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 PLOUGH AND THE STARS

By Sean O’Casey
Directed by Sean Holmes
An Abbey Theatre Production at Canadian Stage
Opened September 15, 2016. Till September 18, 2016

Ian-Lloyd Anderson (Jack Clitheroe) and Kate Stanley Brennan (Nora Clitheroe) (photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Ian-Lloyd Anderson (Jack Clitheroe) and Kate Stanley Brennan (Nora Clitheroe)
(photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Sean Holmes deconstructs O’Casey’s passionate anti-war, anti-romantic play written about events in Dublin between November 1915 and the following Easter. O’Casey concentrates on slum characters who are shiftless but temperamentally romantic. Many of them have the gift of the gab, but their plight is generally desperate and hopeless. They argue about religion, politics, love, and life in general. Some are hard drinkers; others are more passive. Some taunt one another mercilessly; others loot at the first opportunity. Some want to be patriotic heroes; others lament the tragic waste of life. In some respects, O’Casey gives us slices of life that evoke Dickens and Balzac, but with his own signature humour and toughness. His play is born out of his resentment against the suppression of hard, unpleasant facts of poverty and the false glorification of martyrdom. There were over four hundred casualties in the Rising, and more than half were civilians. Although the words of Patrick Pearse are broadcast loudly, their militant sentiments are undercut by tragic events. But the play’s tragic close comes only after much foolery, especially in the cases of Young Covey (the socialist) and Peter Flynn (the old codger forever maundering about some long-ago patriot), or in the racy farce of Fluther Good, the drunken carpenter.

Holmes shoves aside traditional realism and replaces it with elements of Brechtian epic theatre. Instead of three walls there is only one in Jon Bauser’s design—a long, high rear wall—and the rest is largely an open stage with only the merest representations of doors, closet, and tenement staircase. The crowded tenement is represented by a metal tower that is later lowered to lie parallel to the stage floor and become the attic room of Bessie Burgess, the ferocious, foul-mouthed, booze-sodden battler. Without any clear realistic demarcation or definition of living room, public house, street, or attic, the audience is left to fill in the blanks, but Holmes’s production never shrinks from its own bold choices. The first character to appear is Rachel Gleeson’s quivering Mollser who sings “The Soldier’s Song” softly and nervously as a faux curtain raiser, deceiving a few in the audience who think it is an anthem they should honour but suddenly devolving into a coughing fit where consumptive Mollser gives bloody evidence of the disease that will kill her. Hers is the first but certainly not the last character to address the audience directly. Others even indulge in passing repartee with audience members, thereby giving the production a deliberately anti-realistic slant.

Lloyd Cooney (Lt. Langon) and Liam Heslin (Capt. Brennan) (photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Lloyd Cooney (Lt. Langon) and Liam Heslin (Capt. Brennan)
(photo: Ros Kavanagh)

Paul Keogan’s lighting is largely a matter of harsh or low fluorescence and occasional spots or coloured highlights, emphasizing the harsh ugliness of the social context. Catherine Fay’s costuming is primarily working-class modern, with period detail creeping in and increasing as the story unfolds. And Philip Stewart’s Music and Sound Design keeps predominantly to booming punk, along with amplified artillery sounds of the Easter uprising. Characters commonly hold hand microphones to sing or make proclamations. While this brings O’Casey throbbingly into the contemporary sphere, it also alienates him from us in a strange irony. For one thing, the lack of detailed physicality sometimes creates vagueness. Although we see Fluther fiddling around with a screwdriver and a door to stamp him as a carpenter, we don’t get any sense that Mrs. Gogan is a charwoman or that Bessie Burgess is a fruit vendor. The only labour that Peter Flynn seems to do is wrestle with his starched collar or with his uniform and plumed hat. There is little evidence that Jack Clitheroe is a bricklayer, though Rosie Redmond’s feathery overcoat and loose manner leave no doubt of her sleazy trade.

There is an ironic gain despite all the deficiencies: the human quotient is stressed throughout, first and last by the women (gossiping Mrs. Gogan, battling Bessie Burgess, dying Mollser, and romantically devastated Nora Clitheroe who loses her baby, as well as her husband), but without neglecting the men in their various flaws and follies. And the big scenes—such as the Citizen Army pledge to imprisonment, wounds, and death or Rosie and Fluther’s drunken dalliance or the accidental death of Bessie while Nora is in the throes of madness—are clearly felt.

At the tragic centre of the production are Hilda Fay’s coarse-textured Bessie with a foul mouth and temper but ultimately really kind though broken heart; Kate Stanley Brennan’s emotionally and mentally ravaged Nora and Ian-Lloyd Anderson’s noble Jack, her foolishly brave husband. Accolades to the rest of the ensemble, some of whom skilfully show the Shakespearean side of O’Casey, with Ciaran O’Brien’s Covey sounding like Pistol in his wild moments; James Hayes’s Flynn looking and lamenting a bit like Shallow; Nyree Yergainharsian’s Rosie behaving for all the world like Doll; and David Ganly’s clown of a Fluther antically misbehaving like roguish Falstaff. This is not the definitive version of O’Casey’s play but it is a powerful rendition, deliberately tart and bitter, undercutting all the hokum about noble patriotism.

