THE OVERCOAT: A MUSICAL TAILORING

Libretto and Direction by Morris Panych
A Canadian Stage Co-Production
with Tapestry Opera and Vancouver Opera
March 29-April 14, 2018

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy (photo: Dahlia Katz)

An ordinary man’s life is turned upside down after he has a new overcoat made for him. You wouldn’t necessarily think much of this seed of a plot, but Gogol made immense satire of it in his 1842 short story, and over a hundred years later, Morris Panych devised a gleaming mime-and-movement piece that went on to win immense favour and critical awards. Being a clever artist, Panych has not left this critical and popular success go to waste. Two decades after the debut of his smash hit, Panych has re-tailored his wordless Overcoat into an opera, with the considerable help of James Rolfe’s music that uses and reshapes Shostakovich, with some quotation from Bach and Beethoven, and a witty nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. Panych’s long-time collaborator and real-life partner, Ken Macdonald puts his own creative resourcefulness to the test, re-painting and adapting his modular set from Sweet Charity a few seasons ago at the Shaw to the minimalist requirements of this musicalized fable.

The physical scale of the production is still large, but the lyrics and music ally with the ensemble’s movement (choreography by Wendy Gorling) to expand the core feelings behind the characters and themes. After all, musical theatre cannot have the same verbal dexterity of intricate thought that straight theatre can have, but Panych knows this already, and he also exploits the potential of physical theatre to express human emotion. After all, movement divorced from feeling is abstract to a fault, and Gogol’s fable is anything but abstract. It satirizes human need, urgency, and foibles. Akakiy (lanky baritone Geoffrey Sirett) is an accountant who rhapsodizes numbers in his head. “Is there anything that doesn’t count?” he wonders aloud, suggesting extra connotations for the question. Zero is his favourite numeral. However, though his mind expands with the ecstasy of enumeration, his image shrinks in the eyes of others because of his shabby government overcoat that provokes their disdain and distaste. When the snuff-addicted tailor Petrovich (a very fine Peter McGillivray who also doubles as the officious Head of Department) makes Akakiy an imposing, almost regal overcoat, Akakiy’s fortunes turn. Panych repeats the wonderful moment when the new overcoat takes on a headless life of its own, with Akakiy’s rapture clearly showing. But the accountant’s material fortune doesn’t take into account the vagaries of life, and Akakiy is eventually reduced to a frustrated madman, imprisoned in an asylum where other inmates serve as a chorus or corps to register his descent into lunacy, with the overcoat becoming Akakiy’s straitjacket.

Akakiy surrounded by Mad Chorus (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Panych’s production is colourfully stylized, wonderfully lit by Alan Brodie, and cleverly costumed by Nancy Bryant in a manner that allows freedom of expressive movement, though the choreography of the commuters is sometimes overly repetitive with diminishing returns. However, the score (played by a 12-piece orchestra conducted masterfully by Leslie Dala), the ensemble sequences, and the singing work together to make the re-tailoring a major achievement, with especially fine work accomplished by Sirett (whose kinetic blissful quirkiness morphs into demented immobility), McGillivray (a double treat as tailor and head bureaucrat), Andrea Ludwig as a louche landlady who could have been generated by Brecht, and a superb mad chorus by Magali Simard-Galdes, Caitlin Wood, and Erica Iris Huang.

