THE ADVENTURES OF THE BACK GIRL IN HER SEARCH FOR GOD

By Lisa Codrington
adapted from the short story by Bernard Shaw
Directed by Ravi Jain
At the Court House Theatre, June 25-September 11, 2016

photo: David Cooper (L-R): Natasha Mumba (Black Girl) and Kiera Sangster (Black Mamba Snake)

photo: David Cooper
(L-R): Natasha Mumba (Black Girl) and Kiera Sangster (Black Mamba Snake)

Made up and costumed as George Bernard Shaw, albeit far more robust than the real-life one, Guy Bannerman complains about the lack of a Preface in this one-act satire. He also complains that the Canadian playwright hasn’t even read his own Preface to the controversial short story he wrote in 1932, one that combined aspects of Voltaire, Swift, and Bunyan in his own inimitable way. Furious at these outrages, he thunders: “This is a massacre!” before he is interrupted by the Black Girl (Natasha Mumba) who proceeds to warn him cheekily that he can be replaced: “You’re not the first elite guy from across the pond who had a theatre named after him—and then not!” She’s referring, of course, to Stratford, where Shakespeare’s name is now absent from the festival title. Later, when GBS threatens to read his own Preface aloud, she reminds him that this is a lunch-time entertainment of around 50 minutes playing time, so he had better be quick. Her sharp rebuke and Camellia Koo’s set design of an oversized representation of a bible (which means “book”) as the main playing surface are examples of a post-modernist frame for Lisa Codrington’s adaptation, a burlesque that has high, almost anarchic energy, vast corn, and some sharp satiric points, but that fails to be as clever or as cutting as its literary source.

Shaw’s story (really a novella) grew from his correspondence with Mabel Shaw (no relation), a white missionary in Northern Rhodesia. A woman with “a craze for self torture,” (in Shaw’s words) who broke off her engagement with a clergyman in order to “bury herself in the wilds of Africa and lead Negro children to Christ,” Mabel was complimented by GBS for her view that a black girl is “much less of a savage than an average post-war flapper.” But what GBS detested was Mabel’s use of the Cross because that symbol turned Christ from a teacher into a figure from the Chamber of Horrors. In Shaw’s story, Christ is portrayed as a poor teacher who is obliged to play a conjuror in order to attract followers who prefer witnessing his “miracles” rather than listening to his preaching.

In Codrington’s adaptation, the Conjuror (Jonathan Tan) is Christ turned into a slim Asiatic male model in dark glasses, which, at least racially, is closer to his biblical predecessor than any white Hollywood or Moral Majority version. However, Codrington’s text and her director’s approach diminish Shaw’s acuity. When the black girl wonders where God is and is told that she should seek in order to find, she goes off into the jungle of Old and New Testaments—where she encounters a Black Mamba (Kiera Sangster), the likes of Micah the Morasthite and King Solomon (both lampooned by Ben Sanders successively), the Lord of Hosts (Bannerman again), The Almighty (Graeme Somerville), and a Caravan of scientists (whose luggage is borne heavily by a Black Bearer). But where GBS was mercilessly probing biblical fables in order to reach their sparkling essences, Codrington is simply reacting to his white male perspective of blackness and black femininity. In other words, where Shaw was donning the mantle of Voltaire to expose and ridicule “Crosstianity” (rather than true Christianity) and other forms of colonialism, Codrington is more focussed on racism. Both playwrights are bold in their re-appropriations, but Codrington lacks real polish.

Her spirited Black Girl poses a challenging question to God: “Why, if you made the world, did you make it so badly?” Surely a question all sceptics have asked, so there is nothing exactly new in this. Micah tears pages off the bible to shreds and then raves. The Caravan of the Curious is a quartet of Mathematician, Physicist, Biologist, and Naturalist, thus covering all the main sciences, and it allows the iconoclastic Naturalist to give an account of how, just as the bible is a book of how an idea developed, GBS’s work is a chronicle of how his ideas developed. Shrewd point, and not the only one in the show, but while there are several witty moments and sequences of effective satire (especially by Tara Rosling’s white missionary, Kiera Sangster’s disaffected snake, and Ben Sanders’s Solomon resigned to a falling out with God), the didactic quality is not elevated enough to represent a profound reaction to Shaw, whose ideas on rationalism and racial fusion gained him notoriety around the world. Some of his ideas (such as his view on racial intermarriage) were treated as a joke in Britain and as blasphemy elsewhere. Codrington’s satire is more of a joke, whose sting is minor. Part of the reason is her simplistic text; another part is Ravi Jain and his cast’s over-indulgence of caricature.

