ROMEO AND JULIET

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Scott Wentworth
At the Festival Theatre. Till October 21, 2017

Antoine Yared (Romeo) and Sara Farb (Juliet) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

While neither torrid nor especially poetic or really tragic, Scott Wentworth’s eminently watchable version is hot and swift, with scenes following one another without pause. The story unfolds with a sense of urgency, with the characters’ sense and rashness taking precedence over mellifluous sound and careful calculation. As the star-crossed young lovers, Sara Farb and Antoine Yared are neither larger nor smaller than life, and they seem to act spontaneously and impetuously, like real teenagers in real situations. Not for them the beauty of rhapsodic sonnets or measured metre. They moan with yearning, groan with suffering, wear their hearts on their sleeves. Before expanding its colours, Christina Poddubiuk’s design sets them and others in a world that is dramatic and portentous, with dark robed figures of the Chorus (Sarah Dodd) and the Widows who hold illuminated models of the globe—prefiguring death. Juan Chioran is an imposing, eloquent Escalus, who ordains a law that could lead to tragedy. The brawls and bawdy are casually risky, with sexual puns underlined but not over-extended. A female passerby in the street gets accidentally wounded by a rash rapier in the midst of warring rival gangs. Romeo’s catalogue of oxymorons makes a strong point about the dangers of love, and he is much given to wearing his aching heart on his sleeve and collapsing with nerves aflame. The Nurse (a superbly earthy, pragmatic, empathetic Seana McKenna) enjoys her own casual talk of nipples, pregnancy, and suckling babes. Juliet is in obvious conflict with her parents, especially the hot-tempered Capulet of Randy Hughson, whose paternal violence puts her independence and rebellion in mortal danger. Evan Buliung’s Mercutio (the best I have seen to date) is light-footed and light-hearted (full of jests and mocking wit, especially about love), but when he is fatally wounded by Zlatomir Moldovanski’s smouldering Tybalt, he assumes a bitterly ironic gravity.

Jamie Mac (Benvolio) and Evan Buliung (Mercutio) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

It is a production aimed squarely at the younger generations of playgoers, and it works generally well within this framework. Young love, first real love (not the chaste ardour of Romeo for Rosaline) goes through its paces with quick abandon. Romeo startles Juliet in the balcony scene; Juliet yells out impatiently and stridently at her Nurse, and Friar Lawrence (Wayne Best at his Shakespearean best) discovers the extent of teenage ardour and abrupt transitions of feeling. Word music is scanted in favour of passion and harsh truth. Grief grows to hysterical proportion, especially with Marion Adler’s lament as Lady Capulet for the murder of kinsman Tybalt, but some other bigger moments shrink, as in Juliet’s potion speech (because of Farb’s narrow vocal range) and the bungled incidents at the end. And Wentworth adds more wrinkles than he should to the general style by some inexplicable and badly judged directorial touches, such as the Apothecary’s wearing a sharp-beaked bird mask or the appearance of the bloodied ghosts of the slain in a gothic moment that seems to have been wrongly imported from Macbeth. But this production does not obscure the play’s structure built on conflicting oppositions—not simply of poetry and prose or light and darkness, older generation and younger, but of youth and age misleading each other deeper into a failure of self-knowledge.

BEARING

By Michael Greyeyes and Yvette Nolan.
A Signal Theatre Production presented by Luminato.
At the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre, June 22-24, 2017

For the world premiere, the program note claims that Bearing, a three-act 80-minute dance opera, is about Canada and a family—mine and yours. A humanist claim, no doubt, but one that eschews the particularity of the show’s genesis. Greyeyes and Nolan have, in previous projects, addressed in some way the horror of the Indian (read First Nations) residential school system, where countless youngsters were abused by religious and secular figures, without recourse to justice. Indeed, for too long, all Canadians have been implicated in one way or another by the appalling history, bred and sustained by a colonial framework. Perhaps the horror is proving too much for many survivors and their descendants, so the creators of Bearing put filters (what they call “layers”) between perpetrators and aggrieved, but in so doing, they dilute history, almost anesthetizing it, in order to arrive at themes of redemption and healing. This benevolent aim harms a project that has many admirable artistic qualities, yet not a real catharsis or organic coda.