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THE GOD GAME

By Jeffrey Round
Dundurn
326 pages, $16.99 (paper)
ISBN: 9781459740105

Lambda Award-winning Toronto writer, Jeffrey Round, should be a household name in households that value gay detective fiction. The God Game, his new Dan Sharp mystery (the fifth in a series), is suspense-filled, has a vivid sense of place, and shows off Round’s special talent in the genre. Its plot concerns the missing husband of a gay Queen’s Park aide who seems to have run off to escape gambling debts, and gay detective Dan Sharp is hired to track him down. The nuts and bolts of detective fiction are in operation (a dead MPP; a mysterious figure who makes or breaks reputations of rising politicians; two sisters who trade identities; a political journalist who comes to a bad end; etc.), and the novel holds the reader’s attention throughout. But I, who am not a connoisseur of or an inveterate fan of detective fiction, don’t read Jeffrey Round merely for his tricks of suspense. I value him for his true literary motive: an exploration of human relationships within the circumscription of milieu, circumstance, and character—in other words, the exigencies of our lives, especially of gay lives, that (as Edmund White puts it) express the introspective advantages of the “outsider, of the foreigner and of the pioneer.” As a creator of gay fiction, Round performs meticulous research (on anything from gambling and local politics to gay art, LGBT issues, Weimar history, rap music, and funerary customs). He demonstrates a sensitive understanding of minority groups, and he habitually exercises an ability to reflect in fresh terms on themes of love, parenthood, friendship, disappointment, and survival in a changing world.

Every Jeffrey Round novel has a vivid sense of place, and this one is no exception. This is an instantly recognizable Toronto, with a crack-addicted mayor, gay MPP, and ethnic and stratified minorities, and its ambience is palpable, whether it issues from old-money, WASPish Rosedale, the working-class area of Bathurst and Dupont, or Queen’s Park. And Dan Sharp easily transcends clichés of the genre by the facts of his identity and unfolding existential complications. He is a gay father to an occasionally doubting son, a conflicted same sex partner, and the estranged lover of a man who provokes him into reflecting painfully on how one learns to love “through disappointment and doubt.” And Round’s flashes of wit (his chapter titles, his acidulous comment on gay status symbols, and his sketches of character) are signs of literary finesse—perhaps none so much as this phrase that crystallizes Dan’s ex-lover: “Narcissus crossed with a Botticelli angel.”

BLACK BOYS

By Saga Collectif
Directed by Jonathan Seinen
A Buddies in Bad Times Production, March 1-11, 2018

 

(L-R): Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Thomas Olajide, and Tawiah Ben M’Carthy

Having already been a smash hit in 2016 and completed a three-city tour to Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal, Black Boys is back for a brief run at Buddies. Offering itself (with tongue in cheek) as “a spiritual experience,” it is a 95-minute hybrid of dance, monologue, and discursive debate, circumscribed by the personal experiences of three black gay males in a predominantly white heterosexual world. The three are Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, a male with one black daddy and three white parents; Ghanaian-born Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy; and Thomas Olajide from Vancouver. The sparse décor (movable, gauzy sliding panels), restrained but effective lighting by Jareth Li, and strategic use of exotic costuming by Rachel Forbes later in the piece allow for greater sonic or vocal registers, and the two standout features are movement and monologue, especially with Virgilia Griffith’s dynamic choreography for solos and pas de deux (especially involving M’Carthy and Olajide).

Overall, it is fair to say that the piece is a spiritual experience, though clearly not in a religious sense. The church sequence is a hilarious parody of fundamentalist extremism and homophobia). In a well-wrought sequence about the history of “Amazing Grace,” the show hits a peak which is not, alas, held for long. Nevertheless, uneven though it is, what Black Boys manages to be a generally affecting subversive cross-genre entertainment—one that uses autobiography, sociology, politics, and sex as raw material with which to subvert the normal performative modes of gender, sexuality, and race. Anger is necessary fuel, and the black bodies become weapons of comment, protest, and attack. Sonic distortions (sound and video design by Stephen Surlin) conspire with gestural distortions to create an alluring complex, and there is ample comedy to balance the sombre, seedy, and troubling.

