HAMLET and LEAR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MUSTARD

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

Anand Rajaram as Mustard

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

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

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

THE WEDDING PARTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Seuss’s THE LORAX

Adapted by David Grieg
Directed by Max Webster
A Mirvish Presentation at the Royal Alexandra Theatre
December 17, 20017-January 21, 2018

(L-R): Simon P. Day, Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson, and David Ricardo-Pearce (photo: Manuel Harlan)

Oh, for the days when the grassland was green
and the fluffy white clouds were always so clean
and swans in their song and birds in the breeze
spread charms in the land of Truffuler Trees
which swayed and smiled with their glorious glaze
leaving innocent kiddies in awesome amaze.
Don’t worry, you fans of the famed Dr. Seuss,
this show’s got not one single crazy screw loose.
Those with a liking for witty Ed Lear,
David Greig proves he’s as extraordinaire
who knows of the Lorax who’s lifted away
and who’ll spin you the tale if you’re willing to pay
with openness of mind and a generous heart
for every audience must play its part.

This story is told in fine wit and song
and it’s not in the slightest overly long
as it unfolds with skill and breath-taking speed
with its green villain Once-ler exploiting Thneed
causing Havoc! Alarm! as he chops down trees
with no decent concern for environmental freeze.
The loss of a tuft much softer than silk
means nothing to those of his preening ilk.
He’s like Donald Trump hell bent on gold
who lures each despicable into his fold
and lusting for bigger and biggerly growth
he makes filthy money almost by rote,
inventing a humungous Super-axe-hacker
to whack down the trees in a solitary smacker.
His business is such an enormous success
‘e don’t realize ‘e’s making a mess!
Nor does he perceive what pollution can do
thinking any of us would do much the same too.

But hooray for The Lorax, who speaks for the trees
which are being chopped down as fast as you please.
His poor Bar-ba-loots are all getting the crummies
for there’s no more good food, only gas in their tummies.
And, as he sees through the smogulous smoke
his sweet Swomee-Swans can now only croak.
Machines chug daily, and by night without stop
making Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp.
But the kids will not mind this moral a bit
for there’s plenty of humour and music to fit.
Modern day kids are not easily enchanted
and adults well know not to take them for granted;
this intrepid troupe, over here from Old Blighty,
display their collective skills all a-mighty,
led by frightfully clever S.P. Day
as nasty old Once-ler who (Boo!) gets his say
before little Lorax, walrus moustache a-twitch,
is brought to puppet life without any glitch.
Wandering minstrels and dancers add colour and nerve
and a trio of singers, oh, mama, what verve!
Cheers for music and lyrics by fine Charlie Fink
who deftly ensures that the tale will not sink.
Rob Howell’s design has fable allure
to match Matilda: The Musical –that is for sure.
So, mommies and daddies, get your kids all in tow
and set all their sit-upons in a neat row
at the Royal Alexandra for a really nice treat
as I, rhyme exhausted, beat a hasty retreat.

(This review in rhyme had its scansion fine-tuned by M. Heidler)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

By Matt Murray and Jeremy Diamond
Directed and Choreographed by Tracey Flye
A Ross Petty Production. At the Elgin Theatre,
November 30-December 31, 2017

(L-R): Dan Chameroy (Plumbum), Cyrus Lane (Scrooge), and Eddie Glen (Cratchit) photo: Racheal McCaig

Forget about Charles Dickens’s original fable. This mash-up musical does have a Scrooge loose (as the poster claims) and it does have the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (all played by that zany camp genius Dan Chameroy) but that’s about the only real connections to Dickens. No matter for anyone who has long revelled in Ross Petty’s wildly warped pantos, where the music comes from pop charts and where some of the most fun is generated by parody commercials (and Ross Petty appears in one to prove that he has not given up the ghost in performance) and by a loosey-goosey script that creates a plot that defies cohesion, though it has more than a fair share of adult jokes that zip over the heads of youngsters who, I suspect, would rather boo or cheer or dance in their seats.