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ENGAGED

by W.S. Gilbert
Directed by Morris Panych
At the Royal George Theatre, June 24-October 23, 2016

photo: David Cooper (L-R): Nicole Underhay (Belinda), Gray Powell (Cheviot), Diana Donnelly (Minnie)

photo: David Cooper
(L-R): Nicole Underhay (Belinda), Gray Powell (Cheviot), Diana Donnelly (Minnie)

In a peculiar program note that seems to suggest that Engaged might be better off left for dead than re-read, much less re-enacted, Morris Panych condemns W.S. Gilbert’s comedy before embracing it—a very curious thing, indeed, that gets “curiouser” and “curiouser” when linked to his treatment of W.S. Gilbert’s three-act farce–one that turned out to be his most popular theatre entertainment, apart from his operettas composed in collaboration with Arthur Sullivan. Perhaps Panych is practising a rare form of sophisticated irony in appearing to be cruel only to be kind. But, no, not when I actually observed and heard what was transpiring on stage. While Engaged is certainly not as witty as Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (but then what other comedy is?), Gilbert’s farce (mixing Scotland and England) can be read as a forerunner of Shaw and Ayckbourn in some ways—a middle-distance forerunner, perhaps, but a forerunner nonetheless. Given its roguish bachelor, Cheviot Hill (a rich penny-pincher who pledges his love to almost any woman on his horizon) and its materialistic Belinda (a woman who never allows love or ardour to get the better of money), it is a burlesque of romantic drama, becoming, in effect, a serious comedy for trivial materialists. As Bob Hetherington’s program essay astutely points out, in this comedy “the importance of being earnest is always about money, with friendship and love awarded in relation to it.” There is romance aplenty, as well as a fair amount of raging hormones. Some of the principal women are quite calculating in trying to find a man who will be responsible for their expenses. At the end, money is the thing most celebrated, with love running a distant second. Though the farce gets topsy-turvy, the satire is pointed and precise, particularly in its witty language best articulated by Cheviot and Belinda.

Yet, the first act of this production shows no confidence at all in the comedy. Panych seems unsure about how to perform the piece. Should there be an operetta approach, vis-à-vis the rhyming ditties in the prologue? Should there be a perversely bold enunciation of theatrical and courtship performativity? Should there be broad parody without moderation? Ken MacDonald’s décor of cut-out Scottish thistle and generic emblems points to a cartoon approach, and certainly the coarse acting by the cast, with particularly impenetrable Scots accents for the rough-hewn Maggie, Angus, and Mrs. Mcfarlane, makes it difficult for an audience to enjoy the play as much as it could be enjoyed.

And yet, the second act transforms a dud into a silken thing, beginning with MacDonald’s gorgeous rococo rose motifs going from background painting to costuming and furnishings. And the players all seem to finally be in the right ensemble mode, with their director forsaking his earlier coarseness for a style that, while still impish, whips up the energy quotient and reveals the hearts of the characters, and not just their enticing silhouettes. Julia Course’s self-flattering Maggie grows disarmingly funny, just as Jeff Meadows’s Belvawney, friend of the roguish bachelor, grows more absurdly comic. Diana Donnelly’s Minnie and Nicole Underhay’s raven-haired Belinda are fetching, sensuous, and terribly witty, with Underhay deliciously insincere about her ardour and anguish. And there are fine smaller sketches by Shawn Wright as Symperson, Ric Reid’s tartan and bewhiskered Major McGillicuddy, and Claire Jullien’s Parker, a maid who is an erotic mercenary. But no one outshines Gray Powell’s Cheviot, a portrait that owes something to wryly sophisticated Cary Grant, but that has Powell’s strong performing self stamped all over it. His pelvic thrusts and candid crotch in concert, Powell gives an extremely free comic performance, spouting ardent nonsense with aplomb, articulating a quixotic sense of fidelity while falling victim to the opposite. The actor triumphs in a role that turns comic romantic lust into seductive demagoguery.