The creative team boasts many fine artists: music director Gregory Oh, the National Youth Orchestra of Canada, lighting designer Michelle Ramsay (whose dance floor traces ghostly images of a haunted past with the help of projection designer Laura Warren and costume designer Joanna Yu), and nine dancers who enter into an intense conversation about memory and stolen identity. But without the help of the program synopsis, much of the dance fails to cohere. The dynamic interplay of semi-nudity and clothing, authority and servility, torture and abasement, anger and tranquility is expressed by sequences of harsh arm, torso, and leg movements, rapid violent staccato, and contained stillness. Tall, strikingly powerful Ratsienhanoron Brandon A. Oakes weaves his way in and out of the central dance, projects a terrifying violence especially in the wreckage sequence of Act 2, and is transformed at the end to something gentle. The dancers sometimes involve themselves in segmented solos; at other times, they perform duets and trios, combining into a total ensemble only sparingly. But the characters are generalized—drunken Indian, drug addict, sexually raped and tortured teen, estranged family members—and though Joanna Yu’s costumes help to designate Lawyer, Clergyman, and Sojourner, the narrative is not clearly developed, and what I read in the program only sporadically was expressed on stage in a distinguishable manner. It was only the words of Christ, illuminated on the floor and later intoned by the dance ensemble, that crystallized the moral or spiritual thrust of the piece.

The music (a mix of Bach, Vivier, and commissioned work by Denomme-Welch and Catherine Magowan) is marvellous, combining percussion and electronics, and headlining mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, but the heavy European quality works against the setting. Some of the spoken or sung text is indistinct or garbled, and the eclectic score actually diminishes the authenticity of indigenous experience by refusing to stage ethnicity. In short, a worthwhile experience but far from satisfying in the ultimate analysis for those of us who want a more specific context, musicality, and choreography that does not soften history just to show that one’s heart is in the right place.

NOTES OF A NATIVE SONG

By Stew and Heidi Rodewald
A Luminato Presentation at the Spiegeltent,
David Pecaut Square, Toronto. June 15-18.

Stew in “Notes of a Native Song”

Two geniuses—a literary and a musical one—form a potent combination in what is subtitled “an irreverent homage to the original black-punk-novelist the late James Baldwin.” Baldwin, of course, is the literary genius, while Stew is the musical one. But this is not a linear documentary about Tony Award-winning Stew’s homage to trail-blazing polemicist, essayist, and novelist Baldwin. It is what Stew casually calls “a somewhat intimate relationship” over 80 minutes of performance time. The relationship is actually threefold: Stew’s with Baldwin; Stew’s with his audience; literature with music. And it rocks with high-energy amplitude (perhaps over-amplified for the size of the cozy Spiegeltent) in a thrilling interplay of music (with four musicians supporting Stew), video (by Stew and Joan Grossman), lighting (by K.J. Hardy) and spoken word—or to put it another way, a blast of psychedelic soul, pop rock, and twisted jazz, with Stew’s casual throwaway humour, stinging satire, and gritty speaking and singing voice, backed up by his band called somewhat ironically The Negro Problem. Ironic because of the other (notorious) “N” word implied in the name, and because the band has some non-black musicians, who are hardly anybody’s problem, except those who are imprisoned by their own colour and ignorance.

“I’m so fuckin’ tired of James Baldwin,” sighs 55-year old Stew in his dark glasses, hat, cravat, and rumpled suit. He feels there is too great a disparity between Baldwin’s alluring literary elegance, certainty, and clarity and his own “shit.” Although both men were expatriates in Europe at different times, of course, and both have been celebrated for artistic genius, Stew feels swallowed by the void left by Baldwin. His song cycle (in which Baldwin is conceptualized as a blues singer, and occasionally in an imagined film scenario) is really a trip into Baldwin country (where there is no zip code, and which is not simply Harlem, Compton, Paris, or Istanbul). So, it is definitely not a documentary play; it has “no well-kept plot to grow.” It riffs without apology, omits some important Baldwin titles, hardly quotes from its primary literary sources, and yet is a full-size, full-volume tribute channelled through Stew’s musical investigation and experimental reactions.

Sometimes the lighting is aggressively white or blue (bathing the audience along with the band) but it never overwhelms the piece. Baldwin never comes across as a saint or flawless literary militant. He is presented as a dissenting black brother who was not racially contracted to every black man’s work—certainly not to Richard Wright’s. Wright and his 20-year old impoverished African-American Bigger Thomas in Native Son (a landmark black novel in 1940), are taken down by both Baldwin and, therefore, indirectly by Stew, for not showing what is really human about black boys. But Stew makes a baffling comment on Baldwin in the process, charging that Baldwin “made a butler out of his rage.” Hard to reconcile the phrase and image with the reality of Baldwin’s vehement eloquence, his gravitas, and bold courage in the context of American society of his time. As a recent film documentary shows, Baldwin was nobody’s negro. There is sometimes a sense that Stew is straining for strikingly “cool” imagery, as when he represents Baldwin as “a prose slinger with six-gun grammar” in a literary journal.

