SEXUAL MISCONDUCT OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES

by Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
At Tarragon Theatre. Opened January 8, 2020

Matthew Edison (Jon) and Alice Snaden (Annie)
in “Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes”
photo: Joy Von Tiedemann

Jon Macklem is a 42-year old star professor and acclaimed author who has a jokey, casual style of lecturing. He is conservatively dressed, down to his jacket pocket and athletic sneakers, sits at a desk which bears his Apple computer and a cup of coffee. He believes in the erotics of pedagogy, explicitly sharing his viewpoint directly with us (breaking through the invisible fourth wall) that learning is seduction. He well knows that the faculty guidebook places an injunction against sex with students, but this doesn’t stop him from contemplating and then consummating a sexual relationship with his first-year student named Annie, a 19-year old who sits adoringly in the first row of his classes, lives near him, and makes a point of crossing his path on her way to and from classes. She also appears to like wearing red. Jon must be saturated with this colour, for it envelops him in Michael Gianfrancesco’s red set with open doorways, red flooring, and red lighting. If this is symbolic (as it surely is), it is heavily fraught.

But back to Jon. His third marriage is frayed, seemingly beyond repair, but this does not stop him from monologizing. Not a little bit. And this proves to be a radical problem. He tells rather more than he shows—or to put it more accurately, his playwright (no slouch when it comes to acclaim and awards) can’t stop herself from revelling in his long monologues. But why is he addressing us? What is the motive for his verbose unburdening? Who are the middle classes of the play’s title?

Good thing that Moscovitch has flashes of wit (especially in Jon’s monologues and sometimes, more sparingly, in Annie’s dialogue), but these burn out quickly, leaving us shifting rather uncomfortably in corn and cliché. Hasn’t the teacher-student sexual relationship theme been covered with far more penetrating drama by other playwrights (such as David Mamet, in particular)? And isn’t there much more to playwriting than simply being an echo chamber for topical journalism and issue-of-the-month controversy?

There are too many weaknesses in the script to list in a short review, but some of them are risible in the wrong way. The sexual coupling in a hotel is like a scene from a badly written novel, and the allusion to Romeo and Juliet is also laughable, given that the dialogue is anything but lyrical, romantic, or thrust towards tragedy. You can almost predict the main dramatic tropes: the breakup after the third wife’s return and the transition of Annie from awkward, shy, fumbling, infatuated teenager to a more confident young woman who gains the upper hand. And the passage of time is too abruptly managed to register with impact, although credit to Bonnie Beecher for her lighting, Laura Warren for her video design, and Michael Gianfrancesco for his costume design. Moreover, the two characters and some of the plot (or whatever passes for a plot) are hardly believable in some ways. Given the state of contemporary Canadian literary awards, I can believe that Jon wins the Order of Canada after a well-received novel about a lumberjack (an excuse for corny jokes about wood), but he lacks depth. He can be read and summarized in a few sentences as a character. Annie’s case is worse: there is simply nothing in her dialogue or speech that would suggest that she is capable of going on to a Master’s in anything other than, possibly, manipulation. So, it is just damned laughable when Jon congratulates her after reading one of her stories with a quotation from Emerson to Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Really?

Director Sarah Garton Stanley does what she can to provide a sense of rhythm, and her two actors do their best under the circumstances. On opening night, there was consolation after much verbosity (which Matthew Edison handled competently) and precious little credibility or depth (which defeated Alice Snaden, despite her earnestness).

The opening night reception offered varieties of pizza and some hummus. Middle class enough.

LIL’ RED ROBIN HOOD

By Matt Murray
Directed and Choreographed by Tracey Flye
A Ross Petty Production at the Winter Garden Theatre,
December 6, 2019-January 4, 2020.

Blow the trumpets, bang the drums, Ross Petty has mounted a 24th Panto in Toronto, though he no longer wears tights or makeup as villains he loved to overplay on stage. As we all know, his annual Pantomime turns the genre inside-out with supreme audacity and colour. It is always in time for Christmas, a gift that has kept on giving for decades. And his latest gambit with parody is a jewel of a young person’s musical, staged in the jewel-box of the Winter Garden, whose leafy overhang is, of course, the right sort of coincidental décor for this year’s musical that targets our funny bones.

Petty has recruited some of the most beloved talents for a show that takes a British super-hero back to the future from the 12th century. Sherwood Forest has magically morphed from Sherway Gardens, and Robin Hood not only believes in wealth distribution but in spreading knowledge and wisdom across all shires. There’s a Maid Marion who is as deft with bow and arrow as she is sweet, swift, and superfine in overpowering Robin with wit. She’s evidently a medieval feminist who stands in direct opposition to a villainess—the dastardly Sheriffe of Naughtyham, glittering with costume gems and gems of insult, threat, and wickedness. She’s looking forward to a coronation under a blue crescent moon, and if this sounds like a music cue, you’re absolutely right, because this dame is a villainous with the “mostest.” Her consultant, assistant, and all-round factotum is simply named Marvin, but he’s a real match for her in their frequent bouts of mutually perverse wit. Robin’s merry band of forest rogues is led by a Friar Tuck who has the empathy of a psychotherapist. And then there’s a handsome contemporary youth, anxious about his grades in high school history, transformed into a medieval hero under the aegis of the original. A single history textbook serves like a holy grail in a plot that is the quest of several centuries. Of course, this 12th century, as pulled into various fantastical shapes in a Ross Petty pantomime, is crazily inside-out, as broadly goofy with plot invention and characterization as it is with puns and other wordplay, sometimes camp, sometimes a send-up of theatre itself.

