THE HYPOCHONDRIAC

By Moliere
In a new version by Richard Bean
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
At the Festival Theatre, August 18-October 14, 2016

Stephen Ouimette as Argan

Stephen Ouimette as Argan

Like William Hutt, his celebrated Stratford predecessor in the title role of Argan, Stephen Ouimette expresses the tools of his comic craft externally. In his case, these include a quavering voice, a quivering fury or befuddlement, a stooped back, a flat-footed shuffle, and a face with puffy bloodhound eyes that register absurd miserliness, eye-rolling rage, and stubborn folly. Whether lying in a big bed in his ruffled nightgown soiled by his bowel disorder, or sitting officiously in a chair, he allows his self-absorption to waver according to the tallies of bills for enemas and medicine bottles. Physical maladies—mostly imagined—are music to his mind, and the worse the diagnosis, the greater his ecstasy for misery: “I’m incredibly and sensationally not well.” The only rival to his hypochondriac obsession is his inveterate desire to have a physician in the family because this would mean free ministration and medicine. So he will marry off his beautiful daughter Angelique (graceful Shannon Taylor) to the ridiculously bewigged, powdered, rouged, and buckled sot Thomas Diafoirerhoea, rather than allow her to be wed to her beloved Cleante (Luke Humphrey), a handsome youth of splendid good health. The maiden has no real option: submit to her father’s heartless will or be dispatched to a nunnery. Not even the tart, sage intercession of Argan’s busybody maid Toinette (a spirited Brigit Wilson) or the sober, clear-eyed advice of his brother Beralde (calm, collected, eloquent Ben Carlson) seems to matter. Argan’s new gold-digging wife Beline (a deliciously wicked Trish Lindstrom) would be utterly delighted if Angelique dared her father and is disinherited as a consequence because Beline would inherit all his money and property.

Of course, things get complicated, and Argan eventually learns his humbling lesson painfully (though Ouimette’s vulnerability as the character is less palpable than his broad comedy), Beline is exposed, and Angelique wins her Cleante. But there is a wry, severe trope in Richard Bean’s version of Moliere’s satire on medical humbug and the fools who subscribe to it. The trope comes at the end, unfolding as part of a play-within-a-play. All the elaborate trappings that director Antoni Cimolino deploys—the theatrical warmups; the comedies-ballets; the absurd chorus of black-clad medical charlatans singing pig Latin and English verse while wielding terrifying clamps, saws, and enema injector; and the sudden meta-theatrical ending where Argan morphs into the dying Moliere—are meant to add to the potency of the satire and redeem the broad frenzied farce. In this instance, Cimolino is clearly following in the line of the late Jean Gascon and the late Richard Monette, both of whom had irrepressible Gallic zest for comic excess. Most of the time, the approach works, but success comes at a price. The prologue goes on a bit too long, as does the introduction of Louis XIV and his elaborate chair facing the stage antics.

This is a calculated device. Moliere was probably a hypochondriac himself, and his sharp mockery of the medical profession earned him the cold scorn of the very targets he attacked. On the night of his fourth performance as Argan, Moliere suffered a serious heart attack and died later that evening, after the doctors were unable or unwilling to save him. And so, Stephen Ouimette’s Argan collapses and passes away in the big bed that dominates the stage most of the time, as the mood and temperature of the play change. Cimolino’s staging makes the irony emphatic. The question is whether this sudden trope trips up the comic gears, undoing all the fun or whether audiences will appreciate the meta-theatrical innovation.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF

Book by Joseph Stein
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick
Directed by Bartlett Sher
At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway, New York. Open run.

¥DANNY BURSTEIN DANNY BURSTEIN (Tevye) Photos by Joan Marcus

¥DANNY BURSTEIN
DANNY BURSTEIN
(Tevye)
Photos by Joan Marcus

Despite its obvious concessions to commercial Broadway fare—syrupy sentimentality, vaudevillian ethnic comedy, romance streaked with melancholy, heroic resignation—Fiddler on the Roof is a sturdy musical classic that bears repeated reimagining. Bartlett Sher’s version honours every major aspect of the musical, and though the Tevye I saw at a recent matinee (when Danny Burstein was on hiatus) lacked the serious edge and danger of a great actor, the show’s ebullience and affective power came through to a heart-stirring conclusion.