Dan Chameroy (Plumbum) (photo: Racheal McCaig)

Anyway, in a nutshell, here’s a very brief summary of the nutty story: Scrooge (Cyrus Lane who is best as a straight-faced foil to Chameroy’s drag Plumbum) heads Scrooge Enterprises that has only the greediest ambition to control all of Christmas. His assistant, Bob Cratchit (the ever-returning comic elf, Eddie Glen), has invented an app called Christmas Crush that will turn every child into an addict under Scrooge’s evil spell. Cratchit hopes to earn his freedom from thralldom to the old miser by this invention, though he himself is no angel: he uses the Humbug singers to raise money for a fake charity—that he calls his own “sweet charity.”  Of course, the Ghosts appear to haunt the miser, but these ghosts are really deliciously crazy in a way that only Dan Chameroy can sell in his inimitable over-the-top improvs and double-entendres that have not only adults rolling in the aisles but some of the cast “corpsing” as well—including Lane’s beanpole miser.

There’s a romantic subplot as well—this one involving Jane, a Scrooge Enterprises employee who is a Citizen Jane of righteous feminism, in that she very justifiably campaigns for equal pay for women. A.J. Bridel, who is a one-woman enterprise all her own, plays her like a Norma Rae heroine, but with a winning beauty, who doesn’t stop with placards, but one who sings and dances her feisty way against chauvinistic or awkward men. Her romantic foil is handsome but romantically awkward Jack (Kyle Golemba), a wrapper in the literal sense, who has the right profile but the wrong pitch for his songs and wooing.

A.J. Bridel (Jane) (photo: Racheal McCaig)

The best fresh invention in the plot is the incarnation of Jacob Marley as a sexy Jamaican with dreadlocks and lyrical voice and movement. David Lopez, who plays him to the hilt, also does the best song performance in his “Despacito” number, though Bridel’s singing is not far behind. And director Tracey Flye also shapes the choreography, serving up twists, rock, and a fusion of other dance styles.

The set, costumes, and videography are gaudy, to say the least, but gaudiness is the least of the problems with this nutty panto. Best to keep the spirit of strict criticism away from the madcap nonsense on stage—such as Glen’s parody of Ellen Degeneres (Helen Sogenerous, anyone?) and the female trio of Ghostdusters. If you want more of such wild antic comedy, there’s Plumbum’s parody of “Thriller,” though even this number isn’t quite in the right key. But this is the Christmas season, isn’t it—though this show wants to turn it into a season of topical news about gender equality, fake news (yes, there’s that ugly spirit of the current White House hovering over certain moments), capitalist greed, etc. Just wish that these themes didn’t create a rather haphazard plot and didn’t carry us so far away from Dickens, whose original fable always has its own heart in the right place. Isn’t it always about the human heart, anyway?

MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER

by Wong Teng Chi
English translation by Derek Kwan
Directed by Tam Chi Chun
At Tarragon Theatre, November 15-December 17, 2017

(L-R) Jordan Cheng (Shi) and Derek Kwan (Boursicot) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Restraint is one of the virtues in this interesting 75-minute piece of musical theatre from a Macau production group, but it is also a limitation. When Derek Kwan’s Boursicot (French diplomat in Beijing) stands slightly behind Jordan Cheng’s elegant Shi Pei Pu (cross-dressing opera singer and spy), the audience can almost feel his pent-up ardour for his Chinese lover.  In a subsequent scene, it is Shi’s turn (while wearing a Chinese opera diva’s long-sleeved robe) to stand behind Boursicot, this time with his hands holding his lover to his own body in a gesture of desire, bonding, and conflict-ridden interdependency. There is no raw, raging sex scene—only the nerve ends of carnality. Their story (first presented in Toronto for Summerworks) is not that of David Henry Wang’s Broadway smash from 1992, M. Butterfly, though it takes inspiration from the predecessor, just as it alludes to Puccini’s classic Madam Butterfly without faithfully recirculating its oriental stereotype. In Puccini, Cho-cho san is a geisha, a quintessential Western paragon of Japanese women, and her suicide (after her betrayal by the American Pinkerton) is of a form conventionally associated with Japan. In Hwang’s play, the central figure is male, representing a rejection of the stereotypical Asian woman, but Gallimard, the French diplomat, who falls in love with Song Liling (the transvestite Butterfly), represents the Westerner’s desperate belief in the Oriental stereotype. Mr. Shi and His Lover elects to tells its real-life story in “an imagined space” that is a sort of prison to Shi who feels desperately alone while searching for a new ending for his ruffled, suffering lover but especially for himself. Boursicot has given up everything for him but has not found true happiness, though he claims to know what happiness is. Perhaps it is because he subscribes to Oriental stereotypes of the feminine beloved as Lotus Blossom or Oriental Beauty. Certainly, Jordan Cheng’s slender, graceful, androgynous Shi is as delicate as a flower blossom and as beautiful, and he knows how to maintain a fiction about ideal femininity. But he has an inquiring mind, and Wong Teng Chi’s fable unfolds like a love-drenched reverie in Shi’s mind and in which Boursicot is compelled to wonder if he has fallen in love first with a man and then with an impersonated woman.

