HAMLET and LEAR

HAMLET
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Rose. At Tarragon. January 10-February 11, 2018
LEAR
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey

A Groundling Theatre Production at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre,
January 12-28, 2018

(L-R) Noah Reid (Hamlet), Tiffany Ayalik (Ophelia), Jack Nicholsen (Player King), Beau Dixon (Player Queen), Nigel Shawn Williams (Claudius), Tantoo Cardinal (Gertrude), and Cliff Saunders (Polonius) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Every strong theatre version of a classic play is, in a fundamental sense, a new interpretation. This is particularly true of Shakespearean productions and is very much in keeping with the experiments of Shakespeare himself in each of his own plays, in which he continued experimenting with content and form. Modern directors are especially eager to find new ways of presenting the world’s most versatile, most brilliant playwright. The question is not why experiment, but what are the aim and results of their experiments.

Toronto has two Shakespearean productions that opened this month. At Tarragon, Richard Rose has decided to change the form of Hamlet radically, whereas at Harbourfront, Graham Abbey has focussed on a gender change for King Lear, thereby altering a central dynamic. Both experiments have value but with significant limitations, and therein lies a tale of critical and cultural instruction. For one thing, Canadian Shakespeare (and there is certainly such a thing) cannot function without pre-existing special pleading: as Shakespeare has never been at the crucial nexus of our culture, our schools still see the need to justify including Shakespeare in the curriculum, and directors still have to find “relevance” in the world’s greatest, wisest, most versatile playwright.

The cancellation sign in the very title of Rose’s production (Hamlet) indicates that what a spectator is seeing is not any traditional Hamlet, not even a purely theatrical one. As every production is a revision or re-visioning of what has already existed, this isn’t exactly world-shaking news. I appreciate Richard Rose’s deliberate attempt to create a new grain, a new tone for a world classic, but he has mixed rock’n’roll with radio play, concert recital, and stage play, without finding a way in which they could merge into a satisfying whole. There are free-standing microphones on stage, backup musicians, a piano, and a few chairs. The production is overly “miked,” with actors forced to react into their microphones rather than to fellow actors. Costuming by Kathleen Johnston is chiefly contemporary with jackets, long coats, boots, and caps pronounced, though she does present Claudius as a lounge-lizard or oily emcee, Horatio as a priest, Laertes as a 60s war vet in army green jacket and an angry guitar, and the spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a neat, well-groomed vaudevillian pair with a jazz spirit, though Rosencrantz has apparently undergone a sex change. Not only is there no Elsinore, there is no specific period. You could be anywhere and either now or then, though possibly not much farther back than the earliest punk rock band or when Inuit throat-singing became familiar to Canadian audiences. Jason Hand’s stunning lighting is the best technical resource, although Thomas Ryder Payne’s obsessive sound design wishes to share that distinction, against critical discrimination. Payne never seems to know when to let well enough alone. He supplies sound when silence would do very nicely, frequently interrupting the dialogue and forgetting that Shakespeare’s own verbal music is symphonic in its own right—though you wouldn’t necessarily think so from the verse-speaking in the production.

Seana McKenna (Lear) and Jim Mezon (Gloucester) (photo: Michael Cooper)

Over fifty years ago in England, David Warner performed the title role as a self-disgusted adolescent, unfitted for “mature magnificence and ruthlessness.” Noah Reid plays Hamlet like an angry musician (on piano, ukele, accordion) performing on what could be called “Denmark’s Got Talent,” speaking his first aside and soliloquy into a mic on a piano, tearing into many other speeches, coarsening tone, losing many colours and levels of meaning, flattening or yelling important speeches, and generally harassing the role, though he relishes the black humour in the arras scene and then has a deliciously comic sequence when he acts like an amateur drama coach instructing the professional strolling players. Having to play almost throughout with a hand-held mic, he is curtailed in his gestures, and certainly is no prince, though there are shreds and patches of melancholy, spite, and mind games. In other words, he lacks status and eventual luminosity of spirit. His Ophelia is Tiffany Ayalik, who is a wonderful singer (she brings in moments of Inuit throat-singing) but an inadequate actress who is totally unconvincing in many scenes. Like her, Brandon McGibbon offers little substance in his weird performance as her brother. Perhaps his Laertes is suffering from PST, though it is hard to know why, other than the director’s generalized concept of a world of lies and deceptions.