Nevertheless, Stew’s offhand, throwaway satiric (often self-satiric) wit pays dividends in other ways. Baldwin was correct: racism was much bigger than Bigger Thomas. Stew connects the theme to the sensationally outrageous murder in Florida of hoody wearing teenager Trayvon Martin by self-styled vigilante, psychically damaged, mentally infirm George Zimmerman. A case, contends Stew in a powerful song, of Black meeting Brown, where Black stayed Black but where Brown turned White. Stew explores issues of colour, race, love, power, and sexuality in the conviction that lyric and music are as potent as any militant speech. His final two numbers in the song cycle bring this truth home. “Florida,” once home to Stepin Fetchit and Ben Vereen, is a bitterly satiric song with a double edge because it builds up only to undercut the raddled state for its “hanging chads and lynching boys.” This is followed by “Sonny’s Blues,” with its exhortation “Let the music kill the poison.” Perhaps an anti-climax in terms of power but it rounds out this highly personal, provocative exploration in song of Baldwin’s lasting influence on the American conscience. Notes of a Native Song is a great successor to Stew’s ground-breaking, award-winning musical Passing Strange. It deserves a longer run. Will no Toronto producer bring it back for a wider audience?

SHAW FESTIVAL MUSEUM PIECES

ME AND MY GIRL at the Festival Theatre

THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE at the Royal George Theatre

1837: THE FARMERS’ REVOLT at the Court House Theatre

SAINT JOAN at the Festival Theatre

Michael Therriault (Bill) and Kristy Frank (Sally) with ensemble in “Me and My Girl” (photo: David Cooper)

Me and My Girl (book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, revised by Stephen Fry for a 1985 revival, music by Noel Gay, with contemporary contributions by Mike Ockrent) is a 1937 London musical that opened as the Christmas show at the Victoria Palace. John Simon once described it as “quality poppycock.” And he was surely correct because despite its popular “Lambeth Walk,” and acknowledgement of specialty music and dances of its time, it retains the flavour of upper and lower-class Victorian London. The revised libretto preserves the cockney rhyming slang and word play and indulges in a few playful anachronisms and groaner puns, with its sly innocence bespeaking a sentimentality leavened by wryness. Bill Snibson, a jaunty cockney from Lambeth, is casually insolent in his low-class, light-fingered manner, but he turns out to be the true heir to the title of Lord of Hareford Hall. The upper-class Harefords will reluctantly accept him if he gives up his girlfriend Sally Smith and marries someone suitable—say, Lady Jacqueline, who has been giving her silly but amiable suitor (and cousin) Gerald a runaround. While Bill is continually delinquent in his manners, Sally is sent to a speech professor to learn how to be a lord’s lady. A double Pygmalion fable—with a bow to GBS—its cockney hero and heroine take turns at being Pygmalion and Galatea, but without the elegant charm and eloquence of the Shavian masterpiece.

At the Festival Theatre, the show is given an earnest workout. Drew Facey’s dreary front curtain of working class London quickly yields to pastel dappled greens, and Hareford Hall glitters as it should. Sue LePage’s costumes deserve praise (except for one appalling eyesore), but Kevin Lamotte’s lighting is sometimes unsubtle. Parker Esse’s choreography (apart from the show-stopping Lambeth Walk) is museum quality in the wrong sense, with a lot of knee-slapping and hopping about. Yet, there is an exuberance to the tap dancing with a very charming tap dance duet between Bill and Sally. The general competence of the cast (with notable impressions left by Kristi Frank’s sweet and spunky Sally, Ric Reid’s besotted Sir John Tremayne, Sharry Flett’s tart Duchess of Dene, Elodie Gillett’s gold-digging Lady Jacqueline, and Jay Turvey’s family solicitor seemingly made for Gilbert and Sullivan) is transcended by Michael Therriault’s wisecracking prankster Bill in a gem of comic vaudeville and music-hall farce. In an obvious sense, it is a busy performance, but this sort of busy-ness is more than justified in context. He is as light-footed in his hoofing and tap as he is light-fingered in his pickpocketing, and there is no shtick that seems beyond him. When deflated by Sally, he collapses like a balloon quickly leaking air. Sometimes he is so active in his farce, that his singing voice loses resonance, but blessed with plastic physical flexibility that allows him to adopt all sorts of contortions, and fortified by his timing, Therriault works wonders, turning the show into his own masterpiece.