The show is gorgeously designed by Cory Sincennes (set), Michael Gianfrancesco (costumes), Cameron Davis (projections), and Kimberly Purtell (lighting), and the music director (Joseph Tritt) deserves a hand, as do his music arranger and orchestrator (Bob Foster), music coordinator (Levon Ichkhanian), and the musicians. The song soundtrack is filled with rap, pop ballads, rock, and a dash of country and western (especially when Robin (Lawrence Libor) masquerades as Chip Calhoun with a twang). The cast is energetic, to say the least, starting off and ending with an acrobatic ensemble song and dance piece, and each star of the show has a glittering show-off number. And does each one ever show off, with moxie and brio—especially A.J. Bridel (Marion); Robert Markus (Lil’ Red), last season’s hit Evan Hansen; Eddie Glen (Marvin) in his 17th triple-threat season; Michael de Rose (Sugarbum) who is sugary camp with more than a sly soupcon of acid; Daniel Williston (Friar); and Sara-Jeanne Hosie (Sheriffe) who is naughty and hammy in the right doses.

The familiar Petty formula is intact: the smart commercial breaks promoting some of the key sponsors, and the much anticipated, comically consummated kiddie participation sequence. So, Panto lovers can start panting breathlessly as they rush to the Winter Garden to have their funny bones targeted with finesse and plenty of colour.  

LAMBDA-AWARD WINNING NOVELIST, JEFFREY ROUND, REVIEWS ‘COLOURS TO THE CHAMELEON’

Garebian on Shakespeare: Colours to the Chameleon

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Colours to the Chameleon: Canadian Actors on Shakespeare by Keith Garebian (Guernica 2019)

It should be apparent by now that Keith Garebian is one of our foremost authorities on theatre. But not just an authority—he is someone who passionately loves theatre. This book then comes as a great gift to one of the most intangible of the arts: acting. Ripe with insights that say this is how it’s done from some of the country’s finest actors, it’s almost a crash course in acting Shakespeare.

     Garebian knows Canada is often looked on as a poor cousin when compared to the celebrated riches of, say, England or the US. But not poor in talent, as he points out again and again. A long-time fan of actor William Hutt, whom he has compared favourably to Laurence Olivier, Garebian makes clear with scathing acerbity that it is Canada’s paucity of love for our own, from both critics and audiences, that is most often lacking.

     His fierce defense of Canadian Shakespeare performance is in equal parts refreshing and galvanizing, as he takes us on an exploratory journey into the hearts and thinking processes of eleven actors who rank as “great” in this country. Using his own insatiable curiosity as a starting point, Garebian intimately dissects both the personalities and intuition of such renowned actors as Nancy Palk, an acclaimed Lady Macbeth among others, who discusses getting inside a role and “being able to let go” while trying to resist the urge to direct herself when she does not feel a kinship with her director.

     Similarly with Juan Chioran, a “singing actor” who deftly discusses vocal range in technical terms, delineating the three registers that produce the voice while addressing the question of musicality in Shakespeare’s texts. And so too with Lucy Peacock, whose way of handling Shakespeare’s lines is second to none, and entirely unforgettable once you’ve heard it. With Garebian guiding, she discusses candidly her almost preternatural ability to make Shakespeare’s heightened language sound natural.

     Garebian also gives chase to such hot topics as women’s roles in Shakespeare and the handling of a character’s misogyny by male actors, as well as the relative lack of female directors compared with their male counterparts. For that reason and others, this book loudly proclaims Shakespeare’s continuing relevance some four hundred years after his death.

     Garebian makes clear why the bard is not an artifact, but a vital part of theatre today. However we may dress his plays in modern garb or incorporate technological innovations in the sets, Garebian reminds us, it is Shakespeare’s texts that cannot be overestimated. Equally, any “politicizing” that attempts to reduce or relegate him to various outlooks or ethnicities denies what he is about: universality.

     The book’s many insights into the characters and plays will be at once startling and revelatory to anyone who is a lover of drama, of poetry, or even a student of human nature when it comes to both what is spoken and what is left unspoken. Whether you are an actor, director, reader, theatre-goer or other, this book will reignite your passion for the bard, if indeed you ever lost it.

SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER

Directed by Carl Hunter. 1h.32 min. Color. Release date: October 4, 2019 (Limited)

Part fictionalized semi-documentary, part art film, Carl Hunter’s quirky film (screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who adapted it from his own short story) is a chore to sit through. The adverbs in the title apply to jacket buttons, with the top of three used sometimes, the middle one always, and the third never in a sartorially conscious world of fine fashion. The story’s central character, Alan, is a retired tailor, with a button-down, poker-faced manner, a person of finicky elegance and linguistic expertise—a Scrabble specialist, whose facility with words doesn’t compensate for his dysfunction as a father, grandfather, and lover. Bill Nighy plays him with perfect pitch, but he may be a little too perfect in this eccentric film where tedium is mistaken for intriguing mystery and where landscape and emblems can hardly compensate for plot.