Ronald Bryden famously asserted that “the key to every Hamlet is its ghost.” The only ghost in Rose’s production is a voice-over and an all-lights effect, so it is difficult to gauge the extent of its prince’s active heroism or his brainsick, nerveless, Oedipal nature. This deficiency extends to other cases of incomplete characterization. Greg Gale’s Horatio is wan and not much more, while Cliff Saunders does a comic double act—one as a buttoned-down Polonius, conventional in verse-speaking and comic acting, but without anything sinister; the other (much more interestingly) as the Gravedigger in a warmly funny Newfie way, interacting with the audience at one point. Tantoo Cardinal’s Gertrude has more than a touch of heyday in the blood, as she boogies with Nigel Shawn Williams’s Claudius, before drowning herself in drink and ending up in a bad way, indeed. But her boudoir scene with Hamlet goes almost for naught because she is flat and dry tonally. She is dominated by her Claudius, a control freak who even cues or silences the musicians. Williams can be offensively rank when he overacts, but here his performance is vivid and well calibrated to the musical score, especially in its jazz or rock phases. He uses his voice as nicely as he does his body movement, so his Claudius is the most interesting performance, though it never really ignites in the play-within-the-play scene. Ironically, The Mousetrap is the most innovatively staged episode, though in an un-Shakespearean manner, literally sung throughout by Jack Nicholsen (Player King) and Beau Dixon (Player Queen), with special virtuosity by Dixon whose high notes vibrate with terrific colour.

Graham Abbey’s Lear has more matter and art than Rose’s Hamlet. Staged in a rectangular grey space within the natural brick walls of Harbourfront Theatre, it scants on décor, uses a mix of contemporary and period costuming, live musicians, and tells its story without fuss but with admirable clarity. It re-versions the Shakespearean original most significantly in the title role, but losing and gaining in the process. As the female Lear, Seana McKenna has dignity and authority stamped on her in voice and manner, and her apportioning of the kingdom is not based on any fact of mental infirmity or eccentricity. She commands flattery as a sign of her societal power, startling Deborah Hay’s Goneril into a reasonable disgust. Diana Donnelly’s Regan, taller and more artificially composed than her sisters, hardly ever lets her own mask of false deference crack through the early formality, but that mask seems glued to her face and her performance lacks dimension and depth. Mercedes Morris as Cordelia is over-parted, as are some of the supporting players, including Colin Mochrie as the Fool (with red rooster coxcomb), who has superficial humour while lacking dramatic weight, mood, and depth to show the soul-destroyed cynic under the skin of the facile jester. There are other deficiencies. Alex McCooeye’s Edmund, whose excessively lanky height may be the only towering thing in his performance, turns Gloucester’s bastard-son into little more than a comic villain, just as young Augusto Bitter plays Oswald stiffly on a single note of careless arrogance. Karl Ang makes an earnest Albany, while Alex Poch-Godin is versatile in his triple roles as Cornwall, Knight, and Messenger, playing each with distinctive vocal and emotional registers. Kevin Hanchard depicts Kent’s stalwart passion but his strong vocal performance doesn’t progress into a multi-layered one. Antoine Yared takes the role of France literally, adopting a French accent for characterization, but his benign Edgar is far better. In his mad Tom scenes and the devastating reunion with his blind father, Yared makes a good foil for Jim Mezon’s Gloucester. Mezon who can bluster with the best hams of the world fortunately forsakes noise for truthful, accomplished acting, and his Gloucester is the most moving version I have yet seen as his cold authority and careless irony crumble and expose an excruciatingly violated and abused humanity.

Ultimately, however, everything rests on the central performance, and this is where I return to my initial feeling that something has been gained while something else has been lost. Seana McKenna almost manages to make you forget that the play is about an aging titan, a shattered oak, a piteously self-deluded being whose distemper is worse than any literal storm. Almost but not quite. She begins with clear, precise enunciation of her royal authority rather than acting like some aging figure-head with early dementia. This matriarch knows which lines may be crossed and which may not, and all her passions have human size. However, the actress is underpowered in the storm scene, and Lear’s descent into madness and ascent to serene wisdom are less than convincing as McKenna seems to run out of emotional and vocal steam. The role demands a technical musculature through the character’s existential journey into wisdom. It cannot be played for containment. McKenna is no ordinary actress, and what she achieves in this instance is far from ordinary. The actress’s thin nasality returns in the most traumatic scenes, and though the performance is always intelligent and rooted in psychological truth, it falls short of being truly moving or deeply cathartic.

