THE DANCE OF DEATH

by August Strindberg
Directed by Martha Henry
At the Studio Theatre. July 23-September 10, 2016

(L-R): Jim Mezon (Edgar), Fiona Reid (Alice), and Patrick Galligan (Kurt) (photo: David Cooper)

(L-R): Jim Mezon (Edgar), Fiona Reid (Alice), and Patrick Galligan (Kurt)
(photo: David Cooper)

The Dance of Death is a caricature of tragedy, which does not mean, however, that it is a cartoon. Alas, Martha Henry’s production treats it like a broad, wild farce, with two central performances that run the gamut from staggering exaggeration to scampering salon comedy. The staggering comes chiefly from Jim Mezon, whose sour Captain Edgar often seems to rerun some of his worst vocal and physical mannerisms from other roles, while the scampering comes courtesy of Fiona Reid as his tormented and tormenting wife, Alice, who seems to have Feydeau’s boudoir comedies in mind. Strindberg meant his piece to be darkly comic, verging on the tragic. The long-married couple, nearing their twenty-fifth anniversary, indulge in almost incessant rituals of domestic duelling, as they waste away in a prison-like enclosure of an old stone island fortress (designed by William Schmuck). Theirs is a cruel, vindictive battle of the sexes (inspired by Strindberg’s own life experience), but there is much rancid comedy in the battle of a type that was to inspire O’Neill, Sartre, Ionesco, Beckett, and Albee. Call it absurd, if you will, in the philosophic sense, but the play also ingests nightmarish horror—something that this production never reaches.
The garrison Captain is physically debilitated, an acutely near-sighted heavy drinker, a pathological abuser of men and women, and a stingy liar. His wife is a former actress (therefore, a more skilfull liar) who had given up her career for him. Two of the couple’s four children have died, and the other two live away from the bitter parents. Cynical insult follows insult with battering force and frequency in Connor McPherson’s new translation. Into their whirling vortex of almost hysterical derangement steps Kurt (Patrick Galligan), the Quarantine Officer and Alice’s cousin, returning after fifteen years abroad, divorced and robbed of his children. He is a man both sinned against and sinning—as his relationship with Alice shows—and though he is sensuous and well meaning, he is also an erotic vampire, or, at least, shows traces of this dire condition, though Galligan and Reid don’t have any special chemistry together, and their sex scenes are rather tame.
Surely the point of this play is a danse macabre, a ritual that the couple has been used to playing for years, and one that encapsulates their death-in-life. Influenced by Zola, Darwin, and Swedenborg, Strindberg was a forerunner of German Expressionism, and there are palpably grotesque elements in this play. In other words, the predominant style is realism, with more than passing nods to Absurdism and even the phantasmagoric. Henry’s production lacks height and depth. It is loud, frenetic, broadly comic, and neither Mezon nor Reid comes close to full portraiture. Mezon is merely a slob as the Captain, staggering around from start to finish, executing some of the most ungraceful, unfunny movements in uniform when he performs a rankly amateurish version of a Boyar dance. He has a loud, battering voice, which is good for the loud, battering passages of dialogue, but he is never touching, never capable of ambiguity. Reid is better, of course, at comedy, but comedy is all she seems to have at her fingertips in this woeful production and nothing more. The attempts at Expressionism seem to be reserved for Louise Guinand’s lighting (mauve or purple or green background washes) and James Smith’s sound design with loud offstage stomping down and up stairs. Oh, and there is the young sentry who marches ceremoniously in the background. He ages and acquires an acute, chronic limp in the second act, without explanation. That must be symbolically linked to the paranoia or destruction in the central story. Or is he simply exhausted and crippled by the production itself that left many on the opening night in a semi-coma?

