GERTRUDE AND ALICE

GERTRUDE AND ALICE
By Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry
in collaboration with Karin Randoja
At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Opened September 20, 2018

Anna Chatterton as Alice (front), with Evalyn Parry as Gertrude (photo: Jeremy Mimnagh)

Two women in a room that is more Kandinsky than Picasso, and that is the how of the room. An interior theatre, the women see us seeing them and want to know why. Observers of the observing, and that is part of the story. So, they begin and concentrate. One is Gertrude, the bosomy one with nicely cropped hair that is male, brown and close, with a voice of drawling honey after the queen bee has been serviced. Or maybe a velouté for a nice Poulet. She is a woman but why is she Gertrude? When is she Gertrude? When she is in love and that is the whole story. In love with love, in love with writing, in love with aesthetic rebellion, in love with herself, or just in love with Alice B. Toklas, the slimmer one on sturdy ankles, fuzzy hair upper lip, a straight man’s lesbian in shimmering silver and black. But the accent is smudgy or mushed. Missing upper class punctilio. She is a secretary in love with her ‘man,’ he with her lovey, the boss.

‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.’ Ah, a glimmer of recognition of Gertrude. So with ‘The creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic.’ And Alice’s hero-worshipping ‘It will take years to understand the things she’s said tonight.’ Especially if you mistake the insistence for endless repetition. But there is repetition and with that, rhythm. Even their chitchat moves, glides, subsides, rises like a tide, retreats, advances. Nor is it simply chatty as in ‘Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein,’ the American lengthy monologue of 1978 with Pat Carroll. Yet, still anecdotal, recounting, accounting, examining forty years of a relationship. But with flights of vaudeville. The comedy of domestic frisson, jealousy, and loving. Also sex in a verbal orgasm, their backs to us, sitting close together, where hands are secret pleasure on tender buttons.

Household names in a surround art gallery, or what should be one, no high tech but utilitarian abstractions, twisted shapes which are art, furniture, symbols. Some drip sand, earth to earth, ashes to ashes beyond Pere Lachaise where names are tombstones. Yet they are present and that is wonderful, as far as it goes. They know each other’s genius that is Jewish, lesbian, very familiar with historical context. What a pleasure for them to be worth to each other in the whole story. Gertrude is curious and we are curious to know her curiosity about us, Alice, genius, celebrity, life, love, perhaps death.

The Independent Aunties are who they are, the Evalyn Gertrude, the Anna Alice, and the Karin dramaturge-director, with much text from Gertrude herself and some from Alice, especially her cookbook and insistence on the cahier for us to read before and after but not during. And these aunties have artistic sisters named Sherri (set design), Michelle (lighting), and Ming (costumes), collaborators in a true sense. All knowing there is ‘nothing easy about going down in history.’ Not deep this duologue but touching, and touching the buttons of each woman, and how time was different, and even ghosts can be continuously present.

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HENRY V

By William Shakespeare.
Directed by Kevin Bennett and Tim Carroll
At the Jackie Maxwell Studio, Shaw Festival
Opened August 8, 2018

Gray Powell in ‘Henry V’ (photo: David Cooper)

There are different ways of playing Henry V. I have seen him performed as a flamboyant national hero, with banners flouted and trumpets sounded, or as a barbarous war criminal or as a self-incriminating sophist. There are, perhaps, other ways as well. But Gray Powell at the Shaw Festival seems not to want to play him at all. This normally fine actor gives what must surely be his worst stage performance, watchful but generally passive, pallid, off-key. It avoids rant, of course; it also avoids any interpretation. But this is because the “concept” imposed on the chamber-sized (or, more accurately, trench-sized) production is Kevin Bennett’s inheritance from Tim Carroll that elects to pass off a rather colourless, often sluggish “reading” by Canadian soldiers as a “conversation” that debates the text through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder victims. This is the trend today: re-read Shakespearean characters (Macbeth, Henry V, Titus, Coriolanus, et cetera) as PTSD victims. But even PTSD victims can surely be more interesting than what is on display at the Studio Theatre.