Chick Reid (Queen Charlotte) and Tom McCamus (George III) (photo: David Cooper)

Tom McCamus seems to be the masterpiece in Kevin Bennett’s version of Alan Bennett’s savage satire The Madness of George III. The English playwright’s satire focuses on a few months in 1788-89 when the monarch abruptly loses his mind, and then almost as abruptly recovers temporarily. The politics of the day are crammed very skimpily but tightly into very little plot.  The king gets ill in Act 1 (probably from a still not fully understood hereditary metabolic disorder called porphyria that attacks the nervous system), then gets better in Act 2, at which point there is the affirmation of England’s resurrection and the royal status quo. Much is made of the king’s eccentricities and follies (some verging on madness)—his gleeful snuggling in bed with his queen, whom he calls “Mrs. King”; his lusty assaults upon ladies-in-waiting; his insulting of the Prince of Wales for being fat; his calling for a bag with which to carry state secrets to his grave; and his chronic run-on sentences and echolalia—and there are clinical depictions of crackpot, even cruel medical treatments that run the gamut from stool and urine samples to strenuous purges, straitjacketing, hot glass cupping, and binding to a new throne that seems to prefigure the electric chair. Such details add texture and volume to character-study, and Tom McCamus displays the king’s vulgarities with relish, hitting every comic or farcical note, allowing the slops of his affected mind to spill over in a virtuoso performance that succeeds in connecting the “madness” to an ultimately touching humanity.

Alas, this superb performance has to virtually knock through the director’s misjudged interpretation of the play. Staged as a play-within-a-play, with actors engaging with audience members before the action proper, the production lacks style and conviction for the most part. Andre Sills almost cancels the strong impression he left last season in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys with his gay courtier, a prancing fem, that gives heterosexuality a sour name for being such an egregious misrepresentation of homosexuality. When Martin Happer as the fat Prince of Wales laments: “People laugh at me,” he seems to be unaware that one reason may be his overblown affectations of makeup, wig, and acting mannerisms. The doubling of roles usually results in a doubling of awfulness. I except Chick Reid’s Queen Charlotte, and Jim Mezon’s Fox from this charge. In terms of the royal entertainments, Cameron Grant offers the sexiest elegance as a court dancer. But because of the generally artless style—where costumes, wigs, and makeup seem to define caricature more than character—the production turns into an almost negligible museum piece.

Ensemble in “1837: The Farmers’ Revolt” (photo: David Cooper)

Less negligible but also not without a museum quality is Philip Akin’s staging of 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, a collaborative piece by Theatre Passe Muraille and Rick Salutin. This is another instance of pioneer documentary Canadian playwriting, and, therefore, another case of drama in a missionary position. Originally created as an homage to a moment of political rebellion by farmers and ordinary rural folk in Upper Canada, it is now revised to become a homage to some of the leaders of the alternative theatre movement of the 1970s, as well as a belated homage to some of our First Nations and early colonized people of colour. All to the good in this motivation to correct the soft, simplistic nationalism of the original, but fundamental flaws remain, despite director Akin’s commendable attempts to use cross-gender, cross-cultural casting and to incorporate stylized ritual, chant, a magic trick and ventriloquist act as theatrical devices or political metaphors, weaving new themes through the structure and finding historical sparks that grew into a Confederation blaze. Rachel Forbe’s set design of logs and First Nations art evoke a pre-Confederation era, that Steve Lucas’s lighting and John-Luke Addison’s music score help extend. There is solid ensemble work all the way through, with Donna Belleville, Sharry Flett, Marla McLean, Ric Reid, Jonah McIntosh, Jeremiah Sparks, Cherissa Richards, and Travis Seetoo playing multiple roles and across gender and racial lines with pith and some pungency. And yet, the production is more about telling than showing, and for me the piece only came fully alive from the Susanna Moodie sequence. What was once believed to bespeak gadfly radicalism now seems mainly reasonably anti-colonial—perhaps because the original impetus to challenge the anglophile theatre establishment in Canada has now shrunk into a colonial twilight. After all, it is a Brit (Artistic Director Tim Carroll) who has run with this play in his repertoire at a festival dedicated to an Anglo-Irish genius.

Back at the Festival Theatre, there is that same genius’s Saint Joan, which on the surface could be regarded as a museum-piece of history and tragi-comedy. That it is not is due to Tim Carroll’s imaginative staging, replete with a cleverly simple design by Judith Bowden, equally effective lighting by Kevin Lamotte (dark ripples on a light purple pad for the Loire scene; ominous shadows for the Trial and dungeon scenes), music direction by Claudio Vena, and an ensemble that shows strength down the line. Using a non-specific but modern time period for an abstract set design and costuming, Carroll stamps his production with a visual simplicity: a large glass cube that can overhang or entrap or merely contain characters, a huge rear glass wall that lifts, tall dark grey panels, a vertical pole that rises from the floor or shrinks back into it, and illuminated edges for his floor, surrounded by blackness. The design has a restrained colour palette (mainly grey, black, and white) that does not permit anything extraneous or irrelevant to get in the way of the text that Shaw wanted actors to speak as swiftly and as clearly as possible, without sacrificing his arguments while capturing his verbal music. There are a few moments when the very prosaic Shaw actually approaches poetry, as when a kingfisher is compared to blue lightning. And, though he was verbose, Shaw gave every significant character his or her due in his plays, allowing each one to present a point of view or thought unpressured by his own overwhelming intellect.