There are many other tangential themes—lies, politics, history, ideal and fantasy—but they are all assimilated by notions of performance. Everything is seen in terms of performance, whether it is Shi’s ritual of making up, crossdressing, singing, or delivering monologues and dialogue. The mandarin dialogue is given English sur-titles, but sometimes the text is top-heavy with abstract concepts that seem to clash with the predominately sensuous score—a fusion of lush Chinese and Western operatic arias and Chinese folk music (sensitively rendered by Njo at the piano and Yukie Lai on percussion). The score could stand on its own, and there are plans to record and release it on a CD, with, I suggest, a booklet containing the lyrics in English. Yet I don’t want to suggest that the score steals attention from the story. It is beautiful, artful, moving, yet wonderfully controlled.

The restraint extends to the scenic, costume, and lighting design as well. The set is simply a dressing stand with mirror and opera costume and a small red rectangular carpet is flanked upstage by the two musicians. Shi and his lover wear Western suits, emblematic of cosmopolitan colonization, and the lighting is never obtrusive. The actors perform without resorting to any operatic flourishes, though the volume and modulations of Shi’s spoken text and sung lyrics give Jordan Cheng more beguiling colour and range than Derek Kwan enjoys as his perplexed, frustrated lover. Being specially trained in music, Cheng handles his solos with stunning virtuosity, sliding from high, plaintive or playful falsetto to sharp seductiveness or angry defiance. But the solo arias and spoken monologues are not enough to enhance theatricality, and the question-riddled dialogue adds an unnecessary burden to the acting. Consequently, the characters don’t come fully to life often enough, with the piece remaining more a mental drama than a fully fleshed play. I wanted more eroticism, and I wanted to know how Boursicot must have truly felt about either being duped by Shi or willingly maintaining a fiction about love and identity.

THE GOAT OR, WHO IS SYLVIA ?

By Edward Albee
Directed by Alan Dilworth
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
November 1-18, 2017

Raquel Duffy (Stevie) and Albert Schultz (Martin) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Martin is a 50-year old architect at the peak of fame (the recent winner of the prestigious Pritzker Prize), married to Stevie for twenty-two years and empathetic towards his gay son Billy. But Martin worries about memory loss and acts detached during a television interview with his oldest friend, Ross, who is really the smug embodiment of liberal hypocrisy, especially when Martin’s confession about his love relationship with a goat (the Sylvia of the title) is brought into the open early in the plot. Ross can abide adultery only so long as it does not involve bestiality. In other words, he doesn’t mind the idea of cheating on a wife, but doing it with a goat is another thing—an attitude that in itself sounds reasonable enough. But Albee isn’t writing about bestiality per se. His play seems to be about the uncontrollable nature of human sexuality and the complications that ensue from what is regarded as taboo sex by conventional society. Despite the black humour (an amalgam of savagery and anguish), the play is filled with grief and rage as it boldly investigates the confrontation between “unspeakable” desires and social norms and laws. It zeroes in on love, loss, betrayal, and its violent ending brings most of the characters down, while offering what is supposed to be a catharsis of fear and pity.