What is especially thrilling about Sher’s production is its innovative style. Of course, Tevye remains a stage incarnation of Sholem Aleichem’s fictional Jewish milkman in a fictional shtetl named Anatevka, and, of course, the Russian pogroms are a historical fact, and, of course, Tevye remains hen-pecked and anxious about the marital prospects for his five daughters and the survival of tribal tradition. And he continues to wag his finger and shake his fist at God while forever misquoting the Old Testament and struggling to see all sides of a proposition. And, of course, he is especially concerned about finding and maintaining a balance rather like a fiddler on a roof.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Photos by Joan Marcus

But his Anatevka in this version (designed by Michael Yeargan) has an abstract quality that transcends realism while, paradoxically, fortifying the all-too-human qualities of the fable. Its frame is a bare stage with a grey brick wall at the rear and a name-sign hanging forlornly against the emptiness. Tevye, book in hand, stands in a red parka, as if he were mentally revisiting what once was his own folk story. Then he doffs his jacket, pulls out his prayer shawl from under his vest, and the emblematic fiddler (a superb Jesse Kovarsky) strikes up a solo to start the first ensemble musical number. This is the first electrifying jolt—“Tradition”—with the villagers rising as if out of the ground and advancing downstage. The sequence is almost surrealistic—as is the set design where the village is often evoked in free-floating sections of homes suspended in a sky of purple and deep blue so evocative of Chagall.

Hofesh Shechter’s choreography pays due homage to Jerome Robbins’s original but charts its own distinctive style with sinuous patterns described by twirls and upturned hands that seem to implore as well as affirm their difficult universe. “To Life” is a virtuoso piece, demarcating differences in Russian and Anatevkan physical movement. The wedding “Bottle Dance” is Robbins redux to a degree but there is a wonderful ecstasy that frames it, and there is much free-wheeling stomping, hand waving, and swaying that seem to inspire Tevye’s own light-footedness. Even the hilarious “Tevye’s Dream” has a colour and surrealistic verve not always found in other productions.

Michael Bernardi (son of Herschel, one of the most famous Broadway Tevyes) literally steps into his father’s stage boots, without quite filling the role. He has a light texture, a light voice, and a sweet innocence that make it seem as if he was moving mainly on the surface of the famous role. His comedy lacks definition because it is chiefly low key, and his lack of stage weight denies Tevye some of his edgy gravitas. Bernardi is a relatively young Tevye (though not the first of this kind) and there is a certain charm in his milkman. His formidable wife Golde is performed to a tee by equally formidable but fully human Jessica Hecht, who turns what could simply be a stereotypical shrew or spitfire into a bone-weary housewife and mother with a face that maps her anxiety and forbearance. Fierce yet poignant, Hecht is the best Golde in memory. Her duet with Bernardi’s Tevye (“Do You Love Me?”) is delicately moving.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Photos by Joan Marcus

Tevye’s daughters go through their pre-ordained comic, romantic, and dramatic paces without vocal faltering, though their acting is not of the highest quality. Ben Rappaport makes a fine Perchik, the young firebrand socialist student, and Adam Kantor a wonderfully timorous Motel, the tailor of woebegone looks, quivering fear, who can’t dive under a horseless wagon fast enough to escape Tevye’s intimidating rage. As the gossipy matchmaker Yente, Alix Korey has a flinty voice and a hard face, and she delivers her ironies with throwaway assurance.

The musical’s set pieces (especially “Sabbath Prayer” and “Sunrise, Sunset”) are performed with heart-stopping beauty, one lit by candles, the other against a painted backdrop of warm light by Donald Hodder, who washes the rear brick wall with a chilly blue-grey for the final melancholy scenes when the villagers turn into exiles, slowly leaving their homes for new worlds.

 

FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS (PARTS I, II, III)

By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Weyni Mengesha
Soulpepper production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. August 4-27, 2016

(L-R): Dion Johnstone (Hero) and Oliver Dennis (Colonel) photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