Ensemble of “Saint Joan” (photo: David Cooper)

The wonderful thing about Saint Joan is not simply the clever arguments by churchmen, aristocrats, or military men; it is the title character’s strong instincts that establish her as a unique human being rather than as a glorified heroine or ethereal saint. The best Saint Joans have been actresses who lead with the heart rather than with the mind, with simplicity of faith and inner conviction than with religiosity. While Sara Topham is not yet among the top flights of such leading actresses in this role, her Joan is a remarkable performance because of its vitality, shrewdness, humour, simple boldness, and resistance to any wishy-washy strain or stained-glass apotheosis. True, she doesn’t use any English county accent—as has been the practice of English actresses—nor does she really blaze after the recantation scene, but she reveals a teenage country maid who is caught up in a sweep of history, attempting to push through (with her limitations) the changing winds of time and event. She compels attention by virtue of her simplicity, her inner conviction, and her ability to show the character’s daring defiance of gender, military, and church boundaries.

Carroll’s production is thick with absorbing performances, especially by Tom McCamus as wry Warwick, Graeme Somerville as formidable Cauchon, Karl Ang as de Stogumber, Benedict Campbell as the eminent Archbishop, and Jim Mezon as the Inquisitor. Wade Bogert-O’Brien’s Dauphin is a cowering boy-man, though lacking in real eccentricity, while Gray Powell is a Dunois of masculine lyricism. The tent scene is effective, as it usually is when played well, but even at that, it could have done with some cutting by Shaw. In sum, the ensemble shows that the play is a communal work, not a solo star turn.  And when it is  such, it is not a museum piece of chronicle history.

Only the Epilogue falls a little flat, but I have yet to see any production of this play succeed wholly in this anti-climax. It’s clear that Shaw didn’t know when to stop or how to effect a satisfying closure—perhaps because real tragedy eluded him, except, possibly, in the case of Heartbreak House. But Saint Joan has sweep, power, and terror enough, and Tim Carroll’s production is thoughtful without being tedious, and tense without being overwrought.

THE FIRST FIVE AT STRATFORD

TIMON OF ATHENS at the Tom Patterson

TWELFTH NIGHT at the Festival Theatre

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL at the Avon

GUYS AND DOLLS at the Festival Theatre

HMS PINAFORE at the Avon

Joseph Ziegler as Timon (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Shakespeare does well and badly thus far this season. Stephen Ouimette’s production of Timon of Athens, that morality parable with an unfinished quality about it, is a modern update, strongly anchored by a competent ensemble led by Joseph Ziegler in the title role. Shakespeare (probably with the help of anonymous collaborators) charts Timon’s transformation from philanthropy to misanthropy, adding an alluring gloss to conventional didacticism before swerving into a virtually absurdist existentialism in the second part when, betrayed by his false flatterers who feasted gluttonously on his generosity, Timon vents his bitter hatred not only of Athens but of mankind in general. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design mixes disco, hot jazz, and even a sliver of Queen; Kimberly Purtell’s expert lighting and Dana Osborne’s design preserve the sense of minimal ornamentation, with only a glittering table setting for Timon’s sumptuous feast in Act 1 and 21st century glam for a sexy dance by four women (including a representation of Juno). This allows the production to keep a tight focus on Timon, without cramping the satiric dialogue (particularly sharpened by Ben Carlson’s churlishly cynical Apemantus). Ziegler (reliably credible and life-size) negotiates Timon’s savagely bitter rages, showing how misanthropy bursts beyond the play’s schematic symmetry. This wonderful actor shines forth in a performance of striking pith and hurt as, sick at heart of a false world, he isolates himself like a bedraggled, root-digging hermit in a cave, resisting all pleas, mockeries, and reasons to return to the society that cruelly turned its back on him once he lost his fortune. Ziegler gets no help from Shakespeare when it comes to any Olympian pathos. Shakespeare has him die offstage, bringing back Alcibiades (a robust Tim Campbell) as conquering military hero in his place.