Jackman-Torkoff loves his own comedy, whether stripping totally early in the show, wearing a woman’s dress (rather badly), or parodying Brando’s cry for Stella from Streetcar. M’Carthy looks as appealing as black licorice, and has a voice and movement that are supple, sweet and sensuous. Olajide is sex and sin, racial pride and defiance rolled into one irresistible package. Trouble is that Black Boys over-extends itself, as some of the riffs go on with diminishing returns, and there are moments of hysteria as lean, loose-limbed Jackman-Torkoff is frequently self-indulgent in movement and vocal delivery to the point of grotesque exaggeration. However, he is not without merit, and he is more than balanced by M’Carthy’s incarnation of post-colonial African shame and, best of all, Olajide’s physical elegance and sensuality married to a potent vocal delivery that, in one stunning monologue about his black “frame” in a white “gallery,” that deploys well-wrought rhymes, crystallizes what this piece could have been as art rather than as interesting, provocative didacticism.

KING CHARLES III

By Mike Bartlett
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Presented by Studio 180 for the off-Mirvish Series,
At the CAA Theatre, Toronto until March 4, 2018
(Guest reviewer: Maria Heidler) 

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
Or, in Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play, let us address the crises that could occur following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Bartlett tells us that he has taken his inspiration from Shakespeare, and has given us a “future history”, a family epic (a 5-Act play with ghost and comic sub-plot) written in blank verse in the enveloping rhythms of iambic pentameter which, when performed by Studio 180’s superb cast, draw you into a very modern tale with modern speech; a musical of words, an opera of emotion.

As we await the start of the tale, the stage is bare apart from a top-lit, shallow, three-tiered dais which dominates the floor. Pre-show music is almost subliminal, with ghostly pulsating beats. Then a soft haze descends from above giving a sense of uncertainty – a problem yet to be solved?

Then the lights dim to a tolling of bells and choral accompaniment, as the 12 members of the cast enter and process the stage with amber candles. Charles (David Schurmann) then addresses the audience to set the scene. He tells us that this is the funeral of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Already his famous dry wit is apparent as the Royal Family gather around, and talk of his becoming King at the forthcoming Coronation. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Rosemary Dunsmore), corrects them by stating that he is King already on the death of his mother. She is ignored!

In Joel Greeberg’s fine production, scenes flow seamlessly one into another, giving the play pace and momentum. This is partly achieved by minimal set decoration, and by props and basic furniture being handled by cast and crew in neatly choreographed sequences with the dialogue continuous. This echoes how the play would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time.

Now, the King receives his weekly visit from the Prime Minister (Gray Powell) and is asked to sign into law, a Bill that has been passed by both Houses of Parliament for a Statutory Regulation of the Press and Media. Charles is concerned it restricts the freedom of the Press and asks for alterations, but the P.M. refuses. Charles later receives the Leader of the Opposition (Patrick Galligan) to voice his concerns, but this Tory can’t be swayed, not wanting to jeopardise his already tenuous position. In the meantime, both Charles and his son William, Duke of Cambridge (Jeff Meadows) have been separately visited by an apparition of Diana, Princess of Wales, who has promised both they will be “the greatest King of all”. Now Charles, tired of his many “ling’ring” years as heir-in-waiting, asserts his Royal Prerogative and dissolves Parliament. The P.M. threatens a new Law, bypassing the Royal Assent and pushing through the Bill.

In tandem with this drama, we see Prince Harry (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) in hoodie and jeans, hanging with his mates in pubs. We learn that his marriage to Meghan Markle was short-lived (Bartlett has variously updated his script since the play’s opening in the U.K. in 2014) and now he meets a vocal Republican, Jess Edwards (Jessica Greenberg), whom he falls for. The “ginger-jester” is still being hounded by the rumour that he was the lovechild of Diana’s friend, James Hewitt…that ginger hair said it all! Maybe his“outsider” status draws him to this anti-monarchist, although in a lover’sspat re his previous marriage, he points out that “she was from Hollywood –you’re from Cricklewood!” This rebellion has all the fun of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, but…anarchy is afoot. Riots take place across the country and Buckingham Palace is besieged.