(L-R): Dion Johnstone (Hero) and Oliver Dennis (Colonel)
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Suzan-Lori Parks’s brilliant play, sprung out of her own experience as the daughter of an army colonel who fought in Vietnam, has intriguing but rather ponderous titles for its three parts: A Measure of a Man, A Battle in the Wilderness, and The Union of My Confederate Parts. But the sheer writing on subjects of identity and freedom is astonishing for its versatility, dramatic range, and power. In the first part, that opens in a plantation field in Texas in 1862—Lorenzo Savoini’s raw set is less specific, yet strangely connotative—there is a chorus of black slaves, a hero called Hero, a man called Homer who had tried to run away but who had a foot chopped off in punishment by Hero (who was acting on behalf of his white master), and a woman (Hero’s) who is named Penny. There is also a black woman with a guitar, who strolls on stage and sings ballads that provide context and commentary. If many of these small details hearken back to Homer, they are meant to do so. But with significant differences: it is not the hero who is called Homer, and the Homer in this case is lame rather than blind. Penny is obviously a diminutive of Penelope—though from the playwright’s biography we learn that she is also named after one of Parks’s earliest girlhood friends in Texas, whose surname happened to be Lincoln. Hero later calls himself Ulysses (after Ulysses S. Grant), and his tale involves his going off to war and then returning. Instead of a son, he has a faithful dog (named Odd See), that turns out to be one of the boldest cases of comic symbolism on stage. All these examples make a strong case of a playwright mixing seriousness with arc, ironic humour, riffing on an ancient Greek classic, yet taking the measure of very American themes.

In Part I, the issue is whether Hero will leave the cotton plantation and Penny to join the rebel side in the war. He is faced with a big decision: act on his adoptive father’s urging to fight and earn a better future, as well as on his white master’s promise of freedom if he joins the army, or stay with Penny to whom he has promised fidelity. Homer does not think Hero should have to choose because both choices “are nothing more than the same coin flipped over and over.” The chorus circles the theme: “There is a kind of sport to be had/In the consideration of someone else’s fate.”

Part II (the best written, sharpest drama) is set on a Southern battlefield, where the Colonel, Hero’s white supremacist master with a large white plume in his hat, is a sadist who tortures a white captive Union soldier in a makeshift wooden cage. This prisoner (named Smith) is seriously wounded in one leg (a sly reference to the classic Ulysses), and this becomes an emblem of a wound that cripples a bond between North and South, black and white. Gradually, prisoner and Hero bond with significant implications.

Finally, in Part III, that is shot through with absurdist humour, Hero returns home from the war in the fall of 1863, is reunited with his faithful dog Odd See but has to contend with Homer who has become a rival suitor for Penny. Hero has brought Homer an alabaster foot as a sign of remorse, but he also reveals he has betrayed Penny for another woman because he wanted children. This is where the absurdist hyper-real comedy of a comic dog griot and the ugliness of the Civil War give way to a squalid domestic drama about infidelity, but Parks does not exhaust her imagination. As Tony Kushner has noted, she pushes racial clichés out of hidden corners to make us wince. And to this end, Hero feels the awfulness of choice sticking in his very throat. Parks’s real focus is on the psychological and physical abuses wrought by slavery, as well as the darkness of the future as an emancipated slave. “How much you think we’re gonna be worth when Freedom comes?” he asks. “Seems like the worth of a coloured man, once he’s made free, is less than his worth when he’s a slave.” It sounds like a rhetorical question but it is not finally answered because the play itself is but the first link in a major work that is projected to run to nine more parts.

Lisa Berry (Penny) and Darren A. Herbert (Homer) photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Lisa Berry (Penny) and Darren A. Herbert (Homer)
photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Weyni Mengesha goes a long way to realizing the play’s trenchant power. I was initially concerned about an apparent lack of cohesive style, but I eventually realized that the lack of consistency is a radical feature in the script. Parks is a genius who writes with an open heart, and she never allows her themes to sound pontifical or be written in block capitals. She also has the genius to reference a wide range of literature from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare and contemporary musicals and pop culture. And she displays admirable rhetorical jouissance, an exuberance of eclectic language and diction. This richness challenges an audience’s alertness—a good thing—while simultaneously jarring it by an elision of modes. However, Mengesha does slacken dramatic tension by having Divine Brown (the wandering Musician) sit with the audience and then stroll on stage and off. Brown is a fine singer but her role appears to be more of an act than a chorus central to the play. Savoini’s set, Dana Osbourne’s mixed period costumes, and Kevin Lamotte’s more precise lighting have a functional excellence, and the cast’s acting is never less than competent and sometimes much more than this. The Runaway Chorus (Akosua Amo-Adem, Roy Lewis, Marcel Stewart) are often better individually than as a spoken group, but Walter Borden as the Oldest Old Man or Hero’s surrogate father has an affecting bass tone that gives his words weight and gravity. Daren A. Herbert displays crippled Homer’s frustrations tellingly, while Dion Johnstone makes something touching of Hero’s conflicted emotions and thoughts, and Lisa Berry takes measure of Penny’s angry passion convincingly, if shrilly.