ENDGAME

By Jeffrey Round
Dundurn
228 pages, $15.99 (paper)
ISBN: 9781459733251

endgame cover

And Then There Were None (first published in 1939 as Ten Little Niggers, an egregious title!) is an Agatha Christie best-seller (with over 100 million copies sold) that focuses on a group of eight people lured to a remote isolated island off the Devon coast of England. Their hosts never arrive but it becomes known by a gramophone recording in the villa that the guests and the two servants who greet them have all been involved with crimes for which they have so far eluded the long arm of the law. Christie’s gimmick is to kill off each of the ten characters, one by one, tying each death to a nursery rhyme and the breakage of ten figurines, one by one, on the dining room table. The story is characteristically British, with characters ranging from a retired general, a rigid spinster, a retired judge, a soldier of fortune, a sports mistress, and Scotland Yard detectives, and one of the appeals of this who-dunnit is its challenge to identify the killer or killers.

Working in the long shadow of this famous murder-mystery, Jeffrey Round (Lambda Award-winning novelist) demonstrates his talent for adapting and reimagining Agatha Christie’s classic. Instead of Devon, he offers a remote, rugged island off the coast of Seattle (rumoured to have been purchased at one time by either Madonna or Bono) and his collection of characters includes three members (lead singer Spike Anthrax, bassist Pete Doghouse, guitarist Max Hardcore) of a once-famous punk band called The Ladykillers, whose glory days are long over. Their former manager, Harvey Keill, has invited them and an entourage of groupies, girlfriends, a former civil rights lawyer, a blind American rock critic, and a real-estate agent to this remote locale, where a dark secret emerges from the past to haunt them and lead, one by one, to a mysterious fate. Instead of a nursery rhyme and figurines, Round uses a pornographic twelve-verse punk rock lyric and twelve chess pieces to tie each character to the mystery. His wit is different, of course, from Christie’s. The emblematic names of the former band members give proof enough, but so does his mode of narration. Round has a sharp ear for dialogue and an appreciation of the grain and temper of contemporary pop culture, and this fast-paced novel is saturated with the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’roll of the 80s. The cast of characters is diverse and interesting, and the modes of death are various. Round knows how to build suspense, segue from episode to episode, and construct an engrossing page-turner. The denouement is achieved by the final chapter of the deceased blind critic’s long-awaited history of punk rock, entitled Endgame.

 

AS YOU LIKE IT

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Jillian Keiley
At the Festival Theatre, June 3-October 22, 2016

From left: Cyrus Lane as Orlando, Trish Lindström as Celia and Petrina Bromley as Rosalind in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.

From left: Cyrus Lane as Orlando, Trish Lindström as Celia and Petrina Bromley as Rosalind in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.

As You Like It is a romantic comedy of wit in which various pairs of lovers (from high station to low) discover imaginative freedom in life and love. Jillian Keiley’s interactive production—set in 1980s Newfoundland, when a cultural revolution seemed to be in progress—is periodically amusing, which is not the same as being witty. Members of the audience are given little bags with props, including poems written by schoolchildren (to parody Orlando’s unfortunate sonnets hung on trees), a small blue paper fan for suggesting the sea, and a sprig of pine greenery, and are encouraged to engage in conversation with members of the ensemble and sing along (specific props in hand) to the folksy tunes of Great Big Sea’s Bob Hallett. During the play proper, some of the props (different ones for different sections of the audience) as emblematic representations of a theme, though this sort of use becomes cheap parody, especially in the stag scene or other pastoral moments. Arden becomes a theme park where Disney enthusiasts would not be out of place. The playfulness is stretched to its limits: sexual double entendres (“hold my dinghy,” or “show me your bush”) are exploited for their low clichéd worth. Why do professional actors act as if they are privy to special sexual jokes that are as old as the hills? Must be because they think that they are playing to groundlings.