The opening shot in the film is a medium-long one of Peter standing, back to camera, on a relatively deserted beach. He holds an umbrella, though it isn’t clear whether it is to protect him from rain or whether the umbrella is just a prop. He receives a telephone call from his married son Peter (Sam Riley) who, as it is revealed, writes jingles and paints business signage. Peter has his own son by wife Sue (Alice Lowe), and his own paternal problems, but the over-arching problem is his passive-aggressive relationship with his own father, a man who is desperately trying to find his missing 19-year old son, Michael, who had stormed out of the house over a game of Scrabble. In the course of his stressful quest, Alan encounters an anguished couple (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny) who are looking for their own missing son and who also play Scrabble—the excuse for what may the best darkly comic scene in the film, underscored by emotional pain, especially on the part of Agutter’s Margaret—and an online genius with word games whom Peter thinks could be his missing son. The film’s poster claims: “Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words.” True enough, but Scrabble (the original title for the film was “Triple Word Score”) is just the occasion or jumping-off point for a plot that hardly develops.

Shot with a clever use of restrained colour by Richard Stoddard (there are a few scenes where green comes to the fore), and accompanied by a jaunty soundtrack by Edwyn Collins and Sean Read, the film has a few show-off visual tricks but too much stasis in terms of its rhythm and tempo. The deadpan acting is also muted, though correct, but although there is palpable wit in the writing (I relished Nighy’s fondness for the “elegant precision” of a font on a labelling machine, as well as his decrying of Canada’s ban on Marmite), there simply isn’t enough forward momentum or suspense.  Possibly intended to be a thinking man’s film, this one shows a lot of forethought but isn’t much of a film. It would make a better short story, but come to think of it, that’s how it came into being in the first place.

THE GENEE INTERNATIONAL BALLET COMPETITION

At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, August 20-29, 2019

Named after the illustrious ballerina Adeline Genee, the Genee is one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world that attracts the most technically accomplished young dancers (ages 15-19) trained in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus at the Intermediate and Advanced levels. This year, the competition marked a number of firsts: the first time the competition returned to Canada since 2008; the first time that a Canadian choreographer (Montreal-based Gioconda Barbuto) specially devised two variations (one for females; one for males) that received their world premiere in Toronto; the first time that Karen Kain joined a distinguished panel of judges (Dame Monica Mason, Mikko Nissenin, and Magdalena Popa) to select the final medallists and winners of special awards. Another distinction was the awarding of the Queen’s Coronation Medal to Karen Kain, who is certainly no stranger to awards and distinctions. Kain now adds her name to a roster of fellow Coronation medallists that includes Dame Ninette de Valois, Glen Tetley, Dame Monica Mason, and Rudolf Nureyev.

As RAD has approximately 14,000 members in 84 countries, there is no dearth of talent or competitors. This year the Genee drew candidates from 13 different countries, and immersed these competitors in an intensive week’s training, culminating in 14 remarkable dancers (only 2 males, however) vying for Gold, Silver, and Bronze, as well as two special awards. As usual, the point of the competition (hosted in a different city every year) is not simply awards, but the championing of teaching and self-development that can lead to the dancers’ professional advancements. Dance teachers of the winners also get to have their own achievements recognized, and this is all to the good of world dance. And so as there would be no lingering charge of “nanny” and overly British standards, the young dancers had to perform three brief dances: one of the special variations devised by Gioconda Barbuto, a classical piece from a pre-set selection of choices (choreographed by either Kenneth MacMillan or Frederick Ashton), and a contemporary piece of their own preference. Their musical accompanists were Dobrochna Zubek, Wen Yang Ho, and Jonathan Still, who lent perfect support to the dancers without ever drawing attention away from either the music or  the choreography.

2019 Finalists (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Consequently, variety eventually triumphed over repetition, with international styles of choreography in the finals from Australia, Brazil, England, the USA, Wales, Canada, Japan, and Malaysia. And even the opening variations devised by Barbuto allowed for an exhibition of remarkable modulations and signature stamps by the young dancers who demonstrated their flair and brio with glissades, pirouettes, arabesques, epaulements, and a final stunning use of a rear high leg slowly crossing the arched body and descending to the floor, coming to rest in a superb display of foot tendu. In the classical repertoire (Petipa-dominant), there were revelations of strong angularities, attitude, controlled charm in ballonne and batterie, ease in petit and grand allegro and connecting steps. The best dancers made technique subservient to expressiveness that was propelled by a strong inner core and an innate sense of musicality. But the most dynamic and thrilling portions of the finals were the dancers’ own choices from a modern repertoire, where the only two males shone triumphantly: tall, slim Darrion Sellman of the U.S. demonstrating perfect line and technique (as he had consistently in the classical and compulsory pieces) in a piece that he also co-choreographed, and Julian Wen-Sheng Gan of Malaysia showing his virtuoso ease, strength, gymnastic muscularity, and dramatic expressiveness that was an unvarnished pleasure to watch. No wonder these two were declared Gold (Male) and Silver (Male) Medallists, with Gan also winning the Margot Fonteyn Audience Award, possibly by a huge margin. Not to be outdone by their male counterparts, Mia Zanardo of Australia, her compatriot Paloma Hendry-Hudson, and Jessica Templeton of the U.K. were Gold, Silver, and Bronze Medallists with clean lines and near-perfect technique.

Harrison James and Calley Skalnik in “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” (photo: Michael Slobodian)

Besides the fun of watching the announcer of the awards in his red kinky boots, audience pleasure was multiplied by Ashton Parker of South Africa (winner of the Choreography Award) who performed an exciting, highly dramatic solo as Frida Kahlo to the music of Elliott Goldenthal who had composed the Oscar-winning score for Julie Taymor’s acclaimed film. This pleasure was compounded by the short, physically demanding piece by William Forsythe (The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude) performed by the National Ballet of Canada’s Hannah Galway, Chelsey Meiss, Calley Skalnik, Naoya Ebe, and Harrison James, whose movements (in diverse configurations) had the rigor, rapidity, and ease that one associates with classical and neo-classical forms of Petipa and Balanchine, while making the extremely difficult choreography look fluently precise.