(L-R): Jeff Meadows (Prince William), Shannon Taylor (Princess Catherine), Rosemary Dunsmore (Camilla), and David Schurmann (Charles III) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Charles increases the Guard and has a tank placed in the forecourt. Meanwhile, Jess is also besieged—by the Press who dig up compromising photos from her past. Charles offers to protect her and agrees to Harry’s wish to become a commoner. Impasse rules the Kingdom. But now Kate, William’s wife, (Shannon Taylor) shows her immense power and feminist principles and, in Lady Macbeth fashion, spurs her waffling husband to mediate between King and Parliament. William emasculates his father in the most public way, and both he and Harry threaten to isolate their father if he will not come to the table. He capitulates. Charles is forced to abdicate in favour of William, who plans to sign the Bill and restore the status quo. Even Harry backs down and rejects Jess and reverts to his Royal entitlement. The Coronation takes place and the processional is accompanied by an atonal dirge that reeks with foreboding. William takes his place on the Throne with Kate at his side, an Equal Consort. As Charles takes the Crown to place it on his heir’s head, he remarks at the bejewelled perimeter encircling – Nothing! Signifying nothing! The Hollow Crown.

A powerful play – particularly at this moment in history. Superbly performed by a fine cast who ‘spoke the speech, trippingly on the tongue’ and were not tempted to veer into farcical territory re the British (especially the “Royal”) accents. Also, stature and body language were spot on – even William signed the Abdication with his left hand!

A DELICATE BALANCE

By Edward Albee
Directed by Diana Leblanc
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Opened January 18, 2018

(L-R): Oliver Dennis (Tobias); Kyra Harper (Edna), Laura Condlln (Julia),  Brenda Robins (Claire), Nancy Palk (Agnes), and Derek Boyes (Harry) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Edward Albee’s comic and dramatic varnish can often camouflage the less than firm underpinnings of some of his plays. Opening in a cozy living-room of a suburban home, where Agnes, smugly serene and imperious wife of Tobias, a man cocooned in his own gentle concentration and deference, sets a tone of mandarin elegance very reminiscent to that of a Henry James character, A Delicate Balance gleams with satiric wit. The middle-aged couple are deep into their ritual of evening drinks and conversation, dominated, of course, by Agnes, who claims to be astonished by what is unfolding within her—a feeling of encroaching madness as “a gentle loosening of the moorings,” a sense of being adrift, a stranger in the world. Tobias’s initial response is a WASPish joke, in the sense of gentle irony, well-mannered and almost a throwaway before anisette or some cordial. But Albee is merely playing a game of satire, making sure that there is as yet no crack in a foundation he wishes to shake to its core in due course. It is evident that the couple are no longer sexually intimate with each other, one reason being Tobias’s fling with Claire, Agnes’s alcoholic sister, who has moved in with them, and who delights in boosting Tobias while embarrassing Agnes. And so, the ritual turns into something else.

There is talk about infidelity, frigidity, a lost child (the couple’s only son who died young), and the collapse of the fourth marriage of Julia (the couple’s daughter), who returns home quite desperate and unhappy at not having merely lost yet another husband but her own room as well in the family home. Things go from bad to eerie, with yet another desperate arrival—that of best friends, Edna and Harry, who seem terrorized by something unnamed. Soon, the new arrivants seem to be taking over the home with a sense of entitlement, and new sparks fly as the metaphorical ground shifts. Agnes drops her scorn and arrogance in moments of genuine bafflement. Tobias has a difficult time maintaining his rectitude. Harry remains frozen in terror. Julia goes to tear-streaked, rage-inflected pieces. Claire, alcohol-fuelled, sees reality the clearest, justifying her emblematic name. The play moves into existential horror. The mood is one of plague, disease, distemper. And huge cracks appear in characters’ composure, igniting explosions of anger, dismay, bafflement.

But this is where Albee turns from gleaming, witty dramatist to pretentious metaphysician or allegorist. The terror is never specifically identified, though it is probably a combination of fear of impending death and of a generalized existential need to feel comforted and wanted. Indeed, Albee crystallizes this existential truth with black humour in the final act, where it becomes abundantly clear what each character lacks in life. The truth of each character is forced out, and what first seemed like little holes or cracks are magnified into something psychologically cavernous.

