin (Maggie) and Maev Beatty (Bunny)
(photo: David Hou)

Hannah Moscovitch’s 70-minute satire is essentially a novella pretending to be a play. Its eponymous character is a free-thinking woman who defies conventions without being truly free from guilt in the final analysis. Sorrell, the heroine, explains her nickname of Bunny for us: she has not acquired it because of her high sexual drive but because of her panic in some social situations. Sorrell maintains a retrospective commentary on herself and the men and women in her life, and while Maev Beatty excellently conveys the character’s wryly humorous self-deprecation and sense of sharp satire, Moscovitch never fleshes out any of the other characters or even solves the problem of Sorrell’s third-person narration. To speak in the first person may be a tired convention, but to address the audience in the third person is the height of presumption. This tone leaves the central character stranded between artifice and art. The device is so artificial that it practically begs our indulgence. Not since Norman Mailer, perhaps, has there been such a bald literary device masquerading as self-exposure.

Sorrell is not a real character; she is a literary projection of what a witty, self-aware Jane Austen woman would be if brought on stage. But it is a Jane Austen without a developed society. Sorrell satirizes her small Ontario town as a place where reading aloud passages of Canadian poetry passes as entertainment. This is both good and bad, because Sorrell manifests real wit while also being terribly self-conscious. Born to Left Wing academic parents who disapprove of beauty unless it is painted by Van Gogh, Sorrell inherits their politics and scholarship but not their puritanism. Her passion for the Victorian novel goes unabated, but she discovers boys and sex early, leading to one of her complications. She copes with the male teenage libido (in fact, her own libido is stronger than theirs) but not female teenage moral judgment. She loses her virginity to a husky, handsome football player (a very striking Emilio Vieira), has an affair with a married professor (Cyrus Lane), weds an ambitious businessman with political ambition (Tim Campbell) in order to irritate her starchy parents, and has a relationship as well with Angel (David Patrick Fleming), the young friend of a friend, with whom she has sex in a red canoe—her emblematic Canadian or Pierre Berton milestone moment.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s green sward set is semi-abstract, a large green rectangle edged with blue light and a white marshmallow type center. There is nothing else, apart from a wicker chair and a bunny toy, in the space to distract from the major focus on Bunny. There is also not much of a social sense or sense of developed characterization—at least of anything or anyone apart from Bunny herself. Her single important relationships with a woman becomes syrupy sentimental when that woman, Maggie, dies slowly and painfully from cancer. Krystin Pellerin is excellent in this tear-generating role, morphing from manic bike-rider to pale-faced victim with admirable restraint and conviction.

The play seems to challenge an audience more than it does its heroine Sorrel, but while this is not necessarily a flaw, it is not necessarily a good thing either, given that many character relationships are cursorily sketched rather than fully developed, and that the main character almost never stops talking in the third person. Despite Maev Beatty’s skilful physicality and expertly wry tone, audiences might justifiably want more than they get. Sarah Garton Stanley gamely and intelligently tries to disguise the play’s intrinsic faults but ultimately her production plays like a novella waiting to happen.

THE AENEID

By Olivier Kemeid
Directed by Keira Loughran
At the Studio Theatre. August 19-September 25, 2016

Gareth Potter (Aeneas) carrying his father (Michael Spencer-Davis) and infant son Photography by David Hou.

Gareth Potter (Aeneas) carrying his father (Michael Spencer-Davis) and infant son
Photography by David Hou.

There is a civil war raging in an unnamed city where people are absorbed in disco dancing rather than paying any attention to any warnings or portents such as news of a column of black smoke building up into the sky or of a whole city on fire. A street preacher (an oracular Mike Nadajewski) warns that anyone who wants to live must leave. The revelry continues until hell opens and swallows most of the citizens. This is when the hero Aeneas (a stalwart Gareth Potter) learns to carry his father Anchises (Michael Spencer-Davis) on his back, and an infant son in his arms. His is a double burden because it must acknowledge the weight of the past on his back as well as a threat to the future that lies nestled in his arms. In the play, as in the Virgilian source, the hero wanders for years, survives one travail after another, before reaching safe shores where he will find his new home but not necessarily peace and contentment.