Of the three outstanding performances among the rest of the cast, one is Peter Fernandes’s of a canine griot that is irrepressibly spirited and dazzlingly virtuosic—easily this actor’s best performance to date. Gregory Prest’s wounded Union soldier is intelligently contained without ever losing any facets of the role, and this actor’s interplay with Johnstone’s Hero is compelling. And then there is Oliver Dennis, a master clown who has sometimes shown that he is more than this. His guitar-strumming rebel Colonel runs the gamut from arrogant sadism and impulsive baiting to ideological complexity. These three performances show how first-rate acting can enlarge even the most challenging text with extraordinary force.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE

by Lee Hall
Directed by Declan Donnellan
At the Avon Theatre. Till October 16, 2016

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Luke Humphrey as Will Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Shakespeare has been singularly unfortunate in many of his tinkers and tailors who have operated out of his age and time to cut him down to size and take the mystique out of his myth. Shakespeare in Love, both on film and now on stage, take him down many notches to groundling level, representing him as an awful literary stumblebum who needs the collective help of assorted tavern habitues to help him with a bad case of writer’s block or the individual help of Kit Marlowe who does not resent in the slightest being plagiarized by a verbally clumsy upstart. Despite the considerable cachet of Tom Stoppard (responsible for the screenplay in collaboration with Marc Norman), and the undeniable colour, verve, and virtuosity of Dame Judi Dench as Elizabeth I and Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe, as well as an undeserved number of Oscars, the film failed to charm me overall. I could not believe Gwyneth Paltrow as an Elizabethan, either in her female self as Viola de Lesseps or in her male stage disguise in the Rose Theatre, and I certainly am not moved, charmed, or impressed by Declan Donnellan’s production, in which Shannon Taylor is more concerned with her English accent than with characterization and texture.

Luke Humphrey (centre) as Will Shakespeare with members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

Luke Humphrey (centre) as Will Shakespeare with members of the company in Shakespeare in Love. Photography by David Hou.

The stage version is virtually a carbon copy of the plot and characters of the film. Our Will here is reported to have some potential, as he struggles with a sonnet and then a play entitled Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter that he has promised to two rival theatres. He meets beautiful Viola de Lesseps who yearns for a stage career (even though this is outlawed for women of the era), falls in love, suffers complications, but overcomes his writer’s block. The stage version has limited value: a triple-level section of the Rose Theatre, with movable parts; a swashbuckling moment or two; a romance between its young, callow Will and Viola (disguised as a boy in Henslowe’s company); lute music and ballads; and winning performances by Karen Robinson as Nurse (a forerunner of Juliet’s), Sarah Orenstein as regal Elizabeth (avoiding any imitation of Dame Judi), Tom McCamus as pragmatic but tyrannical Fennyman, Stephen Ouimette as comically frustrated Henslowe, and a dog named Spot (who gives rise to the predictable joke: “Out, damned spot!”). Luke Humphrey is sweet, innocent, sometimes too much of a dunderhead as Shakespeare, and he is forced to enlist Marlowe as his Cyrano when attempting to woo Viola under a balcony. Impossible to reconcile him with the Shakespeare of the great plays. The rest is grist to the broadly comic mill. Brad Hodder as Ned Alleyn and Steve Ross as Burbage provide no more than a single facet of characterization, and others are used as jokey references to characters and lines of dialogue from the real Shakespeare in his time. Swarthy complexioned Saamer Usmani is a flamboyant Marlowe, whom he plays lightly and busily on his feet. There are inside jokes, of course: a Boatman (Mike Nadajewski) who eagerly offers his massive play to Shakespeare; hapless amateurs auditioning for a role at the Rose; Tillney, the censorious Master of Revels, acting like Malvolio; complaints about the recycling of Verona as setting; and all-too-recognizable lines from some of the Bard’s most famous plays. In the baldest terms, this show is the dumbing down of Shakespeare that is only half as entertaining as Something Rotten!, a far better parody of musicals and Shakespeare, and far more energetic and colourful.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Book by Hugh Wheeler
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
At the Avon Theatre. Till October 23, 2016