In short, A Delicate Balance attempts its own balancing act of anomalous feelings and actions, rhetoric and genre, and it is really a landscape of hills and caves rather than one of gentle slopes and plains. Diana Leblanc’s production, however, is eerily flat and often monotonous, though intelligent. Hampered by the configuration of a playing area set between two sides of an audience, Astrid Janson offers a tidy carpeted living room with sideboard, sofas, and crystal, but  even Andre de Toit’s attempts at mood lighting (sometimes abrupt) do not create a sense of enveloping existential danger. Patrick Clark’s costumes are serviceable, as is John Gzowski’s sound design. The acting is generally competent, but several of the performances seem superficial and not especially vivid or fully fleshed. Derek Boyes and Kyra Harper, for example, are fine as the friends with a sense of entitlement, but they never seem credibly terrified by anything existential. They seem to be having a bad day rather than being shaken to the core by an unfulfilled need. Laura Condlln gets close to being over the top but manages to depict Julia’s spoiled brat neediness and frustration vividly. In what is often the showiest role, Brenda Robins is more of an epigrammatic joker than soul-shaken alcoholic. The comic lines come forth but there is no sense of the depth and horror of disease. As gentle but quietly frustrated Tobias, Oliver Dennis explodes more frequently than he should so that when the ultimate explosion is required as he reveals what he has been disguising for so long, he seems to be merely repeating the same anger at what had gone before. On the other hand, Nancy Palk is correctly in character as Agnes: imperious, serene as she lobs nasty verbal grenades at Claire, perplexed at the invading friends, and over-compensating for humiliations, but the degree of radiance is somewhat lower than it should be because the general tone of the production is genteel and conversational. The cast and director seem to have forgotten that all is not naturalism in Albee. I would have liked a disturbing hill or threatening cavern or two to figure more prominently in a rolling plain.

TRUE CRIME

By Torquil Campbell & Chris Abraham
Directed by Chris Abraham
A Crow’s Theatre Presentation at Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto
January 16-20, 2018

Torquil Campbell

Based on real-life impostures of a Bavarian expatriate, Christian Gerhartsreiter, in the U.S. who was convicted in 2008 of abducting his own young daughter and later of murder committed many years earlier in California, True Crime is constructed on the credo of theatre as a lie, deception, or illusion. Built from a variety of secondary evidentiary sources (video, print, film) and, most importantly, personal interviews with its notorious subject in prison, it is an absorbing 90-minute piece of suspenseful meta-theatre in which two narratives converge to play tantalizing games with the audience. Chris Abraham’s staging keeps the main focus properly on Torquil Campbell (a singer, actor who hails from a distinguished theatrical family), and this is all to the good for Campbell (whom I first saw as a young boy acting very efficiently opposite his iconic father Douglas Campbell in Shakespeare at Stratford) spins an enticing web of tale-telling. Torquil (who can boast of the fine character-actor Ben Campbell as a half-brother, and the amazingly gifted Moya O’Connell as a wife) had not acted in 18 years prior to devising this show. Both he and his subject, Gerhartsreiter (alias Clark Rockefeller, Chris Crow, Chris Chichester), are fans of Alfred Hitchcock films and Patricia Highsmith crime stories, and the show often plays out like sequences from a film noir, with stunningly portentous lighting (sometimes hazy cabaret, sometimes glaring rock concert, sometimes expressively noir) by Remington North and discreet musical accompaniment by Julian Brown, composer and multi-instrumentalist. However, there is a slanted, witty irony: the original shape-shifter was never, he claimed, into murder per se but only into intriguing ways of getting away with the crime. Gerhartsreiter preferred to call himself a confabulator because he considered himself a clever inventor whose deceptions hurt no one. This was, perhaps, the ultimate lie in a life of lies from a liar who was in a dark void that tried to swallow anyone willing to approach it.