One of the striking and most effective aspects of Keira Loughran’s production is its deployment of expressionistic mime and movement to convey the symbolism as the tale moves from the world to the underworld and back again, under the signs of fire, water, earth, and blood. In one scene, dry roots pulled from the earth spill out black blood. In another, a storm at sea is evoked by a wildly fluttering stretch of blue fabric held by actors. In another, ladders evoke the scaling of mighty walls in battle. Chants, choreographed groups, a semi-abstract set design by Joanna Yu (a heavily draped mass of boxes, shields, and stones that can change shape from scene to scene) accompanied by colour coded costumes, and striking lighting by Itai Erdal all conspire to convey moods of panic, cruel indifference, and doom.

The production’s strong physicality expands its tale of people in extreme pain after they have been uprooted from their homes and normal lives. The play universalizes Virgil’s epic poem, becoming a riff on themes of exile, wandering, suffering, and survival. There is a moment of excruciating pathos generated from the context of a grieving mother clinging desperately to Aeneas’s child, while her husband (Rodrigo Beilfuss) pleads with Aeneas to allow her just an extra moment to pretend that the child is her own. There is another moment of a completely different mood when a couple (Mike Nadajewski and Lanise Antoine Shelley) sunbathing on the beach of an all-inclusive resort suddenly find themselves face-to-face with a tattered, hungry refugee who has apparently been washed up on the shore. And there is a scene where a frostily smug immigration officer (Karen Robinson in one of her three brilliant roles) confronts a desperate asylum-seeker (a wrenching Lanise Antoine Shelley). Or the conscience-shaking moment when Spencer-Davis’s Anchises names global refugee crises like a long litany before appealing to us to recognize that we have the power to found nations or destroy them.

Karen Robinson as Immigration Officer  Photography by David Hou.

Karen Robinson as Immigration Officer
Photography by David Hou.

The problem with this moment is not its intent but its audience. Anchises should be addressing xenophobes and racists who would never allow themselves to be in any theatre that would expose their sins. But isn’t this really the fallacy of all liberal art? It presumes that its message is reaching its target audience, when it is merely preaching to the converted.

However, all power to Kiera Loughran and her impressive ensemble. There isn’t a single performance that is weak, and there are several that show a versatility appropriate to the shape-changing tale. The most extraordinary characterizations are by Karen Robinson, who is outstanding as the bureaucratic Immigration Officer, the Underworld Sibyl (with a notable Southern accent), and finally as a bitterly violent refugee camp-dweller. All power, too, to Olivier Kemeid and his English translator Maureen Labonte. Kemeid’s modern riff on Virgil’s epic establishes him as a major Canadian playwright, possibly in the same rank as Wajdi Mouawad whose Scorched was one of the most riveting, disturbing, and significant dramas ever created in this country. Like Mouawad, Kemeid does not shrink from focussing on the contemporary world and in a manner that eschews aesthetic tidiness in favour of emotional impact. This is not to suggest that there is no deliberate dramatic structure or no disciplined mind at work; it is simply to underline a force that is frequently absent from English Canadian plays that seem content with far smaller subjects, far safer plots. The Aeneid does not speak only to Canada; it speaks to the modern world—the world of Donald Trump, which is to say the rancid world of hysterical ultra-Republican paranoia and demagoguery, as well as to the world of religious and political terrorists anywhere in our globe.

JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN

By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Carey Perloff
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, August 19-September 23, 2016

Joseph Ziegler (left) as Vilhalm Foldal and Scott Wentworth as John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

Joseph Ziegler (left) as Vilhelm Foldal and Scott Wentworth as John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

One of Ibsen’s later plays, John Gabriel Borkman has a bone-shaking chill that envelops it. Edvard Munch described it as “the most powerful winter landscape in Scandinavian art.” And he was not simply referring to the snow and ice that collect outside the manor house of the Rentheim family in Norway, but to the winter and ice in the hearts of some of the principal characters and to their feelings of devastating loneliness and frustration. The title character is a former banker, a convicted felon, who has suffered a double imprisonment. He has served his criminal sentence but for the next eight years he has imprisoned himself in a bleak room where he paces restlessly like a caged sick wolf. His wife Gunhild has spurned him, accusing him of a crime against himself. And his ex-lover Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, has not forgiven him for jettisoning her for the sake of material success. The sisters are cold to each other because they are locked in battle over the Borkman son, who would rather strike out on his own than be subjected to this icy battle. And then there is Vilhelm Foldal, a subordinate government clerk, who is a comic foil to Borkman. He imagines himself to be a poet playwright, eager to have Borkman’s approval but who is coldly scorned and dismissed by Borkman. Vehement and passionate, the play strives for a compelling revelation in a final scene in the dead of winter.

So the ideal production would show both types of winter—the literal and the psychological—which is something that Carey Perloff’s production does not achieve in its intimate configuration at the Patterson. The production has a pinched, spare look—which is right in its limited way. Winter’s physical symptoms are denoted in Christina Poddubiuk’s décor by a painted stage floor in cold, wan colours and by sparse furniture in bleached tones. The costumes are chiefly in black, with the only exceptions being Foldal’s brown and the salacious divorcee Fanny Wilton’s flamboyant wine colour in a costume with an inexcusably modern cut. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting adds to the feeling of dry chill, but the only visible snow comes near the end with a few falling flakes in the final act, which is meant to mark a desperate trek in the snow by Borkman before his apocalyptic vision and fatal heart attack. The lack of real physical elevation—a landscape of rugged slopes and cliffs—hampers the climactic moment, robbing it of some vital dramatic urgency, and even the poetic power of the scene is diminished in the process.

Seana McKenna as Miss Ella Rentheim as John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

Seana McKenna as Ella Rentheim in John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

Perloff’s taut production (in Paul Walsh’s English translation that stays faithful to Ibsen’s resonances) does make something dramatically interesting from its physical meagreness, because of some strong performances. The Fanny (Sarah Afful) and Erhart Borkman (Antoine Yared) play one striking character note apiece, while Joseph Ziegler once more shows what a fine character actor he is in his delineation of Vilhelm Foldal. Combining grand delusion and seedy reality, Ziegler etches his own fine portrait of waste, yet managing to elicit comedy tinged with pathos. Lucy Peacock succeeds in conveying Gunhild’s embittered solitude, despite allowing the melodrama to run away from her control. Her perfect foil is Seana McKenna’s Ella, a silver-haired woman dying of an acute illness, whose silences are filled with emotional meaning. Their scenes together are high points of savage irony, that are, unfortunately, not quite matched by Scott Wentworth’s Borkman. The title-role is more of an enlarged silhouette of a would-be Napoleon of industry than a fully developed character. Much of it is an abstraction because Borkman’s passion and delusion are conveyed in an analogy of a hammer breaking precious ore loose from rock. But Borkman is also a vulnerable being who in sacrificing love for cold ambition victimizes himself by spiritual, soul-deadening coldness. It is a role that attracted acting giants such as Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Paul Scofield—but not necessarily with the most excellent results. Borkman reaches a wild poetry in his death scene, but Wentworth is too much of the earth. He is rooted in prose, and does not express a prodigious struggle against Fate. Nevertheless, his is not a weak performance, and whatever its deficiencies, it holds its own against the portrayals of the others. An ideal production would combine Wagner’s huge savage power with Balzac’s scrupulous realism because Ibsen was a revolutionary in the theatre, who added great size and power to middle-class characters. Perloff’s production doesn’t have this magical combination, but it has a fair sharpness and does pay emotional dividends.