MASTER HAROLD….AND THE BOYS

by Athol Fugard
Directed by Philip Akin
At the Court House Theatre. July 22-September 10, 2016

(L-R): James Daly (Hally), Andre Sills (Sam), and Allan Louis (Willie) (photo: David Cooper)

(L-R): James Daly (Hally), Andre Sills (Sam), and Allan Louis (Willie)
(photo: David Cooper)

Master Harold bears witness to a real-life anecdote in Fugard’s own life, its setting, chief characters, and climactic action spun out of Fugard’s white guilt. It was as a boy that he quarrelled one day with his black family servant, Sam, in his mother’s tea room. And it was Fugard who had spat in Sam’s face in unforgivable rage and frustration. The play transforms this ugly memory into an act of uncompromising witness. And though it uses rhetoric as its chief channel, with little details that have a cumulative significance, it overflows with passion. So, what we see is a seemingly straight-forward play with a linear narrative (interspersed with anecdotes related in flashback), and an orthodox unity of time, place, and action.
At the play’s start, rain pours steadily outdoors on a windy Port Elizabeth afternoon in 1950, Willie, a mild-mannered black man is literally down on his knees, scrubbing the floor of grubby St. Georges Park Tea Room (effectively designed by Peter Hartwell), while singing and imagining himself doing a quickstep for an upcoming ballroom contest. His colleague, Sam, an intellectually sharp colleague, equates ballroom with romance, advising Willie against physically abusing Hilda, his unprepossessing dance partner who has borne him a child out of wedlock. The very mention of Willie’s assault on Hilda speaks to a sin of colonialism visited upon the colonized: the brutalized turned brute. Sam instructs Willie in the correct posture for dancing, and even guides him through the choreography with the aid of a jukebox number. These two are “the boys” of the title, men who manage to negotiate the dance without bumping into the furniture, and this becomes a metaphor for a world without collisions that Sam articulates later in the play in an impassioned exchange with Hally (Master Harold), the teenaged son of the white proprietors of the tea room.
In quiet defiance of apartheid, Hally has enjoyed a close relationship with Sam, who has been a sort of surrogate father to the boy whose real father is a long ailing alcoholic and cripple. Hally doesn’t truly respect his father, especially as he knows that the father’s wartime injury was caused by an accident but not on the battlefield. Hally resents having him back home, but disguises this aversion by false cheer. Affected by his deep-seated frustrated rage at his father, he allows this hate to infect his loving relationship with Sam, the man who had made a kite for the lad to fly, the man who had given him lessons about life. Hally increasingly becomes imperiously colonial, giving orders to the servants, demanding a respect that he has not earned or deserved, cracking a vile racist joke, and eventually spitting in Sam’s face. The contemptuous spitting incident marks an ominous climax, from which neither the black servants nor the white boy/master can recover.
The play is devoid of poetry but it is a striking incarnation of white liberal guilt over the corrosive effect of apartheid on the very soul of South Africa. It is Fugard, one feels, who is the principal voice in the play, though the three characters in the fiction are well wrought, and in Philip Akin’s powerful production strikingly portrayed. Allan Louis is a quiet, tentative, largely reticent Willie, preferring to shrink into the background or defer to Andre Sills’s robust, warmly paternal but conscience-stirring Sam. Sills has enormous dignity in the role, but he may be too strong a presence from the start, though given the onstage personality of James Daly’s Hally, this is excusable. Daly’s Hally is tall, gangling, self-assured, and altogether quite a bit older than the character is usually played. He also happens to have the most convincing South African accent of the three players, and his careless manner of lording it over the servants is perfectly in keeping with one of the insidious effects of racism. However, it would have been far more shocking to have had a Hally of smaller frame because a boy enacting privilege over a servant is far from shockingly revolting than having two opponents of almost equal physical stature. Daly also does not capture Hally’s inner conflicts as sharply as I have seen in a couple of other productions of this play, but at least he never seeks to be ingratiating in the role, and allows us to see the lad’s failings clearly.
This production is another triumph in the collaboration between Obsidian Theatre and the Shaw Festival, and though the dance sequences choreographed by Valerie Moore are somewhat constrained by the small acting area, the direction, lighting, and acting conspire to make a performance of enviable power and biting moral relevance. It is one of the highlights of the festival season.

BREATH OF KINGS (REBELLION & REDEMPTION)

Conceived and adapted by Graham Abbey from William Shakespeare
Directed by Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, to September 24, 2016

(L-R): Tom Rooney (Richard II) and Graham Abbey (Bolingbroke)

(L-R): Tom Rooney (Richard II) and Graham Abbey (Bolingbroke)

(L-R): Graham Abbey (Henry IV), Araya Mengesha (Henry V), and Geraint Wyn Davies (Falstaff)

(L-R): Graham Abbey (Henry IV), Araya Mengesha (Henry V), and Geraint Wyn Davies (Falstaff)

 

 

 

 

 

