MAMA MIA!

By Catherine Johnson
Directed and Choreographed by Valerie Easton
An Arts Club Production at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
May 10-August 12, 2018

Ensemble of ‘Mama Mia!’ (photo: David Cooper)

Based on the lively songs of ABBA and having long proved to be a mega money-making musical, Mama Mia! will never enter the pantheon of great musicals in terms of libretto and score, but does this really matter if it sets tons of hearts and legs to skipping ecstasy while leaving minds blissfully free of weighty thoughts about artistic quality? A rhetorical question, of course, to those who measure art by box-office jingle-jangle of coin or the commodity of credit card and paper money? Keeping my own cynicism in check, I confess to a guilty pleasure: I enjoy the disco trash of its music and dance, the paper-thin heft of characterization, as well as the formulaic plot and conflict-resolution—if only because it gets my mind off depressing matters of inevitably more pressing existential concerns. And the Arts Club production, under the direction of Valerie Easton, never pretends to be more than it needs to be for an improbable plot and stereotypical characters. What is has in pleasing abundance is exuberance and an uncondescending commitment to its less-than-prime material.

After all, let us not forget the imperishable plot: 20-year-old Sophie Sheridan is about to marry her suntanned hunk Sky (with bulges in all the right places) and she wants to invite her father to the wedding on the alluring Greek island where her single mom, Donna, runs a taverna. Trouble is that Sophie doesn’t know who her real father is, but having read her mother’s diaries, she knows it would have to be one of three lovers Donna had in her bohemian youth, when she headed a musical trio known as Donna and the Dynamos. Her life has now fallen into the sere, it seems, for she laments (in a rare instance of down-to-earth prose): “This is my reality—hard work and a crippling mortgage.” It is clear she needs a good holiday in Greece on some sort of Shirley Valentine F-Plan, except that she is already in Greece, though not without any evident F-Plan. Hence, Sophie, in a flash of indiscreet wisdom, invites all three men, without, of course, informing her mom. More trouble on the island and in the taverna, which gives excellent reason to bring in as many ABBA songs as could be reasonably crammed into the contrived plot, moving quickly along from the opening “I Have a Dream,” Sophie’s “Honey, Honey” with her backup girls’ support, and “Money, Money” (Donna and her aging dynamos’ reality-check) to other jukebox hits galore—some neatly stuffed into the storyline, some purely novelty numbers (“Chiquita,” “Super Trouper,” “Voulez-Vous,” etc.), and one outstanding diva solo of heart-wrenching poignancy (“The Winner Takes it All”) before the inevitable big finish of multiple weddings and innumerable wet dreams for those with raging hormones.

Stephanie Roth as Donna Sheridan

What sells this production is the cast’s exuberance. David Roberts’s set (mainly in white, blue, and green) is serviceable without being outstanding, as is Robert Sondergaard’s lighting that can do nothing to disguise the sheer plastic clumsiness of the background sea. However, Alison Green’s costumes (especially for the glittering bellbottoms for the former disco queens) are a delight, and the choreography is nothing less than acrobatic, with plenty of skin on freewheeling display. There are hunks in skin-tight briefs and delectably nubile girls who go through their paces with brio, and comedy aplenty from Donna’s chums from her old girl band (rotund Rosie, whose “Take a Chance on Me” is a palpably plump hit as delivered by Cathy Wilmot; and sun-tanned, stiletto-heeled jetsetter Tanya, whom Irene Karas Loeper articulates with drop-dead elan and gut-busting risibility). Michelle Bardach’s Sophie is a bit colourless in her acting, but her singing is more acceptable. She gets adequate support from Shannon Hanbury (Ali) and Jennifer Lynch (Lisa) as her girlfriends. The men also have their select moments, with Jay Hindle (as the rather straitlaced Brit, Harry), Warren Kimmel (as the rugged Aussie, Bill), and Michael Torontow (as the super-hunk, Sam) portraying well-differentiated types. Stuart Barkley’s tall, lean, sun-drenched Sky is eye-candy, and there is plenty more of that in the ensemble, especially with ingratiatingly charming Oliver Castillo as Eddie, Paul Almeida as Pepper, and the extremely supple and lithe Julio Fuentes as one of the backup dancers.

But the best acting is from Stephanie Roth as Donna, not so much in her dialogue scenes but in her devastatingly affecting “The Winner Takes it All,” a heart-rending unburdening of long-simmering hurt, which is the most truthful lyric in a libretto that usually indulges itself in flash and dash.