Members of the Company of ‘Twelfth Night’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Where Ouimette’s production (well judged in scale and tenor) ranks among the better versions of Timon of Athens, Martha Henry’s production of Twelfth Night (grim and largely empty) is among the worst for this much beloved comedy. Henry shows a heavy directorial hand from the outset. True, there is much cruelty and suffering in this romantic comedy, but every great comedy has a serious underbelly, perhaps even a streak of real melancholy within the general mirth. We do not need to rehearse the points of death, suffering, and chaos early in the fable or of Sir Andrew’s bloody pate or Malvolio’s cruel humiliation in a dark cage. But Shakespeare’s title alone is a clue to his play. First performed in 1602, the play takes its title from the Twelve Days of Christmas, the twelfth night being the feast of the Epiphany, though Shakespeare inverts religious significance in favour of joyous mischief. Instead of Epiphany, Henry delivers Lent. Louise Guinand’s lighting skill is taken hostage by a production where the costumes at the outset are all black, and where John Pennoyer’s metal trees also look to be in mourning in the first half. Poor Brent Carver (fine actor and singer) has to rush about as Feste in order to find the singing bowls so cleverly yet so needlessly used for his unflattering songs about the world’s woes. As for the acting, Rod Beattie’s Malvolio is a stuffy puritan who is short on comic colour and histrionic width, especially when we recall the Malvolios of Brian Bedford, Stephen Fry, and Tom Rooney. He does strike comic points in the cross-garter scene, but I have yet to see a stage Malvolio who doesn’t. His exit line threatening vengeance is rather chilling, as it should be, but this production has quite enough cold in the wrong sense. Sarah Afful’s Viola and Shannon Taylor’s Olivia are roughly single note performances that have a dying fall on the ear and in the mind, and E.B. Smith’s Orsino is only slightly better than this. Thank the lord, however, for the comic spirits of Lucy Peacock (clever, resourceful Maria), Tom Rooney (an Iggy Pop of a Sir Andrew), and Geraint Wyn Davies (Sir Toby, with a touch of Falstaff). This trio gave this woeful production its greatest contact with the play.

Geraint Wyn Davies (Sir Peter Teazle) and Shannon Taylor (Lady Teazle) (photo: Lynda Churilla)

Given my disapproval of Twelfth Night, it is only fair to record my approval of Antoni Cimolino’s version of The School for Scandal, Sheridan’s glittering masterwork about hypocrisy. Though the cast seemed to push the text heavily along in the early acts on the night I attended the show, there is a level of undeniable artistic competence that manages to find Sheridan’s 18th century satiric sentimental comic spirit. Julie Fox’s set design at the Avon starts with a front curtain that looks like a tinted lithograph of a large estate, but nostalgia is not the guiding principle, for Cimolino, backed by a solid knowledge of late 18th century English and American history, as well as of our Trumpian Age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” roots the comedy in the triumph of true hearts and minds over scandalous hypocrisy. Filled with character types (vexed older husband, spendthrift much younger wife, cuckold, sententious hypocrite, sentimental ward, young knave, wise old man) and standard subjects of courtship, marriage, class difference, it is a reflection of a sort of morality that only seems out of fashion. The two major plot lines concern two pairs: a May-December wife and husband (the amusingly fractious Teazles), and the Surface brothers, one a sly, conniving hypocrite and the other a seeming profligate but who has a genuinely good heart. These pairs are surrounded by a motley collection of malicious gossips, knaves, perpetrators, etc. but true virtue, sentiment, and sensibility come to the fore, principally through the Surface brothers’ benevolent uncle (Oliver), whom Joseph Ziegler portrays with his signature honest, no-frills acting that always gets to the heart of the matter. The pairs, too, are well played by Tyrone Savage (Joseph Surface, the oily arch hypocrite) and Sebastien Heins (less colourful in voice but no less robust in acting as Charles, his brother) for the Surface duo; and by Shannon Taylor as young, beautiful country lass who moves up in social rank and wealth as Lady Teazle when she marries anxious, fretful, but generous Sir Peter (superb Geraint Wyn Davis). Maev Beaty is a wonderfully malicious Lady Sneerwell, and there is fair support by most of the cast that includes Brent Carver (Rowley), Tom Rooney (Sir Benjamin Backbite), and Rod Beattie (Crabtree). The hours pass nicely enough.

Sean Arbuckle (Sky Masterson) and Blythe Wilson (Adelaide) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Also nice (and there is a Nicely-Nicely enough) is Donna Feore’s version of Guys and Dolls, a justly celebrated classic of Broadway musical theatre. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set at the Festival Theatre turns from black and white in a snap to florid neon colour, and Feore’s choreography brings the dance prologue to vivid life, with the swift, athletic male dancers (with high Cossack leaps, back flips, and rolls) going on to become one of the outstanding factors in the show, especially in the big show-stopping numbers: “Havana” (where they easily out dance the females), “The Crapshooters’ Dance,” and “Luck Be a Lady.” Laura Burton conducts the orchestra with brio, and Alexis Gordon delivers Sarah Brown’s soaring arias with colour and conviction. As this Mission Doll’s romantic convert, Evan Buliung’s Sky Masterson is shrewd, handsome rogue who falls into line—well, at least for a time. His singing is passable, and so is Sean Arbuckle’s as Nathan Detroit—that raffish gambler who seems to have a clever way of keeping Adelaide perennially psychosomatic and eager to parlay their 15-year engagement into a conventional suburban marriage. But this is where I have a bone to pick with Feore’s production. As Adelaide, Blythe Wilson’s comic sneezing comes artlessly on cue, though she scores apt comic points in the poignant “Adelaide’s Lament.” Her Hot Box numbers are also more knowingly sophisticated than they need to be, and they thereby lose charm and irony. The disreputable gambling men fare better, especially Mark Uhre as a bespectacled beanpole of a Benny Southstreet, surprisingly light on his feet and eager for dance, and Steve Ross as portly Nicely-Nicely Johnson, that ton of lard on a lark. But why do Feore and her lighting designer Michael Walton need to abruptly transition into top spotlight amid darkness for the signature numbers, and why is “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” turned into a flat out, full pitch presentational number rather than a contextual canon? Nitpicking? Well, perhaps, because the show has knockdown power and finesse on the whole.