This four-hour-plus, cross-racial, cross-gender adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s Histories (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Henry V) squeezes some of the greatest tetralogies into a theatrical Osterizer, and the result is a sloppy mess. Not only is there little or no sense of English history on view, there is little that is correctly in a major Shakespearean key—apart from three central performances that, although not by any means definitive, hold an audience’s unwavering attention and provide a modest amount of colour and power. There is no other playwright I can think of who so successfully combines various layers of a huge national society and their precise locales as Shakespeare does. His unparalleled eye takes in tavern and tower, battlefield and throne room, church and boudoir, Welsh, Irish, and Scots, ostlers, gardeners, highwaymen, prostitutes, minor nobility and kings themselves. His History plays are not mere chronicles of rebellions, battles, conquests, truces, and redemption. They are domestic dramas (about husbands and wives and lovers, sons and fathers, mothers and sons) circumscribed by a national and international macrocosm. But, alas, this production gives no sense of a real family, and certainly not of an English royal one. Probably because of its directors’ concerted efforts to universalize or globalize Shakespeare—to make some sort of commentary on the state of our world today in the Mid-East and the West—its Hal (later King Henry V) is Araya Mengesha, who never looks anything other than callow and out of place, and who sounds even worse for most of the time, except much later in his wooing of the French princess, once he has abandoned his roisterous ways and redeemed himself to his ailing father. Nepotism (on Weyni Mengesha’s part) may have been the reason for this miscasting, but the cost is huge to the production. The Duchess of York (Anusree Roy) bears traces of an East Indian accent, while (on the side of the rebels) the Earl of Northumberland (Nigel Shawn Williams) looks, moves, and acts like a drop-out from the WWF.

There is hardly a point to mention the cross-gender casting except to point out that, by and large, it is a hapless failure, though Michelle Giroux delivers Montjoy’s message well and Carly Street is convincingly fierce as a warrior or earl. I saw no radical reinterpretation of male roles by the female players, so the experiment remains a nugatory one. The actresses in question are far better in the roles true to their natural gender: Giroux making a nice Queen for her Richard II, Street a lovely Lady Percy. Elsewhere, Irene Poole is a fine Alice to Mikaela Davies’s Katherine in the wooing scene of Henry V, and, best of all, Kate Hennig is colourfully vulgar as Mistress Quickly.

The two-part production performs some major surgery on the Shakespearean sources, telescoping much of the plots, sometimes blending one play into another, adding lines from a fifth unmentioned play, omitting details, but somehow managing to advance the illusion of psychological and historical progression as many in the 19-member company play multiple roles. It begins with Richard II, where Tom Rooney (one of the most original Canadian Shakespeareans) turns the snow-king into a cerebral wit, self-consciously ironic, delighting in his scornful mental agility against Bolingbroke as he surrenders the crown to the usurper, daring him to seize what should not be his. At other times, this weak monarch sounds almost bored with the arch rebels, saving his greatest interest for exquisitely timed insults and pensive reflections. The only things lacking in the portrait are glamour and sexual ambiguity.

Graham Abbey manages to make Bolingbroke fiery before he turns into Henry IV, a man ravaged by guilt at his usurpation of the crown and then by shame at the follies of his delinquent son, Hal. But the actor could benefit from suggesting more grandeur and a little more variety in his speech. However, his is one of the three outstanding performances, the last and the greatest being Geraint Wyn Davies’s Falstaff, all padded to be a walking pudding, bed-breaker, and ingratiating rogue, larding the lean earth he strides, richly savoring the language and delighting in his own sometimes sinister cunning. Davies is also authentically Welsh as Fluellen, one of the three roles he essays, the third being an old gardener in Richard II. But it is his Falstaff that will live longer than almost any other stage role he has yet played. He is not simply a ton of bulk but a knowingly pompous lord, chuckling at himself, enjoying his influence on Hal, yet crumbling in almost silent heartbreak when later rejected by the boy turned dismissive monarch.

The other roles are played without much distinction, though Rooney turns Shallow into an inebriated fan of Falstaff, wryly amusing but missing the sense of something very autumnal and rural. Wayne Best registers dignity as a noble and at least speaks with clarity and conviction—which certainly is not true of Jonathan Sousa’s over-parted Hotspur who looks and sounds like a raw-boned thug, something made all the more prominent by the weird mixed period costuming by Yannick Larivee who makes Henry V look like a doorman or valet in some of the battle scenes rather than a rousing star of England.