FIDDLER: MIRACLE OF MIRACLES

Written by Max Lewkowicz & Valerie Thomas.
Directed by Max Lewkowicz. A USA. Color/b/w. 125 min.

Opened at the Ted Rogers Cinema, Bloor Street, Toronto, August 23, 2019

Marc Chagall’s surrealistic painting of a fiddler balanced over rooftops was the inspiration for the title and scenography of the Broadway musical. And, so, this fascinating documentary of the genesis and evolution of Fiddler on the Roof opens with a wide aerial shot of the Manhattan sky, with only the faintest undertones of what could be a musical vamp. You may be put in mind of the opening of the cinematic version of West Side Story, and no wonder, because both stage musicals were directed by Jerome Robbins, that cruel genius who was hell to work with, but with usually a heavenly artistic end-product. But the roving camera comes to rest over the figure of old Sheldon Harnick (lyricist) playing the musical’s title theme on his fiddle while sitting on a balcony over the city. And then the camera catches an actor making his way from the guts of a subway to the stage door where he will don the peasant costume of Tevye, Sholem Aleichem’s immortal dairyman, and step onto a stage in yet another remarkable reincarnation of the musical.

Jerome Robbins, Choreographer
Photo Credit: Philippe Halsman Magnum Photos
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Ever since its Broadway debut on September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof has left its hostile critics far behind, setting records that far exceed its intrinsic limitations as a musical. Walter Kerr who was not wholly a fan (in fact he dubbed it a “near miss”), was correct in some of his criticisms of the show, but he altogether missed the components that made this musical indisputably great. On palpable evidence, this musical (which ran for over 9 years on Broadway, winning 9 Tony Awards) is staged daily somewhere in the world, from middle schools in inner cities to high schools in rural America, and from grand state theaters in Japan and Vienna to Johannesburg and Mexico City; “L’Chaim” (“To Life”) is the only father-and-son-in-law song in the Broadway canon, just as “If I Were a Rich Man” is (as Lin-Manuel Miranda claims) without rival in that canon as a song of universal appeal.

But what gives this musical its special cachet is that people around the world, who speak whatever language, are all connected to this story. But what is the story about? Something that Jerome Robbins, the original director/choreographer of the show, pondered daily, until his artistic collaborators (producer Hal Prince, librettist Joseph Stein, lyricist Sheldon Harnick, and composer Jerry Bock) called out with some exasperation their collective response: “Tradition!” The word becoming the title of an upbeat song-and-dance near the top of the show, though Robbins avoided staging it till almost the last minute, and then did so in a miraculous 30 minutes!

To be accurate, while tradition is certainly one of the major unifying themes, it is not the only catalytic ones, and certainly would not have much impact without the sense of an ethnic and religious community struggling in its shtetl life during Tsarist oppression and pogroms that threatened to fracture that community while forcing it into mass exodus and exile. Focussing on three time periods—1905, 1964, and today—the documentary has a broad canvas but dispenses with a single narrator, relying instead on what its publicity material calls “a tapestry of interviews.” Who could possibly complain, when the interviewees include the likes of Joel Grey (who directed the 2018 hit Yiddish version with Steven Skybell as Tevye), Bartlett Sher (who directed one of the five or six most recent Broadway versions), Fran Leibowitiz (tart and direct), Hal Prince (wise and succinct), Michael Bernardi (who literally performed Tevye in his own father Herschel’s stage boots), Jessica Hecht (an unforgettable Golde), Alisa Solomon (author of a wonderful cultural history of the show), Nathan Englander (who provides wise insight into the sinister business of arranged marriages), Stephen Sondheim (who knows a thing or two about musicals), Amanda Vaill (biographer of Robbins), Jan Lisa Huttner (author of Tevye’s Daughters: No Laughing Matter), Harvey Fierstein (an improbable yet moving Tevye), Itzhak Perlman (who is moved to tears just recalling the “Sabbath Prayer” from the show), Josh Mostel (son of the irrepressible, unpredictable Zero, who was anything but a zero as Tevye), Topol (the Israeli actor who played Tevye on stage in London and in Norman Jewison’s movie version, a film of some gravitas, directed by a goy), Harnick, Bock, Marc Aronson (son of the great designer Boris), and others too numerous to mention here.

Zero Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof, Broadway, 1964
Photo Credit: Friedman-Abeles, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Another rich fund of material is in the archival material made available for the documentary: such things as silent film clips of European versions of Sholem Aleichem stories, a recording of Aleichem reading one of his tales, original tapes of Harnick and Bock while composing the score, television clips of Mostel and Dick Cavett and of Topol dancing with Danny Kaye, footage of a Hasidic wedding with wild dancing (a source for Robbins’s staging of the famous Bottle Dance), and numerous clips from various productions of the musical around the globe, including scenes from versions in England, Holland, Japan, on Broadway, and sizeable ones from Canada’s Stratford Festival’s memorable production with Scott Wentworth as an unforgettable Tevye. A viewer gets to see various approaches to the leading roles of Tevye, Golde, and the daughters, although, understandably, there is not enough footage for definitive comparisons.