The production is a sequence of refusals. Ric Reid’s soldier stubbornly and comically refuses to play the Archbishop of Canterbury early in Henry V, so voila, there goes that role, plus the Bishop of Ely, plus the entire scene revolving around Salique law and Henry’s “right” to invade France. This turns out for the practical good, given the general soporific nature of the first-half, in which the Chorus is distributed among several soldiers, the best speaking of the verse coming from Patrick Galligan, whose multiple roles (but especially those of Cambridge, Fluellen, and the French Soldier) engage the eye and ear. Reid’s most notable recovery from his initial refusal is his reading aloud after Intermission of audience members’ wartime memories, and the military dignity he brings to this ritual. This is, indeed, some form of conversation with the audience, though it is largely irrelevant to Henry V in the sense that it could have been executed without the play itself.

Camellia Koo’s narrow WWI dug-out and Kevin Lamotte’s restrained lighting (mainly by small top lamps) conspire to create a credible wartime setting. But too much attention is paid to ambient details: grenades substituting for the Dauphin’s tennis balls; soldiers playing card games; Powell engaging with a pastime of cat’s cradle; one soldier killing a bug hiding in the head of a comrade; Graeme Somerville supplying soft instrumental underscoring for Henry’s Harfleur address; the troops launching into “Keep the Home Fires Burning”; the sharing of biscuit rations; in the second-half, when the ensemble actresses play nurses taking over some of the reading, we have badly wounded soldiers in a hospital ward, where some of them are served hot soup, where one (Damien Atkins) has a hysterical anxiety attack, and another is choked by a comrade who is evidently brain-damaged by PTSD.

But what is the upshot of all this business? It hardly creates sympathy for anyone but the Canadian soldiers, and that sympathy could have been created without the play proper. It would have been far wiser for director and cast to have had sympathy in mind for an audience, who could have been spared the campery in the first half for Katherine’s comic (and sexually sly) French lesson (much better acted when it is repeated by Yanna McIntosh and Natasha Mumba in the second half) and the almost general refusal by the men (but particularly by Gray Powell) to enlarge their Shakespearean characters and their meaning. The production substitutes underplaying or no playing at all for exuberance and oratory in the mistaken belief that this can be defended as mimicry of amateur acting. The truth is far simpler and more damaging: directors and cast refuse to insult us with a performance of Shakespeare’s play.

BAWTREE MEMOIRS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


AS FAR AS I REMEMBER
(Coming of Age in Post-War England)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
374 pages, $24.95 (paper)

THE BEST FOOLING
(Adventures in Canadian Theatre)
By Michael Bawtree
Like No Other Press
366 pages, $25 (paper)

One of the salient things in the two Michael Bawtree’s memoirs under review (there is a third volume yet to come) is a sense of fortuitous “accident” and self-fashioning.  Bawtree (who has had a long career as playwright, director, journalist, educator, and actor) conducts us down a long memory lane with many twists and turns, without in any sense wearing out his welcome because his writing is eloquent, amusing in an understated way, and instructive. Born in Newcastle, Australia, in 1937, to an English father (Raymond) and an Australian mother (Kathleen), he grew up in England, when it was deep in its rather rancid class-consciousness. Bawtree’s father ran a gamut of professions (bookkeeper, failed pig farmer, country hotel proprietor of sorts with his resourceful wife, and the creator of a failed farm service operation), and his father’s ancestors came from a superior artisan class, with some being Dissenters (and, therefore, ineligible for entry to Oxford or Cambridge). No one before his father’s generation had university degrees, and of his five uncles, only two received higher education that led in their cases to ordination in the Church of Scotland.