In his glasses, short hair, and casual clothing, Campbell looks strikingly like Gerhartsreiter did in his 40s, but his incarnation of the dominant Rockefeller persona has a wryly camp vocal accent and tone, rooted, of course, in the motive of deliberate lying. Like his subject, the actor reinvents himself, turning himself from epigrammatic frontman of the band Stars into an unreliable narrator of a complicated tale about a totally unreliable criminal who has his own misleading autobiographical stories. The actor relies chiefly on himself, his own highly personal vocal skills, body language, and palpable presence. He engages briefly with warm repartee with the front-row audience, dispensing witty epigrams with just a drop or two of acid, and his only mechanical enhancement is a microphone placed near a lectern, apart from the economical but highly effective sound and lighting design. In other words, the actor/performer is left to his own devices, just as his notorious subject was in real life—the prime device being his own wit in a dual sense of sinister intelligence and off-the-wall humour. (Gehartsreiter reportedly remarked in prison that he was depressed but not unhappy.)  Imposture in itself is witty because it demands total believability as artifice to be effective. What renders it corrupt is motive, and Campbell shows how this is so, though he insists (not without organic bemusement) at one point that the story is about love and how we create the story of our lives.

The criminal imposter’s tale starts in opulent San Marino (California), and moves to other locales, including Manhattan (where he pretended expertise in bond trading), Cornish (New Hampshire), and Blythe (California) (where the con-man is incarcerated in Ironwood State Prison). Campbell covers every major persona developed by Gerhartsreiter with technical ease, even expanding his repertoire to include other human figures and a barking pet dog. Just as the con-man interposed himself into quiet, conservative communities before exploiting their gullibility, Campbell exploits the audience’s willingness to be complicit in his fiction. He is utterly compelling and truthful when he reveals the extent to which he became obsessed with his subject, to the point of putting his marriage to the edge of breakdown and of putting his own physical safety and mental equilibrium into dangerous question. He shows how his relationship with the imposter breaks down, leading him to panic and paranoia. He sings tart, edgy songs in a startlingly rough, grainy voice rising to a scream, suggesting how his subject was a seemingly well-bred but sinister muse that acted like a drug on him, without benefit of therapy. This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Campbell from marvellous monologist Daniel MacIvor, who often spins a tale before unravelling it as an auto-fictional conceit. Campbell is more like the late Spalding Gray because of the real sense that the narrative is descending into a very dangerous area of the psyche with unpredictable results. At least until the last part of the show when he becomes the trickster attempting to rebound his trick off the audience. But up to that point, True Crime is like a first-rate melding of Hitchcock, Highsmith, and Tarantino, with nods to psychodrama. Both Campbell and Chris Abraham (director and co-creator) conspire marvellously in this dramatic fable in order to satisfy an audience’s need for stories in which the dividing line between truth and fiction blurs but with exciting theatrical results.

HAMLET and LEAR

HAMLET
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Rose. At Tarragon. January 10-February 11, 2018
LEAR
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey

A Groundling Theatre Production at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre,
January 12-28, 2018

 

(L-R) Noah Reid (Hamlet), Tiffany Ayalik (Ophelia), Jack Nicholsen (Player King), Beau Dixon (Player Queen), Nigel Shawn Williams (Claudius), Tantoo Cardinal (Gertrude), and Cliff Saunders (Polonius) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Every strong theatre version of a classic play is, in a fundamental sense, a new interpretation. This is particularly true of Shakespearean productions and is very much in keeping with the experiments of Shakespeare himself in each of his own plays, in which he continued experimenting with content and form. Modern directors are especially eager to find new ways of presenting the world’s most versatile, most brilliant playwright. The question is not why experiment, but what are the aim and results of their experiments.