At first Bretta Gereke’s costumes suggest something generally rugged and rural—leather, homespun wools and other fabrics—but the most distinctive characters in the play are given distinctive costumes of mixed quality. Celia (Trish Lindstrom) is pretty in her blond ringlets, a pink, frilly skirt, and boots, and Sir Oliver Martext (played drunk by John Kirkpatrick) is turned into a hippie with headband and sandals. Touchstone is the oddest of the odd, his hat and checkered suit (adorned with assorted decorations) immediately set him off as a clown, though Sanjay Talwar pushes much too desperately hard to make the “roynish” clown’s jokes accessible to a modern audience. Talwar over-emphasizes the bawdy bits—as do others in the ensemble—without ever becomg a significant figure of wit. Hymen has the glitziest costume (punk) that Robin Hutton wears with a flourish but that’s because she’s portrayed as an emcee and dance caller, besides being a goddess (though this is a case of gender-bending as Hymen is traditionally male). The error in this costume is that it removes all elements of surprise. Hymen discloses herself from the outset, so there is no magic when she plays her mythic role later in the action. Gender-bending, in any case, is intrinsic to this comedy. Rosalind turns into Ganymede, and her transformation is crucial to the theme of imaginative freedom. In Keiley’s production, the gender-bending is pushed further: instead of the good Duke Senior there is a Duchess (Brigit Wilson), and Jaques is turned by Seana McKenna into a superbly eloquent cynic.

Seana McKenna as Jaques with members of the company in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.

Seana McKenna as Jaques with members of the company in As You Like It. Photography by David Hou.

Overall, there is an undeniable sense of something festive and participatory on stage—indeed, something festively Canadian (though Robin Phillips, Richard Monette, and others led the way much earlier in this regard)–but the frequent interruptions by silly gags and calls to sing-a-long merely interrupt the play’s action, coarsen the texture, and sideline the serious undernotes in the comedy. Director Jillian Keiley (a Newfoundlander herself) appears to have forgotten that in a very fundamental sense much of the romantic and comic action of the play occurs in its very language, and it is here, again, that the younger members of the Festival company show their limitations. For a production set in Newfoundland, there is hardly much Newfie about the accents, but accent is only part of a larger vocal problem. Of all the cast, only Scott Wentworth’s Duke Frederick, Brian Tree’s cockney Adam (though a revival of long-familiar Treeisms), and Seana McKenna’s non-gimmicky, clearly spoken Jaques shine. With her earphones and airhead behaviour, Trish Lindstrom is wonderfully comic in a modern manner as Celia, and she does project the character’s watchfulness and attentiveness. Rosalind (Petrina Bromley) delivers a rather flat, colourless performance (as either gender), and it is only later in the play that she transcends the low shtick of a sock stuffed into her trousers to offer a moderately convincing portrayal of a woman head over heels in love. However, her Orlando (Cyrus Lane) is quite the lamest in vocal delivery and theatre portraiture, and there is no real chemistry between him and his Rosalind. When one of the greatest highlights is the wrestling match where Orlando defeats strongman Charles in a parody of a WWF bout, you ought to know that Shakespeare will be the loser. However, Keiley’s production takes to heart Shakespeare’s witty advice: “Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.”

ALL MY SONS

by Arthur Miller
Directed by Martha Henry
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, June 1-October 2, 2016

Joseph Ziegler as Joe Keller (centre) with Tim Campbell as Chris Keller and Lucy Peacock as Kate Keller in All My Sons. Photography by David Hou.

Joseph Ziegler as Joe Keller (centre) with Tim Campbell as Chris Keller and Lucy Peacock as Kate Keller in All My Sons. Photography by David Hou.