Yanna McIntosh as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Yanna McIntosh as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Swedish film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music represents the three smiles (on youth, adult fools, and old age) with a somewhat Shakespearean sense of dreamlike but rueful comedy, and moves elegantly on the surface of emotion, exposing what lies under social masks and theatrical disguises in a twilit world. The score and lyrics afford glimpses into a shadowy, illusory world of romance, with Sondheim following but also taking off from the world of operetta because he is too daring a composer to miss opportunities for cynicism and sexual tension. The musical focusses on characters summoned to a weekend in a summer house, where young and old lovers intersect, and where lovers’ misunderstandings, jealousies, disguises, and duels combine in a single romantic entity. Widower-lawyer Frederick has a teenage, virginal wife, Anne, who is suddenly drawn to her young stepson Henrik, a musician and candidate for the priesthood. Frederick is himself still secretly in love with Desiree, a famous stage actress, who is, in fact, the mother of their love-child, Fredrika (a gender change from the original version). But Desiree also has another married admirer, Count Magnus, whose wife Charlotte is a friend to Frederick’s young second wife. Then there is also a sensual maid, Petra, who lusts after young Henrik. Hormones rage under moonlight, mixed couples are mixed up in complications, and the ways of this world are observed by the hostess, Madame Armfeldt, in her wheelchair, with the comfort of wine in a Swedish white night.

Gary Griffin’s production has some charm, comedy, and romance, but it is bedevilled by an inexplicably ugly set design by Debra Hanson who has placed copper-coloured smokestacks in the background and uses oversized wrought iron gates for the chateau, thereby ruining romantic ambience. Her costumes are only minimally interesting: the Lebeslieder quintet is all in deadening black with some glittering gold accents; Count Carl-Magnus resembles a stock figure out of Gilbert and Sullivan; and in one of the most romantic sequences at the chateau, all the principal women wear off-white or beige, creating visual blandness.

Cynthia Dale as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Juan Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (background: Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman) in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Cynthia Dale as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Juan Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (background: Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman) in A Little Night Music. Photography by David Hou.

Fortunately, the orchestra and singers are generally fine, emphasizing the airiness of Sondheim’s waltzes and the sophistications of the composer’s brilliant frivolousness, delicacy, and drama. Musicologists can offer useful analyses of Sondheim’s leitmotifs and his use of popular musical models, such as the sarabande, polonaise, mazurka, and gigue, while explaining how many of the songs are trios or duets or deal with love triangles, and how nearly everything is in triple form and content. The passionate theatregoer, however, can be entertained by the tale itself and its characters’ foibles. There are fine performances by Sara Farb as promiscuous Petra, Ben Campbell as courtly, witty, boasting and complaining Frederik, Gabriel Antonacci as conflicted and confused Henrik, and Yanna McIntosh as Desiree (who scores in the famous “Send in the Clowns” but whose singing voice is otherwise not choice). Juan Chioran scores comic points as the foolishly pompous Count but his movement is stiff, while Alexis Gordon’s girlish Anne is better in song than in acting, and Cynthia Dale is glamorous but superficial as Charlotte, failing to convince us that every day is a little death for her. Rosemary Dunsmore’s Madame Armfeldt is wry and wise but somewhat lacking in tart cynicism. She is scarcely as old as she needs to be, having outlived all her illusions “by centuries.” So, overall, the production avoids being remote or cold but it merely gestures at stings in the heart and head.

SWEENEY TODD

By Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
At the Festival Theatre, July 30-October 19, 2016

Ben Campbell (Sweeeney Todd) and Marcus Nance (Judge Turpin) (photo: David Cooper)

Ben Campbell (Sweeeney Todd) and Marcus Nance (Judge Turpin)
(photo: David Cooper)

 

Jackie Maxwell bids farewell as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival with a strong production of Sweeney Todd that she directs with aplomb. This gory, soaring opera is one of the most powerful of American musicals, and it exposes awful passions in psychic caverns with almost perverse ecstasy. A supersized tale of a man who seeks revenge against those who destroyed his family and sent him to prison in Australia on a trumped up charge, Sweeney Todd exploits Victorian penny dreadful material to eerie and macabre effect. Maxwell’s version is actually less bloody than most earlier versions because, without avoiding the libretto’s exposure of homicidal rage, her primary focus is on the obsessions of figures caught in conundrums of sex and death. Set in what seems to be a dreary, decaying industrial building with peeling walls, corroded pipes, and broken glass windows (as designed by Judith Bowden, whose costumes are also seedy and coarse for the most part), the production refuses the sort of hulking set that dominated and somewhat shrank the human drama at its core. This one does not avoid Darwinian class struggle or Dickensian horror, but instead of expressing its social critique in block capitals, it elects to concentrate on universal internal demons.

