GRAND HOTEL

By Luther Davis
Directed by Eda Holmes
At the Festival Theatre, Shaw Festival
Niagara-on-the-Lake, May 23-October 14, 2018

James Daly (Baron) and Michael Therriault (Kringelein) with the Company

This 1989 musical, based on Vicki Baum’s 1929 novel and the all-star MGM film of 1932, won 5 Tonys and ran for 1,107 performances, mainly because of Tommy Tune’s brilliant direction and choreography which earned two of those Tonys. Alas, the Shaw Festival version isn’t very grand, nor is the hotel much to write home about. Of course, it is a schematic musical because (as Ken Tynan reminded us in an old film review), like many old-fashioned extravaganzas, the story and characters are confined in cubicles or rooms or (if at sea) cabins, and characters are thrown together or, wander around, at any rate, in the same environment, whether this be an aeroplane, ship, bus, or island. Grand Hotel is set in Weimar Berlin but this is not quite the Berlin of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (a far superior musical because of far superior Isherwood source material and technical accomplishments from set, lighting, and music to choreography and acting), though the music and lyrics pay some homage to Kurt Weill and German jazz and director Eda Holmes probably desperately wishes it were Kander and Ebb. Without the seedy, devilishly seductive rogue-emcee of Cabaret, she gives us (with the collaborative performance of Steven Sutcliffe) a seriously crippled drug addict of a Colonel-Doctor who limps around on what could well be at least one wooden leg while sounding deliberately ironic: “People come and people go. Nothing ever happens.” Well, true on at least one count, though what really happens in this instance is a largely boring failure.

The crucial element in the story is the ease with which it interweaves characters and stories from different strata of society. There is the industrialist Preysing (Jay Turvey), whose shady tactics are catching up with him. His secretary Flaemmchen (Vanessa Sears) has Hollywood stars in her eyes and is more than willing to sell her glam body for stardom. Then there are the aging ballerina Elizaveta Grushinskaya (Deborah Hay) who is desperate to revive her fading career, and her loyal personal aide Raffaele (Patty Jameson) who has more than a platonic affection for her employer. The ballerina comes to life when she meets a charming young Baron (James Daly) who for all his dash is a rather broke jewel-thief. This mixture of sociology and romantic danger is complemented by a dash of comic pathos in the figure of the fatally ill Jewish bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Michael Therriault) who is determined to have a wild fling with adventure at the hotel before death claims him.  An assortment of very busy and noisy telephone operators and a corps of hotel maids, bellhops, chauffeur, scullery worker, courtesan, and two Jimmys round out the ensemble, along with a nervous young assistant concierge Erik (Travis Seetoo) who is an expectant father-to-be.

The Broadway original had all the dash, sass, verve, and vigour of an American musical, with a spectacular double-decker set and a staircase to rival those in Hello, Dolly or Gone with the Wind. In other words, the decadence was divine for the concoction of lust, love, deception, and doom. At the Shaw, Judith Bowden’s design wants to thrive on decadence without the divine. Her largely empty set seems deconstructed, with chairs either suspended mid-air or upturned on the floor where a chandelier also lies, and Kevin Fraser’s lighting is adapted to the general gloom, though, thankfully, it recovers for the big show-stopping numbers. But, truly, these are few and far between because there is really only a single outstanding male dancer (Matt Nethersole) and two female ones (Kiera Sangster and Vanessa Sears). As for the singing, nothing really hit the heights, apart from Sears’s life-affirming “Girl in the Mirror,” though Hay (terribly miscast visually and physically as the despondent ballerina) is touchingly wistful in her solo “Bonjour Amour.”

The general acting is cliched and rather empty, and I was mainly bored with the show, though Michael Therriault as the old, suffering Jew with a heart of gold, provides small relief as he repeats some of his highly praised and practised physical clowning from last season’s justly celebrated Me and My Girl. He is funny without being truly moving, but his very drunken, rubbery-legged “We’ll Take a Glass Together” (with support from the Baron, the Jimmys, and the Company) is a definite relief in this mediocre hotel, where banalities thrive in the shallows of creative imagination.

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THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW

By C.S. Lewis
Adapted by Michael O’Brien
Directed by Tim Carroll
At the Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
Till October 13, 2018

Travis Seetoo (Digory), Vanessa Sears (Polly), and Matt Nethersole (Fledge) (photo: Emily Cooper)

The world premiere of Michael O’Brien’s stage adaptation of a C.S. Lewis classic (one part of a seven-part fantasy series) is given added lustre by Tim Carroll’s whole-hearted belief in the power of our own “imaginary forces.” The story in The Magician’s Nephew is a prequel to the world-famous The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but was actually published later. In it, the audience is taken back to the start of how Narnia came into being when two children left their own home to time-travel, as it were, into another, strange but magical one. As director, Englishman Carroll himself travels between worlds, not only as artistic director of the largest Canadian theatre company dedicated to the plays of George Bernard Shaw but as a resourceful theatre director diving back into his own boyhood in England when he grew up reading the Narnia books, when children were not seduced by mega Hollywood films with mega-expensive special effects. The strongest artistic resource, he knows, is also the simplest one: human imagination that can charm an audience into becoming collaborators with tale-tellers. Carroll had a larger production budget at Stratford a couple of years ago when he directed a colourfully expansive version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the Shaw this season, he works more economically on a children’s tale but no less magically.