I have now seen three productions of Albee’s controversial play, starting with the Broadway original starring Mercedes Ruehl and Bill Pullman (the best version I have ever experienced), but each time the play grows more dissatisfying to me. Part of the reason is that each successive production seems to lack the power and finesse of the first, but an equally strong reason is Albee’s own muddled text that creates an unresolved problem of emotional incredibility and arch didactic self-consciousness. In an essay in 2004, Albee revealed he had set out to write a play about “intertwined matters—the limits of our tolerance of the behavior of others than ourselves, especially when such behavior ran counter to what we believed to be acceptable social and moral boundaries, and our unwillingness to imagine ourselves behaving in such an unacceptable fashion—in other words our refusal to imagine ourselves subject to circumstances outside our own comfort zones.”  His play would construct itself “as an idea, informing me that that’s what I intended to write about” in a kind of “unconscious didacticism.” Well, nothing was really “unconscious” because what eventually resulted, after an aborted first attempt with a totally different plot, context, and set of characters, is what we now have as The Goat or, Who is Sylvia? that (as its title implies) mixes a bit of Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, black humour, and Albee’s own idiosyncratic epistemological inquiry that mixes absurdist farce with dark pain. There is much word-play about bestiality (allusions to a feed store, a stall with bedding, cruising livestock, and a possible joke about Billy the kid) as if Albee had suddenly turned into a raunchy stand-up comedian, but such humour seems calculated as if the playwright is anticipating cynical audience jokes and is intent on beating the audience to the punch.

In ancient Greek, tragos meant “goat song,” and there was inevitably a scapegoat. Albee works in every allusion to classical Greek tragedy he can think of—from references to the Eumenides and sacrifice—as well as forced and unconvincing phrases (“tragic mouth,” for example) and an apocalyptic finale of destruction and self-destruction. Then there is the Shakespearean reference to the pastoral song from Two Gentlemen of Verona, in which beautiful Silvia is silent—just as the goat in Albee’s play, with Martin’s representing her swain (urban rather than rural in this case). But this creates a fundamental, unresolved problem. Albee is writing provocatively, pushing a text as far as he can go deliberately, but more from the head than from the heart, and actors have to find a way to reconcile both head and heart without appearing to be theatrical abstractions or allegorical figures.

It is a difficult proposition that Alan Dilworth’s production fails to present in an emotionally credible way. He and designer Lorenzo Savoini impose a large scale with the set: clean but rigid straight lines, high walls and roof, austere chairs and white table. But classical tragedy isn’t achieved by this type of scale: characters themselves have to be enlarged as if some invisible force were lifting them out of a mere human scale and propelling them towards a destructive climax. Savoini’s design satirizes white suburbia (as in his costumes that seem to suggest the 50s or 60s) but is largely an empty space that the cast does not always populate with believable or affecting characters. Instead of becoming a dark, painful void, the space remains just a space, with the white living room table remaining just that rather than an altar of sacrifice, even when Stevie dumps the slaughtered goat on it. Dilworth also stresses literalism more than he does the figurative for the murdered goat is shown almost fully rather than concealed in a bloody body bag the way it was in the original Broadway production.

But, ultimately, a lot depends on the acting. The figure of Ross is created to score didactic points about hypocrisy and betrayal rather than to be a fully fleshed friend, and Derek Boyes’s performance is, as usual, life-sized but is not allowed much intrinsic weight. As the gay, angst-ridden son, Paolo Santaluccia is almost creepily rigid and weepy, his tight fists usually closed, his voice and acting unable to grow beyond their first rudimentary levels of signification. Raquel Duffy has her best dramatic role to date as Stevie, the betrayed wife, but though she looks beautiful in high heels and elegant dress, and runs the gamut from mocking humour to rage, disillusionment, and grief, she does not have enough scale and gives away too much at the beginning, thereby failing to grow in vulnerability and terrifying revenge. When she smashes art objects in a venting of rage, she merely tears her passion to tatters, rather than incarnating deep victimhood. Her wails of grief and rage are howls that don’t seem to issue viscerally. They are enactments of loud fury. Albert Schultz is physically large in height and weight, but he enacts Martin externally, his defensive bent-over posture repeated too often. His final explosion is far less moving than is his warm understanding of his anguished son. In other words, I didn’t feel viscerally moved much at the end of the production, so it seemed as if the poor goat had died for little.