The audience still hears a funereal organ, the screech of a factory whistle, and a low Gothic rumble of chords. Victorian London is still a big black pit filled with people who are full of shit. And you imagine rats scurrying into holes. But the sinister presentiments are not accented with lurid red lighting—until very late in the story, and the overall vision is very much one of corruption. Alan Brodie’s lighting creates macabre ambience, while Valerie Moore’s choreography sets the flashback rape of Todd’s wife to a minuet at a masked ball. The Beggar Woman remains an ugly, scarred wench with raging carnal lust. And Sweeney is undoubtedly “an artist with a knife.” But instead of being a Brechtian symbol or an exaggerated figure out of Grand Guignol, he is unmistakably human. Ben Campbell does not play him with a chalky face or with exaggerated raccoon eyes. He plays him life-size, with just the skin of dignity covering a seething interior. Of course, this Todd is wronged by his society, and of course, he is bloodthirsty, but he makes us feel the immense hurt he has felt for fifteen years of harsh exile and for his ruined life. And with Corrine Koslo, as his bantam-weight Mrs. Lovett, the maker of the worst pies in London, theirs is a very human tale of struggle, devastated innocence, thwarted ambition, savage exploitation, and lost love twisted into hate. Neither of these marvellous performers is a strong singer, but in this instance, what would otherwise be an almost crippling flaw is mitigated by their extraordinarily moving acting. And it is moving because it is truthful.

Sweeney Todd is often presumed to be superhuman. But he is not. He is scary and even monstrous, but he is also heroic, a product and an enemy of the society that shaped him. His killings as barber with his glinting knives have a mechanical efficiency (here somewhat compromised by an awkward barber chair that does not slide its victims effortlessly into Mrs. Lovett’s raging furnace), but he only turns into a devil because of the devils who have betrayed him, especially sadomasochistic Judge Turpin (strongly portrayed and sung by Marcus Nance in his deep, rich, black bass), and the mercurial Beadle (Jay Turvey in a full-blooded performance). Campbell, therefore, entices us into his performance, showing us a real man with a shockingly human face. And his singing voice is at the very least competently bass-baritone, with clear articulation and deep feeling as he moves from gentle melody for Sweeney’s aching longings for peace to staccato intensity with sharp breaks to mark how his life has been cruelly interrupted.

As for Corrine Koslo, her Mrs. Lovett is, in several ways, superior to that of the much beloved Angela Lansbury, because it is not mainly or even largely a vaudevillian turn with English music-hall humour and exaggeration. Koslo shows us a woman who uses any means at her disposal to survive her Victorian horror of poverty. She also shows us a woman who can love, who can be ruefully yearning, and desperately but fatally in love with Todd. So, the actress scores an immense double. She triumphs in the comic numbers: she turns “The Worst Pies in London” into a savagely funny battle against flies, dust, and resisting dough while skilfully negotiating the witty rhymes, alliteration, and vaguely lewd suggestions; she revels in her duet with Todd about different pie fillings (“A Little Priest”), filled with puns and lighthearted playfulness despite the gruesome premise; and she strikes rare notes of deranged wistfulness in “By the Sea” that gives her comedy palpable human weight and vulnerability. In other words, Koslo achieves what no other actress has matched: a perfect blending of wry, black comedy and ruefulness.

Maxwell’s production manages to find the ultimate Angst in the fable by showing how humour and violence are dichotomies that can be harnessed together without trivializing horror. The production does not wink at melodrama: the beautiful lyricism of the Johanna-Anthony Hope romance is excellently captured by Kristi Frank and Jeff Irving, while Andrew Broderick renders a very fine, poignant portrait of the simple-minded, forlorn Tobias, the pie-shop assistant. The only performance that is underpowered is Patty Jamieson’s Beggar Woman, but the actress acts well, and there are other strong compensations, such as Kyle Blair’s comically venal mountebank Pirelli, and a generally strong ensemble that (apart from the “City on Fire” sequence) seals the final impression of mentally disturbed inmates of Fogg’s Asylum. The feverish chant in an almost mythic ballad establishes the torment and the tragedy of Sweeney Todd.