Toronto has two Shakespearean productions that opened this month. At Tarragon, Richard Rose has decided to change the form of Hamlet radically, whereas at Harbourfront, Graham Abbey has focussed on a gender change for King Lear, thereby altering a central dynamic. Both experiments have value but with significant limitations, and therein lies a tale of critical and cultural instruction. For one thing, Canadian Shakespeare (and there is certainly such a thing) cannot function without pre-existing special pleading: as Shakespeare has never been at the crucial nexus of our culture, our schools still see the need to justify including Shakespeare in the curriculum, and directors still have to find “relevance” in the world’s greatest, wisest, most versatile playwright.

The cancellation sign in the very title of Rose’s production (Hamlet) indicates that what a spectator is seeing is not any traditional Hamlet, not even a purely theatrical one. As every production is a revision or re-visioning of what has already existed, this isn’t exactly world-shaking news. I appreciate Richard Rose’s deliberate attempt to create a new grain, a new tone for a world classic, but he has mixed rock’n’roll with radio play, concert recital, and stage play, without finding a way in which they could merge into a satisfying whole. There are free-standing microphones on stage, backup musicians, a piano, and a few chairs. The production is overly “miked,” with actors forced to react into their microphones rather than to fellow actors. Costuming by Kathleen Johnston is chiefly contemporary with jackets, long coats, boots, and caps pronounced, though she does present Claudius as a lounge-lizard or oily emcee, Horatio as a priest, Laertes as a 60s war vet in army green jacket and an angry guitar, and the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a neat, well-groomed vaudevillian pair with a jazz spirit, though Rosencrantz has apparently undergone a sex change. Not only is there no Elsinore, there is no specific period. You could be anywhere and either now or then, though possibly not much farther back than the earliest punk rock band or when Inuit throat-singing became familiar to Canadian audiences. Jason Hand’s stunning lighting is the best technical resource, although Thomas Ryder Payne’s obsessive sound design wishes to share that distinction, against critical discrimination. Payne never seems to know when to let well enough alone. He supplies sound when silence would do very nicely, frequently interrupting the dialogue and forgetting that Shakespeare’s own verbal music is symphonic in its own right—though you wouldn’t necessarily think so from the verse-speaking in the production.

Seana McKenna (Lear) and Jim Mezon (Gloucester) (photo: Michael Cooper)

Over fifty years ago in England, David Warner performed the title role as a self-disgusted adolescent, unfitted for “mature magnificence and ruthlessness.” Noah Reid plays Hamlet like an angry musician (on piano, ukele, accordion) performing on what could be called “Denmark’s Got Talent,” speaking his first aside and soliloquy into a mic on a piano, tearing into many other speeches, coarsening tone, losing many colours and levels of meaning, flattening or yelling important speeches, and generally harassing the role, though he relishes the black humour in the arras scene and then has a deliciously comic sequence when he acts like an amateur drama coach instructing the professional strolling players. Having to play almost throughout with a hand-held mic, he is curtailed in his gestures, and certainly is no prince, though there are shreds and patches of melancholy, spite, and mind games. In other words, he lacks status and eventual luminosity of spirit. His Ophelia is Tiffany Ayalik, who is a wonderful singer (she brings in moments of Inuit throat-singing) but an inadequate actress who is totally unconvincing in many scenes. Like her, Brandon McGibbon offers little substance in his weird performance as her brother. Perhaps his Laertes is suffering from PTSD, though it is hard to know why, other than the director’s generalized concept of a world of lies and deceptions.

