BUNNY

By Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
At the Studio Theatre, August 18-September 24, 2016

(L-R): Krystin Pellerin (Maggie) and Maev Beatty (Bunny) (photo: David Hou)

(L-R): Krystin Pellerin (Maggie) and Maev Beatty (Bunny)
(photo: David Hou)

Hannah Moscovitch’s 70-minute satire is essentially a novella pretending to be a play. Its eponymous character is a free-thinking woman who defies conventions without being truly free from guilt in the final analysis. Sorrell, the heroine, explains her nickname of Bunny for us: she has not acquired it because of her high sexual drive but because of her panic in some social situations. Sorrell maintains a retrospective commentary on herself and the men and women in her life, and while Maev Beatty excellently conveys the character’s wryly humorous self-deprecation and sense of sharp satire, Moscovitch never fleshes out any of the other characters or even solves the problem of Sorrell’s third-person narration. To speak in the first person may be a tired convention, but to address the audience in the third person is the height of presumption. This tone leaves the central character stranded between artifice and art. The device is so artificial that it practically begs our indulgence. Not since Norman Mailer, perhaps, has there been such a bald literary device masquerading as self-exposure.

Sorrell is not a real character; she is a literary projection of what a witty, self-aware Jane Austen woman would be if brought on stage. But it is a Jane Austen without a developed society. Sorrell satirizes her small Ontario town as a place where reading aloud passages of Canadian poetry passes as entertainment. This is both good and bad, because Sorrell manifests real wit while also being terribly self-conscious. Born to Left Wing academic parents who disapprove of beauty unless it is painted by Van Gogh, Sorrell inherits their politics and scholarship but not their puritanism. Her passion for the Victorian novel goes unabated, but she discovers boys and sex early, leading to one of her complications. She copes with the male teenage libido (in fact, her own libido is stronger than theirs) but not female teenage moral judgment. She loses her virginity to a husky, handsome football player (a very striking Emilio Vieira), has an affair with a married professor (Cyrus Lane), weds an ambitious businessman with political ambition (Tim Campbell) in order to irritate her starchy parents, and has a relationship as well with Angel (David Patrick Fleming), the young friend of a friend, with whom she has sex in a red canoe—her emblematic Canadian or Pierre Berton milestone moment.

Michael Gianfrancesco’s green sward set is semi-abstract, a large green rectangle edged with blue light and a white marshmallow type center. There is nothing else, apart from a wicker chair and a bunny toy, in the space to distract from the major focus on Bunny. There is also not much of a social sense or sense of developed characterization—at least of anything or anyone apart from Bunny herself. Her single important relationships with a woman becomes syrupy sentimental when that woman, Maggie, dies slowly and painfully from cancer. Krystin Pellerin is excellent in this tear-generating role, morphing from manic bike-rider to pale-faced victim with admirable restraint and conviction.

The play seems to challenge an audience more than it does its heroine Sorrel, but while this is not necessarily a flaw, it is not necessarily a good thing either, given that many character relationships are cursorily sketched rather than fully developed, and that the main character almost never stops talking in the third person. Despite Maev Beatty’s skilful physicality and expertly wry tone, audiences might justifiably want more than they get. Sarah Garton Stanley gamely and intelligently tries to disguise the play’s intrinsic faults but ultimately her production plays like a novella waiting to happen.

THE AENEID

By Olivier Kemeid
Directed by Keira Loughran
At the Studio Theatre. August 19-September 25, 2016

Gareth Potter (Aeneas) carrying his father (Michael Spencer-Davis) and infant son Photography by David Hou.

Gareth Potter (Aeneas) carrying his father (Michael Spencer-Davis) and infant son
Photography by David Hou.

There is a civil war raging in an unnamed city where people are absorbed in disco dancing rather than paying any attention to any warnings or portents such as news of a column of black smoke building up into the sky or of a whole city on fire. A street preacher (an oracular Mike Nadajewski) warns that anyone who wants to live must leave. The revelry continues until hell opens and swallows most of the citizens. This is when the hero Aeneas (a stalwart Gareth Potter) learns to carry his father Anchises (Michael Spencer-Davis) on his back, and an infant son in his arms. His is a double burden because it must acknowledge the weight of the past on his back as well as a threat to the future that lies nestled in his arms. In the play, as in the Virgilian source, the hero wanders for years, survives one travail after another, before reaching safe shores where he will find his new home but not necessarily peace and contentment.