Of course, the challenge inherent in such rich material is a question of shape or form, and I am happy to report that the documentary meets this challenge with triumphant chutzpah. The one defect, for me, is the overuse of Tess Martin’s colour animation sequences, many of which are simply unnecessary and which do not match any of the archival clips in relevance or depth. However, the many interviews propel the documentary into a multiple cultural and historical landscapes, beginning with the failed Russian Revolution of 1905 (when Jews, as usual, became the targets of oppression and intended annihilation), moving into past the halfway mark of the 20th century in America, where the U.S. was beset with immense violent political and social upheaval, and then into contemporary times where rancid right-wing movements are roiling huge areas of Europe, Asia, Africa, and the U.S., and where decent traditional moral values have been egregiously shoved aside in favour of brutal repression and racism. The documentary doesn’t miss its opportunities to draw illuminating parallels between, for instance, the mass immigration to the US through Ellis Island in 1905 and the current plight of refugees and immigrants trying to look for a better life somewhere in the world. Another parallel is between the struggle of Jews in Anatevka to make a life of security and community and the struggle of blacks in the U.S. for civil rights. A third (and an even more interesting one for me) is the parallel between the nefarious old Jewish custom of arranged marriage (Sholem Aleichem detested matchmakers) and contemporary women’s movements. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a real-life heroine, is not mentioned (though Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem are), but her protest against having a man’s foot on her neck is as powerful and as relevant a metaphor as any poet’s today, especially in the U.S. with a notorious misogynistic, sexually predatorial president at the helm of an utterly immoral, inept government—one that would rewrite the Constitution, if given half the chance, and one  that is at war with everything decent about human rights.

Fiddler on The Roof, Broadway 2016
Photo Credit: Fiddler Broadway Company, LLC.
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films

Relevance is always a component of great art, and on this score alone, Fiddler on the Roof is great by virtue of its links to ongoing conflicts over human rights and various types of abuse. It is also great because many of its themes have an undeniable universality, as has already been noted. No wonder that a Japanese producer considered the musical to be thoroughly Japanese or that black and Hispanic school students staged the show with due respect or that even a group in Bangkok felt deep connections with this American “miracle of miracles.” Tevye, it should be repeated, stops talking to God after a beloved daughter becomes an apostate and leaves her homeland, but Tevye keeps talking to audiences around the world, Jewish and gentile, and rightly earns their warm, universal applause for his persistence and fundamental decency. His daughters (reduced to 5 for the musical, though they are 7 in Aleichem’s original tales) make a deep connection with modern young women because they strive for feminine empowerment. And though present-day Anatevka in the Ukraine is a ghost-town for the most part, the very image of an enforced mass exodus reverberates in modern consciousness after the realities of refugee crises the world over. After he has danced with a rabbi from Anatevka, actor Michael Bernardi sums up the musical as a story of displaced people who, despite being annihilated, are left as a palpable memory. Even a ghost is a memory, so memory can never be quite annihilated. A dark truth but an inescapable one, even in a Broadway musical. And you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to connect with this truth.

(A delightful prelude to the screening on opening day was a 15-minute performance of three songs from the show by young baritone-tenor Shayne Stolz, who deserves to be in a new incarnation of the musical.)

WILLIAM HUTT: SOLDIER ACTOR by KEITH GAREBIAN

Reviewed by David Bateman on Bateman.reviews.blogspot. com

Biographer, poet, and theatre scholar Keith Garebian’s 492 page biography of William Hutt (Guernica Editions) may seem daunting at first glance, but very quickly one is drawn into an almost novel-like epic adventure that manages to take the life of a single iconic Canadian actor and mould it into a seamless narrative that never fails to enlighten, amuse, and instil admiration for one of the most compelling performing arts careers of the 20th century. And if that’s not enough, other men and women acclaimed in both film and theatre cross the boards of Garebian’s mammoth achievement, making his contribution both personal and inclusive as it adds to the rich, often unsung history of Canada’s theatrical history, and the ways in which it has frequently crossed paths with international glory.

Christopher Plummer, Martha Henry, Brian Bedford, Maggie Smith, Noel Coward, Sybil Thorndike, and William Shatner lounge among the ranks of star powered creatures whose fame brushed lightly – at times even brashly – against Hutt’s diverse and lavish career. During a meeting regarding Hutt’s part in Waiting In The Wings (Broadway, 1960) Noel Coward told him that“you don’t have to sing much, darling…Maybe one little patter song. But there will be several good scenes for you.” A short paragraph later, the anecdote is elaborated upon when Hutt’s own words evoke a detailed sense of what it was like to be directed by a tactful master :
“It’s Noel’s gift to make you feel as if what you’re doing is right and important. In making a correction, he will say, ‘Nothing to worry about, dear, but could you possibly do it a bit differently.’”Now that’s tact.” 
This brief yet concise segment also manages to include the fact that Hutt discovered, in an early rehearsal, that one of his two scenes had been changed to a musical number. Ever the tactful manipulator, Coward’s satiric sense, both onstage and off, according to Hutt, was always“impeccable.”