However, although dissent is in his family history, Bawtree doesn’t really register as a maverick except when (in The Best Fooling) he espouses a middle-class anarchism (by way of academia) and a weird, self-defeating ideology of “un-led theatre” in his career as director and artistic director in Vancouver and Ottawa. Both volumes of his memoirs reveal how he transcended his family working-class background and how England and, eventually, Canada made him. Bawtree’s fine way with language gives his writing a sheen that speaks to his boyhood in boarding schools, and education at Radley College and Oxford (where his talents for languages, photography, and music came to the fore). Distinguished names (Peter Cook, Laurence Olivier, C.S. Lewis, Christopher Ricks, Bill Glassco, et al) are dropped into the narrative—sometimes too briefly—but never simply for snob value, although many of these names would probably be unfamiliar to readers unfamiliar with English cultural history of Bawtree’s youth and early adulthood. Glassco, however, should be on the mind of any Canadian familiar with the Alternative Theatre Movement, and Glassco becomes a crucially important figure in the second volume that carries us into Bawtree’s occasionally turbulent involvement with Canadian theatre.

It was the three years at Oxford that gave Bawtree a chance to decide whether he and his peers would be “loners or bons viveurs, idle or industrious, self-deprecating or arrogant, showy or reserved, respectful or contemptuous.” The university was “a pressure cooker of activity” because of the shortness of the three terms (8 weeks each), and the standard of scholarship was far higher than that found in North America: an undergraduate degree could be earned only after a candidate’s successfully writing nine three-hour papers in four and a half days, covering the entire gamut of English, from Anglo-Saxon poetry to 1910. The cut-off year, however, betrayed an endemic snobbery, a condition once described by Anthony Burgess as “a tradition of wariness of approach to the study of contemporary letters…It is in the European academic tradition to stick to the safe past, and the past is a couple of days before yesterday.” It was a snobbery that also tainted such venerable Canadian institutions as McGill and the University of Toronto for the longest time.

As Far As I Remember encompasses its narrator’s family vacations to the seashore, wanderlust, and two years of British military service, when he came face to face with British imperial politics and experienced some of the civil war in Cyprus. But as amusing or as instructive as these sections are in his chronicle, an equally serious undercurrent in the narrative is what he calls his “secret malaise,” first recognized in adolescence and then deepened in youth. This is the love that he hardly dares to name explicitly, but one that is felt as something dangerous yet essential to his real nature. Bawtree’s fleeting encounters with a few women end in disappointment, as he maintains a protracted, secret battle between his two selves. The “malaise” gets more explicitly exposed in The Best Fooling, a more “Canadian” narrative because it settles questions for Bawtree about life and career in his adopted country where he is free to fashion himself more definitively than in post-war England.

How Bawtree came to Canada marks one of the most significant happy “accidents” in the second memoir, that is, possibly, less charmingly nostalgic than its predecessor but far more pungent. He and Bill Glassco (“extremely modest, even diffident in his manner”) were part of the Worcester Buskins at Oxford, where Glassco dazzled Bawtree and others as a pianist and composer. In the early 60s, Glassco excited Bawtree with a glowing report on the burgeoning radical changes in Canadian culture and theatre through such things as the CBC, National Film Board, the Crest Theatre, and the Stratford Festival. Bawtree was seduced, gratefully accepted Glassco and his wife’s generous hospitality, and gained entry to a circle of influential cultural figures, such as Robert Weaver and Esse Jungh. It also helped that Glassco’s father was wealthy and was able to hire Bawtree as an editor for the Royal Commission report he was preparing on the CBC.

Other happy accidents occur in the course of the second volume. Bawtree befriends actress Helen Burns, who was married to Michael Langham, and this leads to Langham’s appointing Bawtree as dramaturge, and later commissioning him to write a new play (The Last of the Tsars) after Langham’s deep dissatisfaction with Nicholas Romanoff by American writer William Kinsolving.  Later, Jean Gascon offers him the position of literary manager at Stratford, but Tom Hendry decides to remain rather than leave his post, so Bawtree seems to be completely out of luck until Gascon gets Hamilton Southam (Director General of the National Arts Centre) to hire Bawtree as artistic director of the experimental Studio Theatre, where Bawtree fails with his risky selection of a decidedly non-Canadian subject for his maiden play: the Spanish-American War of 1898 in Cuba!