Ronald Bryden famously asserted that “the key to every Hamlet is its ghost.” The only ghost in Rose’s production is a voice-over and an all-lights effect, so it is difficult to gauge the extent of its prince’s active heroism or his brainsick, nerveless, Oedipal nature. This deficiency extends to other cases of incomplete characterization. Greg Gale’s Horatio is wan and not much more, while Cliff Saunders does a comic double act—one as a buttoned-down Polonius, conventional in verse-speaking and comic acting, but without anything sinister; the other (much more interestingly) as the Gravedigger in a warmly funny Newfie way, interacting with the audience at one point. Tantoo Cardinal’s Gertrude has more than a touch of heyday in the blood, as she boogies with Nigel Shawn Williams’s Claudius, before drowning herself in drink and ending up in a bad way, indeed. But her boudoir scene with Hamlet goes almost for naught because she is flat and dry tonally. She is dominated by her Claudius, a control freak who even cues or silences the musicians. Williams can be offensively rank when he overacts, but here his performance is vivid and well calibrated to the musical score, especially in its jazz or rock phases. He uses his voice as nicely as he does his body movement, so his Claudius is the most interesting performance, though it never really ignites in the play-within-the-play scene. Ironically, The Mousetrap is the most innovatively staged episode, though in an un-Shakespearean manner, literally sung throughout by Jack Nicholsen (Player King) and Beau Dixon (Player Queen), with special virtuosity by Dixon whose high notes vibrate with terrific colour.

Graham Abbey’s Lear has more matter and art than Rose’s Hamlet. Staged in a rectangular grey space within the natural brick walls of Harbourfront Theatre, it scants on décor, uses a mix of contemporary and period costuming, live musicians, and tells its story without fuss but with admirable clarity. It re-versions the Shakespearean original most significantly in the title role, but losing and gaining in the process. As the female Lear, Seana McKenna has dignity and authority stamped on her in voice and manner, and her apportioning of the kingdom is not based on any fact of mental infirmity or eccentricity. She commands flattery as a sign of her societal power, startling Deborah Hay’s Goneril into a reasonable disgust. Diana Donnelly’s Regan, taller and more artificially composed than her sisters, hardly ever lets her own mask of false deference crack through the early formality, but that mask seems glued to her face and her performance lacks dimension and depth. Mercedes Morris as Cordelia is over-parted, as are some of the supporting players, including Colin Mochrie as the Fool (with red rooster coxcomb), who has superficial humour while lacking dramatic weight, mood, and depth to show the soul-destroyed cynic under the skin of the facile jester. There are other deficiencies. Alex McCooeye’s Edmund, whose excessively lanky height may be the only towering thing in his performance, turns Gloucester’s bastard-son into little more than a comic villain, just as young Augusto Bitter plays Oswald stiffly on a single note of careless arrogance. Karl Ang makes an earnest Albany, while Alex Poch-Godin is versatile in his triple roles as Cornwall, Knight, and Messenger, playing each with distinctive vocal and emotional registers. Kevin Hanchard depicts Kent’s stalwart passion but his strong vocal performance doesn’t progress into a multi-layered one. Antoine Yared takes the role of France literally, adopting a French accent for characterization, but his benign Edgar is far better. In his mad Tom scenes and the devastating reunion with his blind father, Yared makes a good foil for Jim Mezon’s Gloucester. Mezon who can bluster with the best hams of the world fortunately forsakes noise for truthful, accomplished acting, and his Gloucester is the most moving version I have yet seen as his cold authority and careless irony crumble and expose an excruciatingly violated and abused humanity.

Ultimately, however, everything rests on the central performance, and this is where I return to my initial feeling that something has been gained while something else has been lost. Seana McKenna almost manages to make you forget that the play is about an aging titan, a shattered oak, a piteously self-deluded being whose distemper is worse than any literal storm. Almost but not quite. She begins with clear, precise enunciation of her royal authority rather than acting like some aging figure-head with early dementia. This matriarch knows which lines may be crossed and which may not, and all her passions have human size. However, the actress is underpowered in the storm scene, and Lear’s descent into madness and ascent to serene wisdom are less than convincing as McKenna seems to run out of emotional and vocal steam. The role demands a technical musculature through the character’s existential journey into wisdom. It cannot be played for containment. McKenna is no ordinary actress, and what she achieves in this instance is far from ordinary. The actress’s thin nasality returns in the most traumatic scenes, and though the performance is always intelligent and rooted in psychological truth, it falls short of being truly moving or deeply cathartic.