Though not as acutely devastating as Death of a Salesman or as historically probing as The Crucible, Miller’s drama, written in the aftermath of World War II, crystallizes its playwright’s preoccupation with moral responsibility. Provoked by the actual scandal of Wright Aeronautical that allowed defective airplane components to be sold, resulting in the deaths of U.S. airmen, Miller shines his uncompromising light on one of the dark corners of post-war American society, where progress and pragmatism trump moral honesty and integrity. His patriarch, Joe Keller, allowed cracked cylinder heads to leave his factory with the full knowledge of their devastating consequences, and he has deviously made his partner take the blame. Joe’s pilot-son Larry has also perished, though the truth about the manner of his death is kept a secret till very late in the play. The matriarch, Kate Keller, is probably a bigger figure of blame than is Joe because in ardently wanting her brood to be safe and her home undisturbed, she has denied the truth of her husband, the dead son, and her own role in profiting from greed. Kate suffers from headaches and anxiety-fraught dreams. She believes in horoscopes and some superstitions, and her belief in being smart and practical remains her one fatal conviction. The other Keller son, Chris, a former army officer, idealizes his father until the truth spills out, and then his disillusionment and revulsion render him radically hostile to his father.

The family drama becomes especially significant because of the inherent moral issues, and Martha Henry’s production skilfully assembles all the pieces of Miller’s story, ensuring that its moral investigation and exposure do not remain merely didactic. Her production is an overall triumph. Though it opens melodramatically with a flash of lightning that fells a lonely apple tree while Kate Keller seems to both beckon and halt the ghost of her missing son, her production’s attention to small physical details starts with Douglas Paraschuk’s set of green sward backyard, white skeletal arbour, fallen apples, lawn chairs, a long wooden porch for the rough suggestion of a simple house painted white, and Louise Guinand’s expert lighting that modulates from mood to mood, starkly electric for the struck lightning of the prologue, and summer warmth for an August Sunday in Ohio, 1946. Dana Osborne’s costumes are aptly tailored to the characters. The late Todd Charlton’s sound design is startling in its choice of a melancholy solo ballad because it urges sympathy before it is earned, but its mood suits the ensuing action. And then there is the ensemble, headed by a power-house trio. Honesty compels me to add a qualification: the colour-blind casting (could there be a more oxymoronic adjective?) for the Deevers, Lubeys, and Baylisses violates sociological verisimilitude, though the performances are fine, especially those by E.B. Smith as Dr. Bayliss, Lanise Antoine Shelley as his gossiping wife, and Michael Blake as embittered George Deever, whose amiability towards the Kellers evaporates and turns to explosive rage after his belated visit to his father wasting away in prison. As his sister, Ann, who has transferred her unrequited love for the dead Keller son to his brother, Sarah Afful has her moments, but her performance always seems to know things that should be held in reserve till their opportune time.

Lucy Peacock as Kate Keller in All My Sons. Photography by David Hou.

Lucy Peacock as Kate Keller in All My Sons. Photography by David Hou.

Joseph Ziegler’s performance as Joe Keller gives the production a strong patriarchal figure. Warm with neighbourhood children, caring of his wife and surviving son, seemingly charitable to the Deevers, he maintains a firm façade till the hidden cracks show nakedly, and then his desperation and moral collapse translate into an emotional disintegration that the actor makes powerful. His climactic confrontation with his son, whom rugged Tim Campbell turns into a study of bitter moral disgust, has the flare and pungency of the spectacularly inevitable. Forming the subtle apex of a family triangle is Lucy Peacock’s Kate Keller, a superb study in cunning self-protection that carries emotional and mental freight bordering on the tragic. With this extraordinary acting trio at its head, this production takes sharp measure of the long, lingering moral and dramatic shadow cast by Arthur Miller.

A CHORUS LINE

Directed by Donna Feore
At the Festival Theatre. Opened May 31, 2016

Members of the company in A Chorus Line. Photography by David Hou.

Members of the company in A Chorus Line. Photography by David Hou.