The book is filled with similar personal anecdotes that convey a sense of a detailed series of relationships and chronologies that make up a rich and varied life. Garebian also manages that delicate task of constructing a sense of Hutt’s sexual and gender identities without the explicit nature some readers might crave. His companions/lovers, what have you, subtly grace the pages with an elegant sense of the writer’s respect for privacy, yet titillate simultaneously through the use of photographs, a sense of intermittent conflict, up close and faintly personal anecdotes, and a heartfelt writing style that shows the author’s respect for his subject. Effeminacy in particular becomes something, onstage and off, that Garebian develops in a simultaneously complex yet subtly engaging manner:

Hutt’s next role followed in 1963 when he accepted an invitation to play Pandarus in ringlets and heavy jewels in Troilus and Cressida. Hutt sensed all through rehearsals that Michael Langham wanted him to think like a woman for the part of the go-between between the two title lovers. At first he did not take to Langham’s direction, feeling “not quite prepared to reveal to the theatre-going public that there was a strong streak of femininity” in him. Langham recognized the stumbling block and was determined to remove it. The release came after an ivory flywhisk was put in Hutt’s hand, because the prop suddenly became a focus for gesture and, behind this, for mental character. Hutt described how the process developed: “I began to think like a woman, and the final note was literally just before I went on the opening night. I suddenly took a deep breath and said, ‘My God, I’ve got tits!’ I went out there thinking I had a huge pair of tits, and all the things Michael had been telling me fell into place. He wanted effeminacy but not necessarily homosexuality. If the audience said, ‘Oh, he’s a wonderful old “queer,”’ then that was a decision they should make. In other words, he didn’t say, ‘I want you to play this like some mad “queer” from Third Avenue. No. He realized that it was too tight an image, too pedestrian and far too easy.” 

Hutt’s mixed persona, in a familial role moulded by birth, society and ‘nature’ appears to be a dance between traditional, complex notions of gender and the ways in which he may have chosen to portray these traits in his personal life, his family life, and the many roles he took onto the stage. As the son of a religious man and a doting mother, with the added ingredient of an at times conflicted relationship with his brother, readers may glean engaging sex/gender details and cultural innuendoes throughout Garebian’s research and anecdotal analysis. The actor/soldier’s appearance in WW2 is deftly handled and reveals a fine balance between time spent both fighting and ‘acting’ for his country. There is an especially fascinating correlation between Hutt’s bravery during a dangerous episode in Italy, and the ways in which he was able to bring extreme bravery, strength and character to the roles he would encounter when he returned to Canada and began to pursue an acting career.A colleague once observed the soldier actor mentality that led Hutt through his many roles in life and gave him a special cadence, intuition, and rhythm that frequently worked well onstage, opting for a knowing patience rather than a frustrated  and cumbersome pose:
“There was never frustration. If he wasn’t sure of something, he would ask a question, but there was never a whole lot of conversation about something. You could see that he had done a lot of thinking, and if he had a question, he would hash it out in rehearsal. If he wasn’t comfortable with a moment, he didn’t need to sit and chat about it. He really was a man of action. He was a soldier that way. I remember the very opening when he came in from the heath in the play. He’d come to this man’s sumptuous house. He’d walk in but he didn’t want to walk across the rug for fear he would leave marks on it, so he did this very simple walk around the contours of the rug, and it was hilarious. He was playful, and yet he was masterful at knowing what would work and what wouldn’t with an audience. It just seemed to be organic—a second sense.” Elaborating on Hutt’s rehearsal method, Hughes noted that he was very precise in what he did but would never use his full power either in rehearsals or in previews. “Unlike some actors who come out of the chute and just blow it out, he was the other way. You could see him clocking when the audience responded. He was using the previews to figure out where he was going, and each night, he added another 15%, as he became more and more assured of where he was going, how he was going to use his audience, and how he was going to engage with the actors on stage with this new dance partner—the audience. So, by the opening, he was cooking, he was just flying and right where he needed to be. Bill was never more or any less than he needed to be. It was a great lesson.” 

Garebian however is not all smiles  and acclaim in his in depth reading go Hutt’s varied career. Late in the book, at the beginning of his epilogue, he candidly admits to being the discerning critic who does not allow his status as a great admirer of Hutt’s to become an entirely one-sided tome of fandom and unwarranted praise:
When I approached him in 1984 to write his biography, I was honest about my own reservations. I had certainly admired him in most of his roles, but I did not like his Claudius for John Neville or his first attempt at the King of France in All’s Well That Ends Well, and I had criticisms of his Vanya for Robin Phillips and his first Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor. When inspiration or taste or daring failed him, he was grossly hammy or merely dull. I had heard of his ego, and I decided to test his limits by telling him at the outset that I considered Sir Laurence Olivier to be the greatest actor I had ever seen and the only theatre idol, apart from Shakespeare, that I revered. He eyed me coldly at first, probably amazed at my impertinent audacity. I could have become a live sacrifice at 4 Waterloo North, but he kept his temper well under control. I believe he even began to respect me a little for my honesty and nerve, though he must have winced privately at my calculated tactlessness. It was essential, however, to serve him advance notice that I would not be writing hagiography. And he surprised me, in turn, by his outward placidity.

Ultimately the book becomes a lightly sparring relationship between biographer and subject, whereby the individuals collaborate, over a span of many years, on detailed encounters that achieve a fine and delicate balance between biography, personal narrative, and astute critique:[At the] Chalmers Awards at the St. Lawrence Centre on January 30, 1989, at which he was to receive the Toronto Drama Bench Award…Looking elegant and relaxed, Hutt made a witty acceptance speech, thanking Sylvia Shawn for giving him his first professional job, Amelia Hall for her generosity, Tony Guthrie for his love, Langham for his style, Gascon for his energy and warmth, John Hirsch for his deficit, and Robin Phillips, above all, for setting a new direction for his career. He also thanked the critical fraternity for having tried to keep him humble over all these years, “which according to the recent book by Keith Garebian is no easy task.”