I exempt the always skilful lighting designer Kimberly Purtell from censure, as well as set designer Anahita Dehbonehie who covers a pale grey stone floor (almost literally in the round) with what looks like flaky soil but which is actually shaved rubber dyed black, red, and brown. This earth, while no demi-paradise, allows interesting patterns to be made by feet, swords, and furniture, just as the stone floor breaks open for the battle scenes and forms irregular, jagged shapes to mark the anarchy which results once rebellion shatters the great chain of being.

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE

By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Eda Holmes
At the Festival Theatre, June 25-October 22, 2016

photo: David Cooper fiona byrne as Mrs. Arbuthnot

photo: David Cooper
Fiona Byrne as Mrs. Arbuthnot

Cavalierly dismissed as “one of the most improbable and unpardonable works ever written by a man of talent,” it is far better than its harshest critics imagine. Certainly not as polished, witty, or superbly structured as The Importance of Being Earnest (one of the greatest high comedies in the English language), A Woman of No Importance does have execrable or regrettable passages of dialogue. Louis Kronenberger famously claimed that it had two halves: “The worse half lies moldering in the graveyard of Nineteenth-Century problem drama; the better half has taken up residence in Bartlett’s Quotations.” Yet its epigrams, paradoxes, and melodrama pulse with an open heart.

One of the wonderful things about Eda Holmes’s beautiful production is its total belief in this heart. Transplanting the play from fashionable 19th century London to a 1950s salon society (most glitteringly captured by Cecil Beaton and Christian Dior), Holmes and her designer, Michael Gianfrancesco, have not forsaken glamour. They have captured much of Dior’s New Look in terms of feminine silhouettes, and their re-imagined world still has drawing rooms, butlers, parties, flowers, high mirrors, and tall curtains that open or close on intimate scenes. This production adds the camera to its setting, placing the invention in the hands of Jim Mezon’s Sir John Pontefract, sometimes for shady comedy (away from his doggedly pursuing wife, Lady Caroline, amusingly sketched by Mary Haney), sometimes as a metaphor for a society infatuated with itself. And what a society this is, with the likes of Lady Hunstanton (Fiona Reid in top form as a glitteringly dippy hostess); the alluring Mrs. Allonby (Diana Donnelly); gossip-hungry Lady Stutfield (Claire Jullien); the young American heiress, Hester Worsley (Julia Course), quite out of sorts in this frightfully sophisticated but arrogant society; and assorted male characters, ranging from a MP and lords to an archdeacon (Ric Reid in another of his gloriously sketched eccentrics) who turns his offstage wife into a vividly amusing subject.

But while Wilde’s wit does wander, and the piffle quotient is more than negligible, Eda Holmes’s production gets to the core of crucial circumstances circumscribing a woman with a past and others who are ignorant of it. Mrs. Arbuthnot, the fallen woman of the ironic title, is both “sinner” and the one sinned against. The mother of an ambitious son (born out of wedlock after her liaison with Lord Illingworth, who refused to marry her), she is deadest against allowing her naïve son, Gerald (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), to climb the social ladder when he is offered the role of private secretary to the repulsively chauvinistic Illingworth. She holds firmly to her resolve until her son learns the truth about his mother’s past. Then, in an emotionally climactic scene, she confesses why she has never repented of her “sin”: “How could I repent of my sin when you, my love, were its fruit?”

Ensemble (photo: David Cooper)

Ensemble
(photo: David Cooper)

Garbed in black, Fiona Byrne transcends much of the artificiality of the mother’s dialogue by a performance of hard truth. She does not seek to reflect Mrs. Arbuthnot’s character in the glass of fashion, but rather in the mirror of nature. In her other climactic scene—a confrontation with Martin Happer’s selfish, wicked peer—she plants her feet squarely on the gleaming floor, and slaps him across the face with a sound louder than the door Nora slams in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Some women in the audience on opening night cheered lustily, but this feminist approval was hardly necessary. Holmes’s production never seeks vulgar applause. It is an aesthetic marvel that is seductively designed, superbly lit (especially like magnified camera flashes by Kevin Lamotte), and sensuously enacted. Accordingly, it turns a minor work into a tasteful artefact that transcends its museum quality by showing what we gain or lose by masking our true natures and forgetting what true hearts mean.