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MACBETH

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Chris Abraham
At Bard on the Beach, Vancouver. June 17-September 3, 2018

Moya O’Connell (Lady Macbeth) and Ben Carlson (Macbeth)  (photo: Tim Matheson)

“A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come.” Indeed, though there is too much drumming in Owen Belton’s strong soundscape, though I liked the use of bagpipes and hurdy-gurdy evocative of Scottish Highlands, and the melancholy melody for Lady Macbeth. Gerald King’s lighting design finds it hard to cope with the sunlight pouring in from outdoors in the first half, though by sunset, the colour and mood change naturally. Of course, from the first eerie scream of Lady Macbeth in tandem with that of the Second Witch in the Prologue, it is clear that Chris Abraham’s perspective of this play is jolting. In a set (by Pam Johnson) that pays homage to the open-air Globe in London with pillars (morphing into upper tree branches), mezzanine, and wooden floor with a trap, all grey and white to evoke a cold, stark world that can be menacing and otherworldly, the production is boldly aggressive. The ensemble enters (costumed by Christine Reimer chiefly in in linens, wools, and velvets), and they draw close in hunched kneeling, knocking on the wooden floor as if to summon something as yet unexpressed or made sensible, in addition to stirring a narrative into motion. The knocking grows louder, and erupts into a battle, the noise of which peaks with the simultaneous screams of Lady Macbeth and the Second Witch. The lady’s is more significant: her scream issues from pain and frustration at the loss of her child (marked by an empty cradle that is abruptly removed by soldiers). Her maternal side gone, she must grow a new identity or, at least, the shape of one, with which to affect her dearest partner of greatness’s manhood and existential purpose. This is a world where the three witches (in corseted bodices and boots) are shabby, rough, and ready for war against the natural order. They could be camp-followers or vagrants, and their vocal attack is robust, though far too shrill and unsubtle, grotesque rather than supernaturally eerie. However, director Abraham doesn’t seem to mind this deficiency, electing, instead, to focus on the psychology of the two lead characters, played by Moya O’Connell and Ben Carlson, two superbly gifted and charismatic performers who give the production its greatest Shakespearean lift.

This is certainly a valid way of tackling this tragedy about two characters who lose their humanity in the cause of overweening ambition. The production never trivializes the private, domestic life of Macbeth and his lady. When they embrace and kiss after his return from heroic war victory, the sexual current is palpable. And she is all tactility, tracing his facial outline with her fingers, making him feel her support to correct his infirm purpose. Two heavy doors open and close on what could be other castle rooms and locations—places where malign plots can be laid. From this seed, an entire forest of human folly and self-destruction grows, haunted by horrors from the natural and supernatural realms. The problem, however, is that the title character (husband, soldier-hero, disillusioned poet) shrinks rather than grows in his humanity, ending up cornered, desperate, and fated to destruction. Ben Carlson, shaggily bearded, robust in voice and manner (while being clear in his speech and action), is a marvel of mounting excitement, never merely booming for sound and fury, but a man who begins to take himself and the witches’ prophecy too seriously until his lack of remorse, married to his repeated crimes, shrivels his humanity. Sometimes one feels in the soliloquies that the actor wishes Macbeth could be as philosophic as Hamlet, but Carlson’s Macbeth, while questing at times for intellectual security, is seized by fits of bewilderment and guilt. Wracked with convulsions of nauseous self-doubt, he is stunned and stunning in the dagger vision scene, knocking on the floor as if to be emphatic on “There’s no such thing.” And when apprised of his wife’s death, he takes one of the longest pauses imaginable before the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, clearly demonstrating a man who has been diminished and possibly lost to himself. The actor is not always well supported by the cast and on one occasion by his director. The banquet scene is not as strong as it should be (with a wavering blue light on Banquo’s ghost that often misses the actor), and Abraham’s use of kettle drums often intrudes on important dialogue. Macbeth’s revisit to the weird sisters, when he sees more ghosts of his victims, is pallid and lax. But these deficiencies wane whenever Moya O’Connell shares the stage with Carlson.

Moya O’Connell as Lady Macbeth (photo: Tim Matheson)

This pairing is the best I have seen on stage for this play, far more vivid, more powerful, sexier, more profound in the psychological dimension than any of the Stratford Festival pairings to date. Beautiful, sensuous, and sensual, Moya O’Connell makes a great partner for Carlson, etching the deep physical connection she feels for a man who cannot give her more children even as he plans to kill the children of his most dangerous rivals. The thunder in her performance comes from her dramatic intensity rather than vocal volume and mass, and the actress clearly exposes the “spine” of Lady Macbeth, whom she portrays as a woman who keenly wishes to support and spur her husband but who is ultimately devastated by discovering how far apart they really are morally and metaphysically. Her opening scene is thrilling as she reads her husband’s letter and then invokes the dark powers to unsex her. Femininity shoved aside for a while, she concentrates on serving him. Her womb empty, she fills herself with hungry ambition but not merely for herself, but when her husband wades deeper and deeper into gore and unimaginable horror, she shrinks back in guilt and revulsion, vividly representing these passions in her sleepwalking scene that is calm and spastic in turns.

It is a pity that not many of the cast make worthy supporting players. For my taste, only Andrew Wheeler’s Macduff and Scott Bellis’s Duncan stand out, though there are moments of serviceable competence by Jeff Gladstone as Malcolm, Nadeem Phillip as Donalbain, Craig Erickson as Banquo, Harveen Sandhu as Witch 3 and blood-lipped Kate Besworth as Witch 2. Kayvon Khoshkam has flashes of equivocal wit as the drunken Porter who rises from the trap (hell?), but everyone should observe and learn from O’Connell and Carlson who make of their roles compasses into hearts of darkness, from the first knocking in the prologue to the knocking within Macbeth’s heart that unfixes reason, to the knocking at the gate, and the ultimate knocking to seal (echoing De Quincey) how time is annihilated while new pulses of life are beginning to beat again with the coronation of a new king.