The Best Fooling (with its very title drawn from Shakespeare) provides important insights into attitudes and practices concerning Canadian theatre. This volume substantiates some of the principal complaints of our ultra-nationalists about colonial romanticism—the syndrome that infects any colonial society that looks to Colonial Headquarters for approval. The Stratford Festival is summarized as an institution devoted to “the world of the classics—to the old English culture that had been nurtured in me from my schooldays.” This honesty extends to Bawtree’s depictions of Langham as “the consummate Englishman in his manner and clothes” and of Helen Burns (actress and Langham’s wife at the time) as someone “capable of spouting off some fairly arrogant comments about the parochial place she found herself in.” Such arrogance is, of course, resented by the likes of John Colicos and Douglas Rain in particular. Langham is acknowledged, of course, as a brilliant director, but Bawtree identifies a major flaw in him and other British guest directors: “The fact is that Stratford had been run for years by directors (including Michael Langham) who had a faintly colonial attitude towards their Canadian company, and [who] did not particularly expect or encourage creative participation on the part of their actors.” An ironic fact is that Bawtree’s most successful artistic ventures at the festival came with British designers (Leslie Hurry, Desmond Heeley) and casts (Tony van Bridge, Jane Casson, Nicholas Pennell, Pat Galloway, Barry MacGregor, Carole Shelley, and Mary Savidge) mainly in Restoration and 18th century comedies, so while his generalization may well be accurate, it omits another point of view: the plain fact is that without these “fairly colonial” Langhams and others, there would have been no Stratford, and Canada would still be mired in retrograde nostalgia for a cultural nationalism devoted to documentary plays and collective collaborations, performed in basements or backspaces. Moreover, an astute observer would well note that Canada today is far more open to the neo-colonial influence of the United States than to the older ways of England.

Cultural icons appear in the narrative, some serving as heroes (John Hayes, William Hutt, and Gabriel Charpentier), some as villains (notably William Wylie and Robin Phillips). Bawtree records his admiration for John Hirsch, a talented man who, to me, was always a contradiction of artist and hack, cultural commissar and sinister politician—a devious figure who fattened himself off the foment of nationalism. Robin Phillips, on the other hand, is summarized as “that cold, elegant angel-fish,” who manages (in Bawtree’s account) to “charm” his way with the acting company, intimidate the Board, and skilfully sabotage Bawtree’s tenure at the festival by a sort of benign neglect. Bawtree is certainly within his rights to colour his memoir by his own perspective on things, and Phillips is no longer around to contradict him. What is more important to the general reader than any “villains” or personality clashes is Bawtree’s rather loose aesthetic. He recounts how he became radicalized by a visit to Colombia where he witnessed “dangerous” political theatre, and subsequently dreamed of “a ‘dangerous’ Canadian theatre.” The rest of his memoir gives an account of his flirtations and eventual disillusionment with this dream that could, perhaps, never be realized, given that it had no real plot, no story, no shape.

More accidents, more failure. At newly-founded Simon Fraser University (where he is appointed professor), his gamble with the Centralia Incident proves to be “unfinished business” that is never really finished. Ultimately, even his tenure at this university (where John Juliani and other radicals hold sway) ends in fatigue and disillusionment. There is a savage god at work, indeed, as there is in his long, turbulent relationship with Colin Bernhardt (the love of his life), and Bawtree does not scant on his emotional pain and confusion about this somewhat Shakespearean drama. Yet, once again, there are happy “accidents”: a creative friendship with Maureen Forrester that helps with Bawtree’s founding of Comus Music Theatre; and American generosity south of the border that cannot be matched in Canada where artists are prone to encounter grudging recognition, minus pleasure in “ambitious energy.” The contemporary case of Robert Lepage and the whole absurd controversy over cultural appropriation can be entered into evidence.

The ending of The Best Fooling is tinted with pathos but leads to a new beginning. Bawtree discovers painfully how theatre politics can break your heart in more ways than one. He loses his status, job, and home in Stratford, and anticipates losing his lover, Colin, long bedevilled by various psychological distresses. But in 1977, Bawtree is on his way for the first time to the Banff Centre, where he will play a major role in the following decade. And then, we know from his biography that Nova Scotia beckons as well. That fortune awaits us in his third (as yet unfinished) volume.