Finally, there are two other aspects of the production that warrant applause: the 16-member orchestra under the baton of Paul Sportelli that eloquently negotiates all of Sondheim’s leitmotifs and musical range of echoes, inversions, parodies, and provocations; and Jackie Maxwell’s superb ability to tell the story clearly, without special effects, but with piercing force as a musical about fatal obsessions. The libretto is undeniably schizophrenic, but this production surmounts this troubling quality, not by denying it but by embracing it as an enthralling dichotomy of laughter and suffering, blood and tears.

THE DANCE OF DEATH

by August Strindberg
Directed by Martha Henry
At the Studio Theatre. July 23-September 10, 2016

(L-R): Jim Mezon (Edgar), Fiona Reid (Alice), and Patrick Galligan (Kurt) (photo: David Cooper)

(L-R): Jim Mezon (Edgar), Fiona Reid (Alice), and Patrick Galligan (Kurt)
(photo: David Cooper)

The Dance of Death is a caricature of tragedy, which does not mean, however, that it is a cartoon. Alas, Martha Henry’s production treats it like a broad, wild farce, with two central performances that run the gamut from staggering exaggeration to scampering salon comedy. The staggering comes chiefly from Jim Mezon, whose sour Captain Edgar often seems to rerun some of his worst vocal and physical mannerisms from other roles, while the scampering comes courtesy of Fiona Reid as his tormented and tormenting wife, Alice, who seems to have Feydeau’s boudoir comedies in mind. Strindberg meant his piece to be darkly comic, verging on the tragic. The long-married couple, nearing their twenty-fifth anniversary, indulge in almost incessant rituals of domestic duelling, as they waste away in a prison-like enclosure of an old stone island fortress (designed by William Schmuck). Theirs is a cruel, vindictive battle of the sexes (inspired by Strindberg’s own life experience), but there is much rancid comedy in the battle of a type that was to inspire O’Neill, Sartre, Ionesco, Beckett, and Albee. Call it absurd, if you will, in the philosophic sense, but the play also ingests nightmarish horror—something that this production never reaches.
The garrison Captain is physically debilitated, an acutely near-sighted heavy drinker, a pathological abuser of men and women, and a stingy liar. His wife is a former actress (therefore, a more skilfull liar) who had given up her career for him. Two of the couple’s four children have died, and the other two live away from the bitter parents. Cynical insult follows insult with battering force and frequency in Connor McPherson’s new translation. Into their whirling vortex of almost hysterical derangement steps Kurt (Patrick Galligan), the Quarantine Officer and Alice’s cousin, returning after fifteen years abroad, divorced and robbed of his children. He is a man both sinned against and sinning—as his relationship with Alice shows—and though he is sensuous and well meaning, he is also an erotic vampire, or, at least, shows traces of this dire condition, though Galligan and Reid don’t have any special chemistry together, and their sex scenes are rather tame.
Surely the point of this play is a danse macabre, a ritual that the couple has been used to playing for years, and one that encapsulates their death-in-life. Influenced by Zola, Darwin, and Swedenborg, Strindberg was a forerunner of German Expressionism, and there are palpably grotesque elements in this play. In other words, the predominant style is realism, with more than passing nods to Absurdism and even the phantasmagoric. Henry’s production lacks height and depth. It is loud, frenetic, broadly comic, and neither Mezon nor Reid comes close to full portraiture. Mezon is merely a slob as the Captain, staggering around from start to finish, executing some of the most ungraceful, unfunny movements in uniform when he performs a rankly amateurish version of a Boyar dance. He has a loud, battering voice, which is good for the loud, battering passages of dialogue, but he is never touching, never capable of ambiguity. Reid is better, of course, at comedy, but comedy is all she seems to have at her fingertips in this woeful production and nothing more. The attempts at Expressionism seem to be reserved for Louise Guinand’s lighting (mauve or purple or green background washes) and James Smith’s sound design with loud offstage stomping down and up stairs. Oh, and there is the young sentry who marches ceremoniously in the background. He ages and acquires an acute, chronic limp in the second act, without explanation. That must be symbolically linked to the paranoia or destruction in the central story. Or is he simply exhausted and crippled by the production itself that left many on the opening night in a semi-coma?