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MUSTARD

by Kat Sandler
Directed by Ashlie Corcoran
At Tarragon Extra Space. January 5-28, 2018

Anand Rajaram as Mustard

Kat Sandler’s fringe comedy hit Mustard is about love in various iterations. The title character is a fully-grown man in mustard-coloured overalls and red jester’s cap. However, he is an imaginary character—friend and counsel to Thai, 16-year old troubled daughter of wine-and-pill addict Sadie, a woman who can’t bring herself to accepting her impending divorce from a man who abandoned her and the daughter for another woman. Mustard likes hiding under Thai’s bed (in Michael Gianfrancesco’s tight, realistic set), from which he frequently emerges to advise or argue with her about her nervously awkward 20-year old boyfriend Jay and her much put-upon single mom. If Sandler had stuck fast to this quartet, and to the estranged father (who, in voice and face, looks very much like Mustard’s double, and no wonder as it is the same actor playing both roles), the comedy would have paid better dividends with its contemporary edginess, rapid-fire dialogue, wordplay, and psychological gamesmanship. Although Rebecca Liddiard is correct in her emotional acting, her vocal acting pitch is more suited to television than the stage. As her befuddled young suitor, Travis Seeto shows a fine sense of comedy, while Sarah Dodd as the neurotic mother gives an absolutely tone-perfect performance, part anxiety-neurosis, part alcoholic bitterness, part maternal befuddlement but deep love. The scene where she reluctantly consents to a date with a shy but lusty Mustard is a comic delight. As the title character, Anand Rajaram is wrily comic and sometimes touching, but he pushes too hard from the outset, though he manages a nice transformation as Thai’s father.

Anand Rajaram (Mustard) and Sarah Dodd (Sadie) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

But playwright Sandler complicates and muddies things. There are times when the underlying psychological basis of the tale gets wrenchingly warped if not downright violated when the mother sees the daughter’s imaginary friend. Is this to imply that two very different characters can have the identical imaginary boon? How would this be possible when the daughter has never described Mustard to the mother? Besides this problem, Sandler concocts another with a strong nod to over-the-top violence of a Quentin Tarantino or Darren Aronofsky film, though minus their stylistic flair and assurance. Mustard has supposedly outstayed his usefulness and is pursued by two thugs (Bug and Leslie) who torture him in an attempt to force him into “Boon Swallow,” evidently some sort of purgatory or worse. This trope is violent in itself, causing the play to shift tone and mood abruptly, and this causes a lack of focus in addition to a muddying of the comedy. And the play is just a little too long to sit through, but it shows strong signs of a playwright with an active imagination and some fine skills in the making.

THE WEDDING PARTY

by Kristen Thomson
Directed by Chris Abraham
At Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto. January 5-20, 2018

Tom Rooney and Moya O’Connell (photo: Guntar Kravis)

Streetcar Crowsnest (at the intersection of Carlaw and Dundas) is a perfect venue for a marvellously performed farce about a wedding reception that goes off the rails from the start. The space still functions as a venue for real weddings, and Artistic Director Chris Abraham has evidently done something very right as a theatre producer in securing millions of dollars of funding for this spanking new theatre that has a flexible geometry as far as audience seating is concerned. Not really in the round, it nevertheless affords genuine intimacy between spectator and actor, and it was a very pleasurable first experience for me when I attended the media opening of Kristen Thomson’s two-act, two-hour+ farce, a remount from last season, with three cast changes from the original version.

There have been other wedding farces, of course. Shakespeare created some himself, and on the surface, the theme and genre seem like a quick pudding for general tastes. Most of latter-day wedding farces exploit an interaction with the audience, and this one does too, but in a much more limited way so as not to digress from the principal satire on various human foibles and vulnerabilities arising from true or mistaken identities. Thomson, who began her acting and playwriting career with masks, knows full well that the comic mask can be both merry and mischievously hurtful, a grimace or leer often breaking into its subject. As Walter Kerr once wrote: “Comedy looks you in the eye, ready to spit in it.” And to this can be added a well-known wisdom that comedy is drama with its own peculiar timing and tone.