Before the tale proper is told, there are “dream detectives”—in this case, characters in tweed who speak in English accents because, of course, this is a tale from England about very English (which is to say, articulate) children of a certain class in a literate era. The “detectives” are investigating dream activity in wartime England—really London of a century ago. They are experts in the reconstruction of dreams, and they wish for the audience to share a particular dream—and herein starts the tale proper about young Digory (Travis Seetoo), whose father is away in the army, and whose mother is ailing. Digory’s Uncle Andrew (Steven Sutcliffe in the most detailed character study) is always in his study or attic lair, concocting some magic or other having to do with coloured rings made from fairy dust (one colour to take you somewhere, another to bring you back). The prospect of Digory and his friend Polly’s (Vanessa Sears) travelling between worlds is wonderfully brought to stage life—and it is chiefly achieved by cardboard boxes and by paper masks. Talk about wartime austerity in Britain, but austerity is very much the mother of invention in this case.

Ensemble configuring boxes in a scene change for The Magician’s Nephew (photo: Emily Cooper)

Carroll’s cast never pretends it is not pretending. Seetoo and Sears make for good foils to each other, he with a touch of premature chauvinism, she with totally non-cloying good sense. Jay Turvey calls out cues for scene changes, and the ensemble goes through its paces in multiple roles. Early 19th century London is evoked by cockneys (most prominently by Michael Therriault’s cabbie), gas lamps, Kyle Blair’s patriotic soldier (though not mysterious enough later in the actor’s doubling as Aslan), and horse-drawn carriages. The most memorable London horse is Strawberry, mimed excellently by Matt Nethersole. In another dimension, in a universe far away, the protagonists encounter Jadis, the sleeping witch who has killed off an entire kingdom with her deadly spells, and whom Deborah Hay plays vividly with a mixture of sinister arrogance and English music-hall comedy. Narnia is created right before our eyes out of common material. But there is real artistry at work. Douglas Paraschuk’s set is a semi-circular arrangement of hanging panels of coarsely-textured fabric that are coloured by Kevin Lamotte’s lighting and Cameron Davis’s projections—especially for the stunning appearance of Aslan the Lion whose function and power as a Christian symbol are muted here but who serves as catalyst to Digory’s mission to save the world. And the simple cardboard boxes assume various cut-out configurations, most pragmatically for the mechanical planetary system in Andrew’s study, and magically for the huge tree at the end while fantasy animals are superbly created by white masks and paper puppets, especially for the winged horse ridden by Diggory and Polly. Kudos to Alexis Milligan for movement and puppetry, and to Jennifer Goodman for costumes.

If a critic needs to carp (and which critic doesn’t?), objections could be made to Blair’s rather unimposing Aslan (though not to his soldier-father), the limited use of music, and the fact that the happy ending lands without enough oomph. Children, I am sure, would disagree.

SUTRA

Direction & Choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
A Sadler’s Wells London Production
At the Sony Centre. Toronto Premiere May 12, 2018

 

photo: Hugo Glendinning

Sutra is not a new dance piece, having debuted in London in 2008, but it seems brand new by virtue of its meditative minimalism that calibrates décor, costuming, lighting, music, and movement perfectly while tracing a mini odyssey into the mind (as it were) of Zen Buddhism. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (who even performed in it on its debut) has created over 50 fully-fledged choreographic pieces that have earned him numerous international awards. Sutra is his sterling collaboration with British artist Antony Gormley and kung-fu Shaolin monks. Sixty-minutes long, it has an abstract formalism that is open to interpretation because of its elliptical nature, but virtually everything about it is thrilling and not just in a common sense.

 

Sutra begins with a small boy (Xing Kaishuo) who observes a Western adult (Ali Thabet, co-choreographer and dancer) who traces patterns with his fingers and who has a wooden model of the boxes used in the piece. The adult’s gestures and the boy’s imitations of them mirror and expand what transpires apart from them—in the movements of the powerful Shaolin monks, all youths with fine physiques, balance, gymnastic verve, and versatile elasticity. The title of this dance derives from Sanskrit and means “threads.” The piece’s connections to Zen Buddhism show only filaments of links to that way of belief. However, they are absorbing and delightfully expressed in the scenography (a 3-sided grey box that uses 21 6-foot blonde wood boxes in various configurations), costumes that begin with grey and deepen to black, and lighting that is in pale shades and that uses black dramatically at important points. The boxes, designed by sculptor Gormely, create a mobile architectural space, as it were, continually changing planes, shapes, angles, surfaces. They serve as plinths, trapdoors, caves, tombs, river, wall, skyscrapers, coffins—once surprisingly as Stonehenge shapes, twice thrillingly as collapsing dominoes and as an unfolding lotus. But all this is merely an environment for the outer and inner movements of the piece for Sutra is always about being and becoming. When the boxes become coffins, they symbolize mortality. When they are building blocks, they represent creativity.