Male dancers in ‘Guys and Dolls’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

What has less power and finesse is the HMS Pinafore at the Avon, director Lezlie Wade’s homage to her English grandparents who loved Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wade also happens to love G&S, but she is no purist—and it is actually a disservice to these operettas to take them purely at their surface value, as the late Brian Macdonald showed so brilliantly in his hilarious send-ups of The Mikado, The Gondoliers, and The Pirates of Penzance. Wade tries to resist conventional G&S by imposing a WWI frame and context. She places the musical as a play-within-a-play—a New Year’s Eve entertainment in a temporary hospital, featuring doctors, nurses, and inmates playing song-and-dance roles with purpo

Mark Uhre (Ralph Rackstraw) and Jennifer Rider-Shaw (Josephine) in ‘HMS Pinafore’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

seful levity in a combination of British patriotism and silliness, but the story of love and class prejudice aboard a British naval ship shows its age. The main plot-line (well, if the thin story can be said to have a plot) is rooted in the old British class system: Captain Corcoran (a nicely stuffy Steve Ross) cannot abide the thought of his sweet daughter Josephine (melodious Jennifer Rider-Shaw) falling in love with lowly seaman Ralph Rackstraw (Mark Uhre in a delightful rhapsodic mode). But this gets a bit muddied and coarse, especially with Lisa Horner’s loudly vulgar Little Buttercup, the Portsmouth bumboat woman. However, she is offset by Laurie Murdoch’s Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, who is right but light in his pompous comedy. Brad Rudy is an eye-sore as dastardly Dick Deadeye and he scratches the dastardy to the sore. The sailors have enough dance energy and versatility for two musicals but are not given very much to do by Kerry Gage’s choreography, though they do so splendidly and repetitively. A charming museum-piece.

Laurie Murdoch (Sir Joseph Porter) with Members of the Company in ‘HMS Pinafore’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

I DID IT MY WAY IN YIDDISH (IN ENGLISH)

By Deb Filler. At Factory Studio, May 23-28, 2017

Deb Filler (photo: Guntar Kravis)

She is billed as New Zealand’s only Jewish comic entertainer, and she has a Kiwi accent, though she lives and works in Toronto after also having lived in New York where she trained as an actress. She is also Jewish, without apology for her ethnic jokes and considerable fun with Yiddish—a hybrid, as she puts it, of High German and phlegm. And the joke about Yiddish sets a tone for her 90-minute stand-up routine, that she performs in casual dress with the help of only a single black stool, a microphone, and a guitar (on which she whips up audience singalong participation for popular folk ballads and pop hits dating back to the 60s and 70s). She jokes that the usual demographic for her travelling show is a little older, and like most of her jokes, she does not put a cruel sting on things. She jokes mainly about herself, portraying herself as a shy child with a gift for song—though she tried resisting her mother’s urgings to perform like a young Judy Garland. “It’s so yesterday,” she was apt to protest, but the fact of the matter is that she well knows and often relishes what was yesterday, whether it is Gershwin, Fiddler on the Roof, protest folk songs, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, or Broadway’s old 42nd Street. She obviously shares some of her father Sid’s chauvinism pride in Jewish talent, though her taste is eclectic and not all limited to a single ethnicity, and she has warm presence, wonderful comic timing, a facility for character sketches in two languages, and a wonderful way with anecdotes—especially the ones about her encounters with three great Lennys (Bernstein, Cohen, and Kravitz) that leave an audience gasping with laughter and not a little poignancy.

Her beloved parents survived the Holocaust—and there is an extraordinarily moving anecdote of how Leonard Bernstein played Gershwin in a concentration camp and how he paid tribute to her hardworking father and to her during a concert in Auckland after she took the conductor six loaves of challah baked by her father. It is such a defining quality, this ethnic ability to laugh or cry after nightmare, to continue with life’s complications like an odyssey in search of existential definition. But, perhaps, I am being too hifalutin about all this. The plain fact is that Deb Filler is an entertainer who has you in the palm of her hand from her opening song to her hilarious renditions of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “I Can Get No Satisfaction,” and, ultimately, “My Way” in Yiddish. Her comedy needs no translation.