It is unnecessary (and virtually impossible) to separate book, score, characters, and story components of A Chorus Line because the late Michael Bennett’s innovative musical is a dance musical about dancers where dancers are the stars, at first subjected to harsh scrutiny and criticism by Zach, the director/choreographer who has to select eight of them (evenly divided by gender) for a show that culminates in a spectacular chorus line. At Stratford, Donna Feore follows Bennett’s concept closely in her energetic, colourful, and loving tribute to “gypsies” (dancers who move from one chorus line to another in the dance world). Feore does not tamper in any way with the structure of Nicholas Dante and James Kirkwood’s book, and though the large revolving mirrors in the background don’t have quite the same sort of spectacular virtuosity that Robin Wagner’s had on Broadway (probably because of Stratford’s thrust stage configuration), Feore’s production is an artistic success. It opens explosively with a group audition in ensemble performance, proceeds to sequences that are charming, amusing, touching, disturbing, and even heartbreaking, before the show culminates at long last in a literally glittering chorus line, reflected and magnified in the mirrors, and replete with dancers in gold satin tuxedos, top hats, and footwear.

Members of the company in A Chorus Line. Photography by David Hou.

Members of the company in A Chorus Line. Photography by David Hou.

I have never considered A Chorus Line one of my favourite Broadway musicals, principally because its premise—auditioning dancers probed to unpack their innermost autobiographical conflicts–is a major contrivance that defies credibility—except, perhaps, for American actors at the Actors Studio or some dance studio equivalent. Of course, I understand the theatrical reason for this contrivance, but that reason does not mitigate my objection. However, this point aside, Feore’s production scores high marks for almost every element (costumes, lighting, set, music, dance, acting) though ultimately it falls short in a central role and misses by a mile (as almost every version of this musical does) Michael Bennett’s apocalyptic irony at the end. Her production follows Bennett’s original by being a mosaic of stories and dance styles. Marvin Hamlisch’s pastiche score (tap, jazz, ballet, Broadway) is music about theatre music, with almost continuous underscoring to the dialogue, the dances, and emotional currents. And the opening number (“I Hope I Get It”), in which the desperately eager dancers express their desperation, is correctly frenetic, both musically and lyrically. The two most haunting numbers are “At The Ballet” and “One,” and both are well performed at Stratford, as is “What I Did for Love,” a sentimental but powerful number that crystallizes the dancers’s love for the profession.

Dayna Tietzen as Cassie in A Chorus Line. Photography by David Hou.

Dayna Tietzen as Cassie in A Chorus Line. Photography by David Hou.

The ensemble is good, with some especially noteworthy standouts: Matt Alfano as virtuoso tapdancing Mike; Colton Curtis’s Mark (with his amusing anecdote about an anatomy textbook, his first wet dream, and his phobia of contracting gonorrhea); Julia McLellan’s Val (hilariously pointed with her tits and bum for the satirical “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”; Conor Scully’s Puerto Rican anguish as Paul; Matthew Arnott’s poignant Greg (a gay character that is touching despite being obviously tearjerking); and (my personal favourite) Ayrin Mackie as tall, vain, cynical Sheila (whose long legs seem to stretch to an erotically suggestive forever). Not only are these roles danced well; they are also acted creditably, though none can obscure the fact that the libretto exploits the characters for easy clichés. With his characteristic physical and vocal authority, Juan Chioran does his best with the thankless role of Zach, an uncompromising dictator with a heart walled in most of the time, except when touched by Greg’s emotional breakdown or by Cassie’s despair. But it is the role of Cassie, a principal lead, that gets only half of the merit it contains. Dayna Tietzen is a bland actress, striking in her red dress and silhouette, but her dancing, while considerably strong in the final part of its most dramatically lyrical solo (“The Music and the Mirror”), has limited choreography (a lot of backbends and angular knees) that makes for uncertain rhythm. Tietzen fails to underline the fact that Cassie has little identity without the mirror, and the lack of chemistry between her and Chioran’s Zach defeats the tense subtext in their professional relationship.