Shaolin kung-fu is well established and celebrated as martial arts spectacle, with its men wielding lances, swords, and staffs with eye-popping velocity and ease, and executing their repertoire of high leaps, rolls, backward flips, deep plies, scissored kicks, and backbends with speed and finesse, building canons of explosive movement. But Cherkaoui has managed (with the help of four musicians behind a background scrim who play Szymon Brzoska’s melancholy Polish music on percussion, violin, cello, and piano) to temper its innate force and tight practised shapes, turning the warriors on occasion into lyrical dancers of extraordinary balletic grace and balance, as well as, briefly, into hip hop virtuosos. This is achieved by And, even more thrillingly, he and Thabet have created a contrast of energy and movement with young male dancers who are not easily trained in Western dance styles. So, for instance, a warrior can leap high on a solitary pole, balancing with one leg on its slant in raw defiance of gravity. Or another can seem to pause in a towering leap before landing softly. There are even comic moments, where the boy imitates a mischievous monkey or walks into a wall. These moments can seem cheesy to some audiences but they do have a showbiz allure.

photo: Hugo Glendinning

But what of the filaments of Buddhism? They are present from the outset, with the adult’s being a cultural and spiritual outsider (an autobiographical connection to Cherkaoui, who sought to be accepted by the monks in Henan) who is questing to imitate the monks’ unity of mind and body. He often struggles literally to be accepted, even though he offers sturdy and consistent physical support to the boy while training himself to execute the monks’ hazardous and demanding corporeal routines. At one point, he walks around with one foot trapped in a box, as if he can go nowhere significant; at another, he is bumped off a high wall by a group of monks as if he was an unwanted alien. And the boy represents a Shaolin warrior and temple guard in the making. Even his miming of a monkey and fish have connections to Buddhism for the first creature represents folly, vanity, and mischief (real vices we must learn to expunge), while the second represents freedom, happiness, and fearlessness for it thrives in its natural domain. Eventually, the boy becomes the young Buddha in prayer, seated at the center of a large lotus, surrounded by respectful monks.

(photos: Hugo Glendinning)

A TASTE OF EMPIRE

A rice & Beans Theatre and Cahoots Theatre Co-production
At the Factory Studio. Opened May 2, 2018

Derek Chan (image: Brenda Nicole Kent and Jules Le Masson)

The theatrical conceit is a “live” cooking show; the tone satirical; the principal theme imperialism. Derek Chan, born and raised in colonial Hong Kong, speaks the text in Cantonese (with English and simplified Chinese captioning) serves as translator, as well as the principal performer, with a talent to amuse, even while assiduously struggling to prepare rellenong bangus (stuffed milkfish), a Filipino specialty (really a fish sausage, as it were). According to the conceit, Chan enters the scene at the last-minute to replace the formidably vaunted chef Maximo Cortes (who owns three three-star Michelin restaurants) has been called away to an emergency appeal by an anonymous VIP. Chan impersonates the rather overbearing, stentorian Cortes, or at least his vocal manner, and in a manner that suggests something of the pompous Iron Chef shows, where competing Asian and Caucasian chefs acquire some of the fervour of martial artists. These moments are the least convincing and interesting ones, but otherwise Chan does excellent service to the script as sous-chef, accentuating the comedy by handling the milkfish with practised comic vulgarity, eviscerating it in a highly obscene fashion, while simultaneously making points about colonial imperialism with illustrations and didactic summaries. The dish, of course, is a fusion of Philippine fish and colonial Spanish flavours, but if the results of colonialism were but a rather tasty fish sausage, no matter how coarsely prepared, history would never amount to much more than diversionary bunk. Fortunately, the history lesson encompasses colonial Spain, the United States, China, and Canada, so it ranges far and wide, also bringing in economic, political, and social implications. What makes it all palatable (in a way that far transcends any dull academic dissection that has plagued many a Canadian documentary play for the past half century) is the satiric quotient which is entertainingly pointed enough to justify 90 uninterrupted minutes with Chan and his poker-faced, silent kitchen help played by Pedro Chamale with even funnier seriousness as he suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous vocal abuse in Cantonese, no less! And at the end, audiences get an opportunity to taste a very small portion of the fish sausage, whether or not they care to recall Mark Twain’s dictum (repeated in the play): “People who love sausage and respect the law never watch either one being made.”