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.

THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE

By C.S. Lewis
Dramatized by Adrian Mitchell
Directed by Tim Carroll
At the Avon Theatre, June 2-November 13, 2016,/b>

(L-R): Sara Farb (Lucy), Andre Morin (Edmund), Ruby Joy (Susan), Gareth Potter (Peter) (photo: David Hou)

(L-R): Sara Farb (Lucy), Andre Morin (Edmund), Ruby Joy (Susan), Gareth Potter (Peter)
(photo: David Hou)

I admit to not having read any of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales until a month or two ago, so I cannot call myself a true blue fan—unlike the rather snotty boy seated beside me at a matinee. When I asked if he had read the fiction, he replied, smart phone in hand: “Well, I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t, would I?” I hope will be as avid a reader of Shakespeare when he sees a Stratford Shakespearean production. But the truth is that no one has to be familiar with the fable before seeing Adrian Mitchell’s skilful adaptation (originally for the RSC), directed lovingly and with read charm by Tim Carroll. This production will make children of us all, in the best sense because it invokes our imagination the way any good fantasy does. And it releases its story through an old wardrobe.

The back story behind this device is interesting. An Oxford don, C.S. Lewis lived outside the city in a large house where he hosted young children who had been evacuated from London to escape Nazi bombardment. One of these children became fascinated by an old wardrobe in one of the bedrooms and wondered what might be in it. Lewis drew on this child’s curiosity to shape his Chronicles of Narnia, and Tim Carroll’s fabulous production (pun intended) channels Lewis’s flights of fancy with admirable simplicity and imaginative inventiveness.

Tom McCamus (left) as Aslan and Gareth Potter as Peter Photography by David Hou.

Tom McCamus (left) as Aslan and Gareth Potter as Peter
Photography by David Hou.

Carroll remembers what it is like to be a child, especially one who has to deal with adults, what it means to be called a liar when a better word might be an imaginer. And running true to the spirit of literature, he frames his handsome production with a literary emblem: a world of books. The most significant characters and props are made of paper and book bindings, beginning (in Douglas Paraschuk’s splendid design) with Professor Kirk’s house, continuing with a book-bedecked alternative universe on the other side of the wardrobe, and reaching a glorious high point with the awesomely regal approach of Aslan, whose giant head, torso, and paws are made of scraps of paper like a huge animal puppet, with two humans controlling his movements from within his paper hide. Alexis Milligan’s puppets (large and small) owe a debt to War Horse and The Lion King, but this does not diminish their appeal, and Aslan’s death and resurrection are striking coups de theatre, certain to be show-stopping moments.

Carroll also re-visits wartime England and the issue of evacuated children, for his production starts with the horrors of the London Blitz when the four Pevensie children take a railway carriage (a mere representation of one) from London to presumed safety in the countryside and the abode of Professor Kirk (a stern, tousle-haired Tom McCamus) and his Scottish housekeeper Mrs. Macready (Rosemary Dunsmore). Right from the start, Carroll has superb creative collaborators in Brad Peterson (projections), Kevin Fraser (lighting), the late Todd Charlton (sound), and, of course, the afore-mentioned Douglas Paraschuk. The Blitz scene and evacuation are rendered dramatically by lanterns in pouring dark and silhouettes on a cyclorama, and after the children pass through the wardrobe into Narnia, the décor shifts to a winter scene of stone statues and fifty shades of fir in a winter wonderland.

(L-R): Andre Morin (Edmund) and Yanna McIntosh (White Witch) Photography by David Hou.

(L-R): Andre Morin (Edmund) and Yanna McIntosh (White Witch)
Photography by David Hou.

Dana Osborne’s costumes come to the fore with the appearances of Steve Ross’s Mr. Beaver (and his large whimsical tail), Barbara Fulton’s buck-toothed Mrs. Beaver, Sean Arbuckle’s Giant Rumblebuffin, Mike Nadajewski’s Mr. Tumnus (a tearful faun with butter hoofs), and Yanna McIntosh’s glitteringly evil White Witch, who delights in turning enemies to stone and making Narnia a place where it is “always winter and never Christmas.”

But the beguilement is not entirely a matter of projections and puppets, décor and lighting, costumes and sound effects. It is also certainly not because of the music and songs, which often sound tonally wrong. Much of the charm lies in the acting ensemble, particularly Nadajewski’s Tumnus, but strong points are also scored by Sara Farb’s sweet-natured Lucy; Ruby Joy’s caring, motherly Susan; Andre Morin’s conflicted Edmund); Gareth Potter’s stalwart, heroic Peter; and Tom McCamus’s Aslan (though McCamus does not show much vocal differentiation between his Professor and the lion). Little wonder that this show is the hottest ticket so far this season.

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.