A DELICATE BALANCE

By Edward Albee
Directed by Diana Leblanc
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Opened January 18, 2018

(L-R): Oliver Dennis (Tobias); Kyra Harper (Edna), Laura Condlln (Julia),  Brenda Robins (Claire), Nancy Palk (Agnes), and Derek Boyes (Harry) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Edward Albee’s comic and dramatic varnish can often camouflage the less than firm underpinnings of some of his plays. Opening in a cozy living-room of a suburban home, where Agnes, smugly serene and imperious wife of Tobias, a man cocooned in his own gentle concentration and deference, sets a tone of mandarin elegance very reminiscent to that of a Henry James character, A Delicate Balance gleams with satiric wit. The middle-aged couple are deep into their ritual of evening drinks and conversation, dominated, of course, by Agnes, who claims to be astonished by what is unfolding within her—a feeling of encroaching madness as “a gentle loosening of the moorings,” a sense of being adrift, a stranger in the world. Tobias’s initial response is a WASPish joke, in the sense of gentle irony, well-mannered and almost a throwaway before anisette or some cordial. But Albee is merely playing a game of satire, making sure that there is as yet no crack in a foundation he wishes to shake to its core in due course. It is evident that the couple are no longer sexually intimate with each other, one reason being Tobias’s fling with Claire, Agnes’s alcoholic sister, who has moved in with them, and who delights in boosting Tobias while embarrassing Agnes. And so, the ritual turns into something else.

There is talk about infidelity, frigidity, a lost child (the couple’s only son who died young), and the collapse of the fourth marriage of Julia (the couple’s daughter), who returns home quite desperate and unhappy at not having merely lost yet another husband but her own room as well in the family home. Things go from bad to eerie, with yet another desperate arrival—that of best friends, Edna and Harry, who seem terrorized by something unnamed. Soon, the new arrivants seem to be taking over the home with a sense of entitlement, and new sparks fly as the metaphorical ground shifts. Agnes drops her scorn and arrogance in moments of genuine bafflement. Tobias has a difficult time maintaining his rectitude. Harry remains frozen in terror. Julia goes to tear-streaked, rage-inflected pieces. Claire, alcohol-fuelled, sees reality the clearest, justifying her emblematic name. The play moves into existential horror. The mood is one of plague, disease, distemper. And huge cracks appear in characters’ composure, igniting explosions of anger, dismay, bafflement.

But this is where Albee turns from gleaming, witty dramatist to pretentious metaphysician or allegorist. The terror is never specifically identified, though it is probably a combination of fear of impending death and of a generalized existential need to feel comforted and wanted. Indeed, Albee crystallizes this existential truth with black humour in the final act, where it becomes abundantly clear what each character lacks in life. The truth of each character is forced out, and what first seemed like little holes or cracks are magnified into something psychologically cavernous.

In short, A Delicate Balance attempts its own balancing act of anomalous feelings and actions, rhetoric and genre, and it is really a landscape of hills and caves rather than one of gentle slopes and plains. Diana Leblanc’s production, however, is eerily flat and often monotonous, though intelligent. Hampered by the configuration of a playing area set between two sides of an audience, Astrid Janson offers a tidy carpeted living room with sideboard, sofas, and crystal, but  even Andre de Toit’s attempts at mood lighting (sometimes abrupt) do not create a sense of enveloping existential danger. Patrick Clark’s costumes are serviceable, as is John Gzowski’s sound design. The acting is generally competent, but several of the performances seem superficial and not especially vivid or fully fleshed. Derek Boyes and Kyra Harper, for example, are fine as the friends with a sense of entitlement, but they never seem credibly terrified by anything existential. They seem to be having a bad day rather than being shaken to the core by an unfulfilled need. Laura Condlln gets close to being over the top but manages to depict Julia’s spoiled brat neediness and frustration vividly. In what is often the showiest role, Brenda Robins is more of an epigrammatic joker than soul-shaken alcoholic. The comic lines come forth but there is no sense of the depth and horror of disease. As gentle but quietly frustrated Tobias, Oliver Dennis explodes more frequently than he should so that when the ultimate explosion is required as he reveals what he has been disguising for so long, he seems to be merely repeating the same anger at what had gone before. On the other hand, Nancy Palk is correctly in character as Agnes: imperious, serene as she lobs nasty verbal grenades at Claire, perplexed at the invading friends, and over-compensating for humiliations, but the degree of radiance is somewhat lower than it should be because the general tone of the production is genteel and conversational. The cast and director seem to have forgotten that all is not naturalism in Albee. I would have liked a disturbing hill or threatening cavern or two to figure more prominently in a rolling plain.