JEFF ROUND REVIEWS ‘WILLIAM HUTT: SOLDIER ACTOR’ ON GOODREADS, JULY 24, 2018

William Hutt: Soldier Actor 
by

9020606

Jeffrey Round‘s review

Jul 24, 2018
it was amazing

 

WILLAM HUTT SOLDIER ACTOR by Keith Garebian (Guernica) reviewed by Jeffrey Round

Critic Keith Garebian has illumined the life and career of William Hutt, in print, since his 1988 William Hutt: a Theatre Portrait, followed in 1995 by a collection of essays written by Hutt’s colleagues, Masks and Faces, and now with William Hutt: Soldier Actor.

Garebian’s assertion is that, despite maintaining a career anchored in Canada for more than five decades, Hutt was one of the greatest actors of his time and comparable to the likes of Laurence Olivier (Garebian’s favourite thespian.) Indeed, the consensus of both critics and colleagues is that Hutt was a man too big for his time and place, but who went on to enlarge the scope of both with his considerable talents.

As a biography, Soldier Actor is more than comprehensive, with a dazzling array of photographs and personal documents, including letters and notes on Hutt’s craft, some of which Garebian calls “unprinted ramblings” made available only after Hutt’s death in 2007 at the age of 82.

As evidenced in many ways in this book, Hutt the man was an individual of notable personal integrity. As a soldier, he went to war and earned a medal of honour without firing a shot. (He was in the medical corps, where his bravery was considered exemplary.) What the war taught him, Hutt contended years later, was “the inestimable value of a single human being.”

He was also actively homosexual in a time when being openly gay was difficult, if not downright dangerous. His integrity, however, demanded honesty in this as with other regards, and Garebian does not shy away from revealing details of Hutt’s personal life.

The body of the book, of course, deals with Hutt’s career, from his beginnings as an unschooled actor who went on to work on some of the world’s most famous stages alongside many of the most acclaimed actors of his time. The text fairly sparkles with names and anecdotes, but this is not a tell-all exposé. Rather, it is a recounting of the life of a remarkable actor as it unfolded alongside Canada’s nascent theatrical scene.

Hutt worked during the debut season of Stratford and was there for many seasons. He was said to have giggled on first hearing that Shakespeare was to be presented in small-town Canada. At the time, Stratford was so small that Hutt had to find a map to locate it, having “heard rumours that it was in Ontario, but that was all I knew.”

His colleagues at that auspicious beginning included people like Christopher Plummer, Kate Reid, William Shatner, and Tyrone Guthrie, one of the founding lights of Stratford. The names are impressive and the list grows as Hutt’s career flourished and his creative genius expanded with each role he took on. Yet somehow he remained indelibly Canadian and famously never gave up his Canadian accent, even while performing Shakespeare, a revelation in its time.

In what lay his genius? Garebian calls it Hutt’s “rare ability to absorb audiences within his circle of illusion,” painting a clear picture of how Hutt not only thought as an actor but also how he appeared onstage. Garebian minutely examines Hutt’s ability to mine roles for depth and a fresh approach, whether it be in giving Hamlet’s Polonius more respect than is often accorded him or in giving Long Day’s Journey into Night’s James Tyrone a more sympathetic turn as a man brought down by his failures as a human being. It is at this point, Garebian writes, that “acting ceases to look like acting.”

On meeting the author, and learning he was writing a book on Hutt, actor Sigourney Weaver told Garebian that he “couldn’t have a better a subject.” She might just as easily have said that Hutt couldn’t have had a better biographer.

Jeffrey Round is an award-winning author. His latest book is The God Game (Dundurn).

WHENEVER YOU’RE READY

(Nora Polley on Life as a Stratford Festival Stage Manager)
By Shawn DeSouza-Coelho
ECW Press
394 pages
$22.95 (paperback)

Nora Polley’s very long tenure as a Stage Manager at the Stratford Festival was a distinguished one. Daughter of Vic Polley, administrative director for the Festival, she certainly had an easier entrée into the organization than many others, but she proved her mettle and deserved all the praise and special honours she eventually received. Polley evidently kept a diary, from which portions are used in this rather peculiar biography. Not strictly an “as told to” book, it presents a challenge to readers who need to persevere through many unnecessary devices and flat passages to reach a few valuable revelations.