STRANGERS, BABIES

By Linda McLean
Directed by Paul Lampert
A Theatre Panik Production at the Artscape Sandbox, May 12-28, 2017

David Schurmann (Duncan) and Niki Landau (May) (photo: Neil Silcox)

Paul Lampert’s production is designed as five “exhibits” designed by Michael Gianfrancesco as if these were art installations with actors in their own private spaces. Only one of the exhibits is completely enclosed like a blue box with a door. The others are either completely open or can be easily accessed by an ambulatory audience that is supposed to be witnesses to an unfolding elliptical drama with hard edges and a nervous rhythm. In one instance, there is an old man asleep in a hospice bed; in another a middle-aged husband is engrossed in a newspaper crossword or puzzle, his coffee at hand; in a third, a grizzled young man on park bench picks at his stained fingers with a pen-knife; in a fourth, a man nattily dressed in suit and tie begins undressing in a hotel bed when he is not absorbed by his cell phone; and in a fifth, a young man, armed with a clipboard, sometimes makes stabbing motions with his pen. These installations purport mystery or, at least, something very unsettling, but this impression is somewhat contradicted by the rather pristine colours in each space: white for the man and wife, taupe or grey for the bedroom; blue for the social worker; green and some autumnal colours for the park.

The single character who enters each installation to further the narrative is Dan’s wife (May) with evident neurotic issues. At first, in her flat, she is mightily distressed at seeing a baby finch with a broken wing. Next, she is nervously eager for a masochistic sexual experience in a hotel with a male stranger (Roy) she has evidently met online; she suffers violently vituperative attacks by her cancer-ridden father (Duncan) in a hospice; then she is subjected to her brother Denis’s emotional onslaught in the park, where the dialogue suggests something criminal in their past; finally, part of her mystery is uncovered in the final scene with the social worker (Abel) who is bent on investigating the questionable health and care of May’s baby in its crib.

Award-winning Scottish playwright Linda McLean made a big splash with this 90-minute piece that is distinguished by raw poetry and a significant amount of subtext that cannot be played full out with explicit emotionality. The very structure and texture of the patchwork piece requires a skilful negotiation of ellipses, suppressed emotion, and subtle ambiguity—often missing or in short supply in Paul Lampert’s otherwise interesting production that shrewdly emphasizes themes of hurt and pain. The many references to injury, pain, violence, abuse, and death are not simply clinical in intent; they contain veils of significance.

Jeff Lillico (Denis) and Niki Landau (May) (photo: Neil Silcox)

Lampert is noted for strong expressionism, but such abstract metaphor, while visually absorbing, detracts from the text’s vocal power and connotative mystery. For one thing, the segmented design creates aesthetic distance between characters and audience, even in such an intimate space with a small audience capacity, and where setting changes are represented on a television screen or wall. Austar Stewart as Dan, May’s husband, gives a quietly patient performance that does not avoid the patronizing. Many in the cast are experienced versatile performers. David Schurmann as the embittered dying father is vehement to the point of pathology, though he correctly shows the terminally ill man’s personal shame for his daughter’s past, just as Jeff Lillico as May’s caustically contemptuous brother is especially strong and disturbing, though he fails to make the language seem like a stream of consciousness or Pinterian mystery. Richard Lee’s Roy is comically delightful in his awkward attempt to practise SM on a willing but nervous May, though neither he nor Niki Landau’s May makes their scene about erotic asphyxiation as dangerously uncomfortable as it could be. For one thing, Roy has to show rage at his own impotence or premature ejaculation, but Lee manages only short exasperation as if coitus were, indeed, prematurely interrupted.

Which leaves Edmund Stapleton as Abel and Niki Landau as May. Stapleton is a handsome blond young actor who captures the social worker’s seriousness of purpose beneath his bland surface. Landau, on the other hand, is pathologically disturbed throughout, starting on a high note of anxiety that is repeated without deeper exploration of the character’s other psychic anomalies. In other words, Landau rehearses clichés of nervousness rather than exploring fresh semaphores or angles through the character’s silences and uses of space. Surely, the significance of the play’s title could not have escaped the director or his cast. It connotes something minimalist, a story constructed of 15-20 minute vignettes with seemingly disconnected characters (metaphysical strangers) who have vulnerabilities or hurts going back in time, portending absent histories. The characters’ psychological barriers are denoted too plainly, and the ending falls flat in its abruptness, though this is more the playwright’s fault than the director’s. Definitely worth seeing, though it falls short on several counts.