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TRUE CRIME

By Torquil Campbell & Chris Abraham
Directed by Chris Abraham
A Crow’s Theatre Presentation at Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto
January 16-20, 2018

Torquil Campbell

Based on real-life impostures of a Bavarian expatriate, Christian Gerhartsreiter, in the U.S. who was convicted in 2008 of abducting his own young daughter and later of murder committed many years earlier in California, True Crime is constructed on the credo of theatre as a lie, deception, or illusion. Built from a variety of secondary evidentiary sources (video, print, film) and, most importantly, personal interviews with its notorious subject in prison, it is an absorbing 90-minute piece of suspenseful meta-theatre in which two narratives converge to play tantalizing games with the audience. Chris Abraham’s staging keeps the main focus properly on Torquil Campbell (a singer, actor who hails from a distinguished theatrical family), and this is all to the good for Campbell (whom I first saw as a young boy acting very efficiently opposite his iconic father Douglas Campbell in Shakespeare at Stratford) spins an enticing web of tale-telling. Torquil (who can boast of the fine character-actor Ben Campbell as a half-brother, and the amazingly gifted Moya O’Connell as a wife) had not acted in 18 years prior to devising this show. Both he and his subject, Gerhartsreiter (alias Clark Rockefeller, Chris Crow, Chris Chichester), are fans of Alfred Hitchcock films and Patricia Highsmith crime stories, and the show often plays out like sequences from a film noir, with stunningly portentous lighting (sometimes hazy cabaret, sometimes glaring rock concert, sometimes expressively noir) by Remington North and discreet musical accompaniment by Julian Brown, composer and multi-instrumentalist. However, there is a slanted, witty irony: the original shape-shifter was never, he claimed, into murder per se but only into intriguing ways of getting away with the crime. Gerhartsreiter preferred to call himself a confabulator because he considered himself a clever inventor whose deceptions hurt no one. This was, perhaps, the ultimate lie in a life of lies from a liar who was in a dark void that tried to swallow anyone willing to approach it.

In his glasses, short hair, and casual clothing, Campbell looks strikingly like Gerhartsreiter did in his 40s, but his incarnation of the dominant Rockefeller persona has a wryly camp vocal accent and tone, rooted, of course, in the motive of deliberate lying. Like his subject, the actor reinvents himself, turning himself from epigrammatic frontman of the band Stars into an unreliable narrator of a complicated tale about a totally unreliable criminal who has his own misleading autobiographical stories. The actor relies chiefly on himself, his own highly personal vocal skills, body language, and palpable presence. He engages briefly with warm repartee with the front-row audience, dispensing witty epigrams with just a drop or two of acid, and his only mechanical enhancement is a microphone placed near a lectern, apart from the economical but highly effective sound and lighting design. In other words, the actor/performer is left to his own devices, just as his notorious subject was in real life—the prime device being his own wit in a dual sense of sinister intelligence and off-the-wall humour. (Gehartsreiter reportedly remarked in prison that he was depressed but not unhappy.)  Imposture in itself is witty because it demands total believability as artifice to be effective. What renders it corrupt is motive, and Campbell shows how this is so, though he insists (not without organic bemusement) at one point that the story is about love and how we create the story of our lives.

The criminal imposter’s tale starts in opulent San Marino (California), and moves to other locales, including Manhattan (where he pretended expertise in bond trading), Cornish (New Hampshire), and Blythe (California) (where the con-man is incarcerated in Ironwood State Prison). Campbell covers every major persona developed by Gerhartsreiter with technical ease, even expanding his repertoire to include other human figures and a barking pet dog. Just as the con-man interposed himself into quiet, conservative communities before exploiting their gullibility, Campbell exploits the audience’s willingness to be complicit in his fiction. He is utterly compelling and truthful when he reveals the extent to which he became obsessed with his subject, to the point of putting his marriage to the edge of breakdown and of putting his own physical safety and mental equilibrium into dangerous question. He shows how his relationship with the imposter breaks down, leading him to panic and paranoia. He sings tart, edgy songs in a startlingly rough, grainy voice rising to a scream, suggesting how his subject was a seemingly well-bred but sinister muse that acted like a drug on him, without benefit of therapy. This, perhaps, is what distinguishes Campbell from marvellous monologist Daniel MacIvor, who often spins a tale before unravelling it as an auto-fictional conceit. Campbell is more like the late Spalding Gray because of the real sense that the narrative is descending into a very dangerous area of the psyche with unpredictable results. At least until the last part of the show when he becomes the trickster attempting to rebound his trick off the audience. But up to that point, True Crime is like a first-rate melding of Hitchcock, Highsmith, and Tarantino, with nods to psychodrama. Both Campbell and Chris Abraham (director and co-creator) conspire marvellously in this dramatic fable in order to satisfy an audience’s need for stories in which the dividing line between truth and fiction blurs but with exciting theatrical results.

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 PTSD, 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.

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.