Garebian has written about Hutt’s life before and comes back to the front, in his latest venture, with an immense and valuable contribution to Canadian theatre history, as well as an homage to a kind of Canadian career that we can all learn patience, admiration, and respect from as we continue to muddle through the cumbersome performance of identity that being Canadian, both onstage and off, entails. The final pages, nearing Hutt’s death in 2007, incorporate remarkably beautiful and moving portraits of an icon in one of his final courageous and generous performances.

Journalist Sandra Martin of the Globe and Mail visited him on a clear, sunny day in early June, ostensibly to fact check things about his life story, and Hutt, attached to a portable oxygen machine, was unable to rise from his wing chair beside a window to receive her. His face a waxy pallor and dressed in “a loose, brown-patterned shirt over casual trousers, and with terribly swollen ankles showing above a pair of moccasins,” he began the interview by asking: “Have you ever interviewed anyone who’s actually dying?” (Martin June 28, 2007) The question took her by surprise, as did his subsequent conversation of almost ninety minutes, during which, though racked by coughs, he talked frankly about his parents, the war, and his introduction to death before he had a chance to know much about life. He indicated three major stages in his life: adolescence, “when things happen to your body and your mind”; your twenties, when “your parents become your friends rather than authority figures”; and death, the stage he was entering with questions of what it would be like. He was modest about his own capacities as an actor: “I will leave the word ‘great’ to history, but I do know that in some kind of way, my career as an actor has paralleled the growth of theatre in this country.” He had always been pragmatic, and he explained that his decision to stay home rather than to chase fame and fortune in London and New York came from an “an arrogant pride” in Canada. “I had no intention of leaving this country until I was invited. I wasn’t going to beg.” He acknowledged the generous friendship and support of Richard Monette: “He has prolonged my life and my career.” 

In William Hutt Soldier Actor Keith Garebian has further prolonged the career of a man  and a nationality through exhaustive research, personal admiration, astute critique, and a commitment to chronicling detailed, entertaining, and engaging accounts of Canadian theatre history and all of its complex creatures.

David Bateman, Toronto, 2018

THE LAST SHIP

New Book and Direction by by Lorne Campbell
Music & Lyrics by Sting
A Mirvish Presentation at the Princess of Wales Theatre
Opened February 19, 2019

Reviewed by Maria Heidler

Ensemble of The Last Ship (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Sting – that “Englishman in New York” – is now in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre, and starring in his personal homage to his hometown of Wallsend in North East England and to the ship-building community that formed him. The Last Ship is inspired by his 1991 album The Soul Cages and opened in Chicago in 2014, moving to Broadway for a three-month run. Although nominated for 2 Tonys, it was not a financial success. He re-worked it and it opened to great acclaim back in the U.K. in the port city of Newcastle upon Tyne. Then followed a U.K. tour, and it was in Dublin that David Mirvish saw the production and arranged for Sting to bring it to Toronto where, back in 1978 with his band The Police, he’d played The Horseshoe Tavern and The Edge. How would this tale from 1986 Britain fare in 2019 Toronto?

The set is a triptych of tension with two staired pylons dividing a vast expanse of industrial wall. Above, ominous clouds make their way across the sky and yet, to one side, a group of six musicians laugh amongst themselves. Then the actors amble on, chatting, then waving at audience members. They shout out greetings and the audience responds. We Are One! The atmosphere of solidarity is set. The Tale begins. The cast sing an anthem of their lives. It is who they are and why they are. It ends on a chord of hope – but we are soon to be enveloped in that triptych of tension.

Three story arcs evolve: 1) The fight against the death of the ship-building industry and a community’s livelihood. 2) The fight against death in the human body. 3) The fight to prevent a re-opening of the wound of desertion. Director and book-writer, Lorne Campbell, skillfully entwines these stories, which span back across seventeen years, with a flow of cinematic projections that evoke a world both foreign yet somehow universally familiar. Sting’s music and lyrics are both witty and poignant with strong references to a culture deeply rooted in its folk origins. This is supported by the use of a melodeon in the orchestration and by rhythms of jigs and waltzes.

Sting leading the ensemble in The Last Ship (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The cast are a superb unit portraying the many hurdles a community has to face when the world as they know it is about to end. Among them there is the carpenter poet (Marc Akinfolarin) who freely quotes from Greek Mythology to Dylan Thomas; the Union boss (Joe Caffrey) who quotes Tennyson; the town drunkard (Kevin Wathen) who “can’t afford to go on strike!”; the Foreman (Sting) who, in spite of illness, tries to keep a cool head when all about are losing theirs; Gideon – both the radgie (crazy) teenager (Barney Wilkinson) and the adult (Oliver Savile) who returns to his home after 17 years of pursuing his dream to find he has a daughter, Ellen (Sophie Reid), by his erstwhile girlfriend Meg (young:Jade Sophia Vertannes/adult: Frances McNamee); and the Shipyard Owner (Sean Kearns) who uses Government Policy to justify his demands.

We are taken through the various roads of negotiation and defiance involving both the men and the women (Gideon living up to his Biblical name by finally becoming a leader of men!) until the workers take matters into their own hands and complete the building of the doomed ship (ironically named “Utopia”). So…all’s well that ends well (the play is littered with delicious aphorisms)…or is there a “sting” in the tale? Unfortunately – Yes! In keeping with the triple theme, I got stung thrice! 1: The Foreman dies before the ship is launched and there is a scene with his coffin on the stage as his widow Peggy, (played with strength and dignity by Jackie Morrison) courageously insists on pursuing his sense of purpose. This felt maudlin and contrived, and the scene would have benefited without the presence of the coffin. 2: The “Geordie” accent is one of the most musical yet challenging of British accents to portray on stage. A lot of fine vocal work was wasted through lack of diction and/or sound quality. 3: The piece is too long. It would lose none of its power to cut 30 minutes out of it. “Time and tide wait for no man!”