One of the striking and most effective aspects of Keira Loughran’s production is its deployment of expressionistic mime and movement to convey the symbolism as the tale moves from the world to the underworld and back again, under the signs of fire, water, earth, and blood. In one scene, dry roots pulled from the earth spill out black blood. In another, a storm at sea is evoked by a wildly fluttering stretch of blue fabric held by actors. In another, ladders evoke the scaling of mighty walls in battle. Chants, choreographed groups, a semi-abstract set design by Joanna Yu (a heavily draped mass of boxes, shields, and stones that can change shape from scene to scene) accompanied by colour coded costumes, and striking lighting by Itai Erdal all conspire to convey moods of panic, cruel indifference, and doom.

The production’s strong physicality expands its tale of people in extreme pain after they have been uprooted from their homes and normal lives. The play universalizes Virgil’s epic poem, becoming a riff on themes of exile, wandering, suffering, and survival. There is a moment of excruciating pathos generated from the context of a grieving mother clinging desperately to Aeneas’s child, while her husband (Rodrigo Beilfuss) pleads with Aeneas to allow her just an extra moment to pretend that the child is her own. There is another moment of a completely different mood when a couple (Mike Nadajewski and Lanise Antoine Shelley) sunbathing on the beach of an all-inclusive resort suddenly find themselves face-to-face with a tattered, hungry refugee who has apparently been washed up on the shore. And there is a scene where a frostily smug immigration officer (Karen Robinson in one of her three brilliant roles) confronts a desperate asylum-seeker (a wrenching Lanise Antoine Shelley). Or the conscience-shaking moment when Spencer-Davis’s Anchises names global refugee crises like a long litany before appealing to us to recognize that we have the power to found nations or destroy them.

Karen Robinson as Immigration Officer  Photography by David Hou.

Karen Robinson as Immigration Officer
Photography by David Hou.

The problem with this moment is not its intent but its audience. Anchises should be addressing xenophobes and racists who would never allow themselves to be in any theatre that would expose their sins. But isn’t this really the fallacy of all liberal art? It presumes that its message is reaching its target audience, when it is merely preaching to the converted.

However, all power to Kiera Loughran and her impressive ensemble. There isn’t a single performance that is weak, and there are several that show a versatility appropriate to the shape-changing tale. The most extraordinary characterizations are by Karen Robinson, who is outstanding as the bureaucratic Immigration Officer, the Underworld Sibyl (with a notable Southern accent), and finally as a bitterly violent refugee camp-dweller. All power, too, to Olivier Kemeid and his English translator Maureen Labonte. Kemeid’s modern riff on Virgil’s epic establishes him as a major Canadian playwright, possibly in the same rank as Wajdi Mouawad whose Scorched was one of the most riveting, disturbing, and significant dramas ever created in this country. Like Mouawad, Kemeid does not shrink from focussing on the contemporary world and in a manner that eschews aesthetic tidiness in favour of emotional impact. This is not to suggest that there is no deliberate dramatic structure or no disciplined mind at work; it is simply to underline a force that is frequently absent from English Canadian plays that seem content with far smaller subjects, far safer plots. The Aeneid does not speak only to Canada; it speaks to the modern world—the world of Donald Trump, which is to say the rancid world of hysterical ultra-Republican paranoia and demagoguery, as well as to the world of religious and political terrorists anywhere in our globe.

JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN

By Henrik Ibsen
Directed by Carey Perloff
At the Tom Patterson Theatre, August 19-September 23, 2016

Joseph Ziegler (left) as Vilhalm Foldal and Scott Wentworth as John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

Joseph Ziegler (left) as Vilhelm Foldal and Scott Wentworth as John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

One of Ibsen’s later plays, John Gabriel Borkman has a bone-shaking chill that envelops it. Edvard Munch described it as “the most powerful winter landscape in Scandinavian art.” And he was not simply referring to the snow and ice that collect outside the manor house of the Rentheim family in Norway, but to the winter and ice in the hearts of some of the principal characters and to their feelings of devastating loneliness and frustration. The title character is a former banker, a convicted felon, who has suffered a double imprisonment. He has served his criminal sentence but for the next eight years he has imprisoned himself in a bleak room where he paces restlessly like a caged sick wolf. His wife Gunhild has spurned him, accusing him of a crime against himself. And his ex-lover Ella, Gunhild’s twin sister, has not forgiven him for jettisoning her for the sake of material success. The sisters are cold to each other because they are locked in battle over the Borkman son, who would rather strike out on his own than be subjected to this icy battle. And then there is Vilhelm Foldal, a subordinate government clerk, who is a comic foil to Borkman. He imagines himself to be a poet playwright, eager to have Borkman’s approval but who is coldly scorned and dismissed by Borkman. Vehement and passionate, the play strives for a compelling revelation in a final scene in the dead of winter.

So the ideal production would show both types of winter—the literal and the psychological—which is something that Carey Perloff’s production does not achieve in its intimate configuration at the Patterson. The production has a pinched, spare look—which is right in its limited way. Winter’s physical symptoms are denoted in Christina Poddubiuk’s décor by a painted stage floor in cold, wan colours and by sparse furniture in bleached tones. The costumes are chiefly in black, with the only exceptions being Foldal’s brown and the salacious divorcee Fanny Wilton’s flamboyant wine colour in a costume with an inexcusably modern cut. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting adds to the feeling of dry chill, but the only visible snow comes near the end with a few falling flakes in the final act, which is meant to mark a desperate trek in the snow by Borkman before his apocalyptic vision and fatal heart attack. The lack of real physical elevation—a landscape of rugged slopes and cliffs—hampers the climactic moment, robbing it of some vital dramatic urgency, and even the poetic power of the scene is diminished in the process.

Seana McKenna as Miss Ella Rentheim as John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

Seana McKenna as Ella Rentheim in John Gabriel Borkman. Photography by David Hou.

Perloff’s taut production (in Paul Walsh’s English translation that stays faithful to Ibsen’s resonances) does make something dramatically interesting from its physical meagreness, because of some strong performances. The Fanny (Sarah Afful) and Erhart Borkman (Antoine Yared) play one striking character note apiece, while Joseph Ziegler once more shows what a fine character actor he is in his delineation of Vilhelm Foldal. Combining grand delusion and seedy reality, Ziegler etches his own fine portrait of waste, yet managing to elicit comedy tinged with pathos. Lucy Peacock succeeds in conveying Gunhild’s embittered solitude, despite allowing the melodrama to run away from her control. Her perfect foil is Seana McKenna’s Ella, a silver-haired woman dying of an acute illness, whose silences are filled with emotional meaning. Their scenes together are high points of savage irony, that are, unfortunately, not quite matched by Scott Wentworth’s Borkman. The title-role is more of an enlarged silhouette of a would-be Napoleon of industry than a fully developed character. Much of it is an abstraction because Borkman’s passion and delusion are conveyed in an analogy of a hammer breaking precious ore loose from rock. But Borkman is also a vulnerable being who in sacrificing love for cold ambition victimizes himself by spiritual, soul-deadening coldness. It is a role that attracted acting giants such as Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Paul Scofield—but not necessarily with the most excellent results. Borkman reaches a wild poetry in his death scene, but Wentworth is too much of the earth. He is rooted in prose, and does not express a prodigious struggle against Fate. Nevertheless, his is not a weak performance, and whatever its deficiencies, it holds its own against the portrayals of the others. An ideal production would combine Wagner’s huge savage power with Balzac’s scrupulous realism because Ibsen was a revolutionary in the theatre, who added great size and power to middle-class characters. Perloff’s production doesn’t have this magical combination, but it has a fair sharpness and does pay emotional dividends.