After a Prologue in 1969, in which she breathlessly recounts how she fetched coffee for Nathan Cohen during his visit to Trinity College Drama Society, followed by an offer from Jean Gascon to become stage manager, the narrative wobbles and staggers for a long time. Overly generous quotations from Shakespearean scripts (sometimes repeated three times in one fell swoop) with parallel descriptions of technical cues for sound, lighting, and scene changes slow the rhythm. In one instance, the quotations run for the equivalent of six full pages, succeeding in little other than trying a reader’s patience.

There is a great deal of name-dropping (which is, perhaps, inevitable in a long career), but only trivial information as to why many of the dropped names are important. Polley’s capsule comments are frequently restricted to trivial adjectives about looks and coiffure: Leo Ciceri is called a “handsome actor from Montreal”; Barry MacGregor “a handsome British actor with lush black hair”; Rory Feore (brother to Colm) is described as having “short wavy hair and a constant vibration,” though it is not at all clear what he is vibrating to. Often only first names are used, and, for instance, only real theatre fans or scholars can determine who the visiting American actress (simply called Kathleen) was who walked out of a production because she couldn’t cope with Robin Phillips’s way of working. (It was Kathleen Widdoes.)

The narrative is highly idiosyncratic in other ways, exposing the lack of good editing for this book. Sometimes allusions are made to a character in a play without reference to the play’s title. There is also a strong sense of death that lingers as Polley recalls the passing of many family and theatre figures. There is a dramatic instance when Eric Donkin drops dead during a rehearsal, but there is also one strange episode where Leo Ciceri’s death is recounted in the middle of a description of a family turkey dinner, without any family member apparently having second thoughts about pausing over a wing or leg or gravy.

Fortunately, there are nuggets in the book. These are not usually the photos, which are generally too small and indistinct to be of much value to anyone other than an earnest archivist. What is of more interest is that Nora Polley reveals her vulnerabilities and antipathies on and off the job: a failed marriage; the deaths of relatives, friends, and colleagues; her triumph over breast cancer; some special friendships; a distaste for theatre politics (especially as manipulated by John Hirsch, who exacted his revenge against anyone who liked Phillips); her love-hate relationship with actors over their “bullshit political games” (to which I can relate with deep-down sympathy, knowing as I do that the bullshit has a whole lot to do with unjustified egomania); her genuine sentimentality for respected or beloved artistic directors (such as Phillips, David William, John Neville, Richard Monette); and her true feelings (not all positive) about her vocation and the direction of the Festival.

The best parts of the book are the glimpses into the sometimes quixotic, perplexing, unsettling natures of genuine artists. We learn that Maggie Smith wears only custom-made sable fur false eyelashes. We get to spy on Robin Phillips banging on timpani to pace actors or his fiddling with sliders on a dimmer board to set the mood. We also learn how he elicited marvellously spontaneous discoveries from actors in rehearsal. We discover the professional loyalty and consideration of Martha Henry and Seana McKenna who refused to sign new contracts unless Stage Managers had their own issues settled first. We learn yet again of William Hutt’s dry humour, Richard Monette’s early shyness about his body, and John Neville’s first duty as artistic director to rehire company personnel who hadn’t been asked back by Hirsch. Each reader will probably have his or her own favourite moments. Mine include Polley’s shocking discovery of and her pathos for the physical and, perhaps, mental deterioration of Robin Phillips shortly before his death, and, more tenderly, a vignette of Sara Topham reciting lines from Juliet as she sits beside Richard Monette’s grave.

While far from truly coherent, the book is the product of Nora Polley’s love for her vocation. A propos her career, she claims that “If anybody notices you doing your job, you’ve just made a mistake.” Polley is hard on herself for one big mistake she once made years ago, but she missed only two performances as SM all her career, and never through her own fault. She calls herself “stupidly lucky” to have worked with Phillips. She is too modest. The Festival has been stupidly lucky to have had her services for over half a century. And, ultimately, theatre lovers may feel lucky to have a book of some of her cherished memories.

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.

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.