PRINCE HAMLET

Christine Horne as Hamlet (photo: Brownen Sharp)
Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio (photo: Brownen Sharp)

Adapted and Directed by Ravi Jain
A Why Not Theatre Production Presented
by Canadian Stage
At Berkeley Street Theatre, Feb.6-24, 2019

Mud plays an emblematic role in Ravi Jain’s gender-bending, racially mixed, modern-dress take on Hamlet. Small and large piles of dirt are part of Lorenzo Savoini’s sparse décor: brick back wall, three long vertical mirrors at the back wall, two chandeliers, some chairs, and a central rectangular platform raised a few inches off the stage floor. Gertrude and Claudius rut hard on a mud heap, their sexual position leaving nothing to the imagination and their orgasmic cries topped only by the prince’s outcry that precedes his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. In her madness, Ophelia collapses into a mud pile, soiling herself in despair. And when Claudius exposes his tortured conscience (“O my offence is rank”), he does so while observing himself in a mirror and kneeling on the same mud-heap he had used for intercourse with Gertrude. This is the same scene where Hamlet stops himself from murdering his foul, usurping uncle, but he has nothing more than a fistful of mud with which to commit the deed. Later, in the graveyard scene, he is given a handful of mud rather than Yorick’s skull, presumably an ironic memento mori. Surprisingly, there is no pit or grave for Ophelia’s burial, and the fierce physical struggle between Laertes and the prince occurs on the central platform that has a little mud scattered about.

So, the mud images, some dramatically startling, others bafflingly at odds with the text, take shape at some cost to the production, as does the presentation of Horatio by Dawn Jani Birley entirely in dumb show or sign language. This performance is vividly intense but rather archly conceived for a hearing-impaired audience. The problem is that the “signing” (that begins when each player signs his or her real first name and then the name of the character to be portrayed) concludes only two and a half hours later with an epilogue that mimes the dead prince’s soul to heaven. This directorial choice impedes the dramatic rhythm, delays or interrupts the spoken dialogue in virtually every scene, and frustrates anyone yearning for the story to be told clearly.

Ravi Jain has done excellent work in other productions, but this time I find his presentation dismally inept or sluggish, burdened by his urge to stylize things to the loss of clarity, cohesion, and competent speech. It is clear that the director has his mind on young audiences with small attention spans and limited exposure to the classics. How else to account for the almost manga-like mime from Miriam Fernandes as the Player King or the egregious vaudeville comedy by the same actress as the Gravedigger who resorts to a bit of opera buffa (literally singing into a bucket). This is the first Gravedigger I have ever seen who seems to want to sing and dance his way into our hearts.

Jain accompanies Hamlet’s first soliloquy with a prancing Claudius and then a dance with his queen on the perimeter of the platform. Elsewhere, one scene leaks into another, with the director forgetting all about coherence. Jain stages the climactic duel without suggesting even the slightest shred of physical danger. His cast sits on the floor, with their backs to the audience, miming some of the action, with no spoken text that I can recall. The silence is far from dramatic. Where the production is dominated by a virtually unconscionable reduction of text (it’s all shreds and patches), the final scene is marked and marred by a deficiency of physical action. This may well be the only case of the Hamlet-Laertes duel represented by a solitary mummer.

Which may well be part of the director’s strategy to divert from the generally lacklustre speech of his cast. For one thing, Jain allows sound designer Thomas Ryder Paine free rein with a musical score that is so persistent as to be almost aggressively intrusive and annoying.  But even without this accompaniment, the spoken soundtrack would be disappointing. Hannah Miller plays four roles, mostly crudely, apart from her Guildenstern. Though Barbara Gordon has her moments as Polonius, there are layers missing from this performance. Karen Robinson’s Gertrude does capture some of the verse’s sophistication, though she fails to do anything especially notable with the poetic account of Ophelia’s death. Rick Roberts’s Claudius is generally vulgar in speech and acting. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah as Laertes (with a nose-ring) is another similar offender. Jeff Ho shows some sensitivity as Ophelia, though he mars his performance by a tendency to be lachrymose and overly vehement when a more restrained mode of acting would have served him better. The problem is that too many younger actors and contemporary directors lack adequate training in verse, and this shows lamentably in this production.

Christine Horne, defying gender, errs on the side of hysteria when she isn’t simply flat and unprofitable with Hamlet’s words. Horne even gets to speak the Ghost’s lines, which she does with a different pitch but with no more finesse than her prince. This is a Hamlet who is unhinged from the start, her normally thin voice often rising to an unearthly screech in the most unexpected places. The direction doesn’t help. Jain ends the Mousetrap sequence with only half of Hamlet’s cry: “The play’s the thing…” Where a spoken climax may be expected, there is none, and where less sound would be a mark of artistic restraint, there is too often loud weeping or yelling that seems to come from no recognizable psychological place.

This point brings me to what, perhaps, may be the radical reason for artistic failure in this production. Shakespeare makes it eminently clear that “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,” and that the kingdom is rife with various types of espionage. Consequently, the political element is supposed to be very important in the telling of a story that is really about discovering who you are in a world tainted by vice and confusion. Jain’s production, however, allows the actors to drift about in a context that lacks specificity. Shakespeare’s characters don’t function well if you try (in Nicholas Hytner’s words) to “abstract them back to their essentials.”