Of course, the climax of the show (as intended by its creators) is the bravura finale with top hats, canes, and tails–a lavish number (expanded by the revolving mirrors) that seems to have come out of Las Vegas or the Rockettes or, going back even farther, the Ziegfeld Follies (without the huge ostrich feathers). However, Donna Feore misses an excellent opportunity to be brave and extend the bravura into irony: sure, this climactic number is claptrap glitzy and exciting, but it is meant to make a devastating point about mindless, mechanical loss of identity. Each one of the dancers loses individuality in a glittering ensemble piece, in which they go all out for show-biz extravagance. A far more adventurous approach to the staging would have them kicking high almost endlessly, all poker faced as if they were little more than wound-up dolls, as the lights fade slowly to black. Such an interpretation would have the number join the ranks of Rose’s hysteria near the end of her huge solo in Gypsy or Sally Bowles’s breakdown in her climactic number in Cabaret. Feore choreographs it tamely—and, frankly, the opening night performance seemed a bit ragged, a tad out of sync, and somewhat lacking in precision as a celebration of perfect unity. Razzle dazzle wins over fearful irony—though I suspect that only a few in a very appreciative audience will care.

MACBETH

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
At the Festival Theatre. May 30-October 23, 2016

Ian Lake as Macbeth in Macbeth. Photography by David Hou.

Ian Lake as Macbeth in Macbeth. Photography by David Hou.

The Stratford Festival has a perfect record: none of its versions of Macbeth has been successful in coming to terms with Shakespeare’s swiftly paced, blood-curdling tragedy of vaulting ambition. Its Macbeths have been either too much in the yellow leaf (dry and lacking vigour) or unable to combine the anomalies of fierce soldier, conflicted husband, deluded desperado, and rueful philosopher in a single compelling whole. Ian Lake is its latest casualty. Much too young either in experience or technique, he looks and moves less like a soldier than an unsteady sailor who has come upon landfall unexpectedly. His rolling gait (those shoulders seem to have a life of their own) makes him seem like a loiterer near any locale, whether it be Forres, a heath, Inverness, or England, and his verse speaking is hardly choice: it has no vocal distinction, no dramatic weight. Lake recites the soliloquies as if he had consulted Cole’s notes rather than understanding and reacting to their internal truths. His dagger vision is deadly dull because it is delivered without vocal finesse or conviction. He has admirable pecs and abs, however, that come to the fore in his reunion with his youthful Lady Macbeth, a role that also defeats pretty Krystin Pellerin, who looks attractive but who also fails to be convincing in her contact with the spirit world. This duo make something faintly erotic out of their sensual interaction, but the drama goes for little. Pellerin is a dud in the sleepwalking scene in which she seems to be strolling through the verse rather than expressing a virtually kaleidoscopic and deeply disturbing retrospective of her crime. Her high point is a scream rather than a deep-rooted moan, enough to wake the dead or her own self out of its sleepwalking.

Antoni Cimolino, who has had his share of Shakespearean triumphs, has turned the play into a yawner. His production does have useful things: a rugged, darkly austere 11th century Scots setting (Julie Fox); a soundscape (Thomas Ryder Payne) incorporating eerie bird and animal sounds; and a lighting design (Michael Walton) that follows the play’s swift cyclical movement from foul to fair; and veteran actors (Joseph Ziegler as Duncan, Scott Wentworth as Banquo, and Peter Hutt in three different roles, his best being Old Siward) who know how to handle Shakespeare’s meaning in his rhythms. Cimolino invents a striking moment at the banquet, introducing the ghost of Duncan to that of Banquo, but this doesn’t add to the play’s meaning.

Krystin Pellerin as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Photography by David Hou.

Krystin Pellerin as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Photography by David Hou.

The acting deficiencies of the principals and others, however, work against the production. David Collins scores best when he brings savage news to Michael Blake’s Macduff who, however, pales in his devastation. The most startling interpretation (because it is radically wrong) is Cyrus Lane’s as the Porter, played like a bad smart aleck vaudevillian who enjoys his own jokes much too much to be taken seriously as a sinister devil. The rest of the ensemble is sub-standard rep acting, though Sarah Afful makes a poignant, pregnant Lady Macduff, and the Three Witches (Brigit Wilson, Deirdre Gillard-Rowlings, Lanise Antoine Shelley) have their eerie moments in ritualistic witchcraft. In general, the production misses climaxes, and some of the greatest lines pass almost unnoticed. Instead of being blood-curdling, this production is curdled milk.