Chris Abraham has that timing and tone down pat in this production—surely his most deftly handled comic production since his marvellous The Matchmaker at Stratford some years ago. That earlier production had several comic geniuses at play, starting, of course, with Thornton Wilder’s play and continuing with such expert performers as Seana McKenna, Tom McCamus, Geraint Wyn Davies, Mike Shara, and Nora McLellan, who can speed their way around a comic course with deft timing and truth. This one has one of the greatest Canadian comic actors (Tom Rooney), an incredibly versatile leading actress (Moya O’Conell), and four other performers who create utter gems on stage. The set-up is simple: the audience is seated under the pretence of being guests at a wedding reception for Sherry and Jack, Jr. (who never physically appear on stage) in an elegantly decorated hall (designed by Julie Fox with beads and white drapes). Those in the front row actually get seated at banquet tables in the second act, where they are served wine or water as things go from bad to worse as far as family clashes thicken, starting off with traded insults by father-of-the-groom Jack  Sealy-Skeetes (note the double-barrel surname, a sly dig at a pretentious upper class) and mother-of-the-bride Maddie Boychuk, who proceeds to get increasingly soused and physically aggressive with the help of both cheap wine and costly imported champagne. Mayhem ensues, as dozens of relatives and others (including waiters, waitresses, and videographers), all played by a cast of six with amazing dexterity and accuracy as they whiz, creep, drift, roar, or slip in and out of the action. The off-stage costume changes are done at lightning speed, which is also a testament to the clever costuming of Ming Wong.

Tom Rooney is perfect as snobbish, autocratic Jack,Sr., sneering contemptuously at Jane Spidell’s coarse, alcoholic Maddie. Spidell (inheriting the role from Kristen Thomson) is utterly convincing as a woman who could down any liquor and probably eat any foe alive, including Jack or various other hapless women who cross her path, while Rooney does whiplash changes of character, playing Tony, Jack’s estranged, awkward, puritanical identical twin brother (former dancer with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet), who has a deliciously funny sexy encounter on the sly with Spidell’s lusty Maddie. Later, in a long-winded, egregiously patronizing toast, Jack gives a shout-out or two to his twin (Rooney on pre-recorded video), before going even one (or maybe two) better, playing both brothers (without benefit of video or trick editing) in heated argument in the same scene. “I now realize that we two can never be in the same room,” the actor declares, with absolutely shrewd comic irony, performing what would ordinarily require a split-screen technique in film.

But as brilliant as these moments are, they are not isolated from other inspired portrayals. Moya O’Connell (easily one of the most accomplished leading actresses in any theatrical genre) plays Jack’s discontented, sexy spouse (in an American accent), and English friend of the bride. She plays both sexily and wittily. And it is an exceptional comic moment when as one or the other she protests: “What part of Gluten-free don’t you understand?” O’Connell also comes on later as muscle-bound, bearded Vlad (Sherry’s half-brother), with a thick East European accent and body-language to boot. But this isn’t the only case of cross-gender portrayal. Rooney himself appears in the second-half as Janice, Maddie’s older, brittle, intellectual daughter, in a strapless red gown, cap, and high heels, who gets to perform a tango with her Latin lover (a former bullfighter once gored), performed with sexy authority by Virgilia Griffith (replacing Bahia Watson of the original), who also plays Katrina, the female wedding planner under considerable stress and distress. There’s also Jason Cadieux (replacing the first season’s Tony Nappo) who is Edna Boychuk, a septuagenarian with a walker but a definite yen for naughtiness, and (in his own male gender) as the fixer lawyer who gets fired twice by Jack, Sr. Another amazing double act is Trish Lindstrom as an old dirty-minded geezer (the twins’ father) on a scooter and, better than anyone could have imagined, the awkward teenaged Tiger, Tony’s estranged son from Hamilton, a lad who looks sadly shy in his baggy pants and windbreaker, who sounds as if he is from the wrong side of the tracks, but who has artistic ambition, perhaps out of sorts with his sad upbringing. Lindstrom turns him into a genuinely touching figure, just as O’Connell does with her double ladies.

But there are a few wrong notes, one being the exaggerated, unconvincing and unnecessary circus frame around the story, another being Spidell’s portrayal of a pet dog (funny as it messes up easy tricks, but unconvincing at table), and a third being the laboured ending. Apart from these errors, there is a surfeit of wonders, including Thomas Payne Rider’s very sentimental but melodious pop chart tunes, and Kimberly Purtell’s expert lighting. A phenomenal entertainment with director Chris Abraham showing that he is both a populist and an artist who knows how to stage broad comedy with amplitude, puffed proportion, and thrusting truth.