THE MESSAGE

By Jason Sherman
Directed by Richard Rose
A Tarragon Theatre Production. Opened November 14, 2018

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and R.H. Thomson in The Message (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Marshall McLuhan was the rage in the 60s¸ when undergraduates latched on to some of his catchiest utterances about media theory, such as “the medium is the message,” “schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy,” “advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century,” and “I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say.” McLuhan had a wide repertoire of slogans and purr words, such as “the global village,” “the Gutenberg Galaxy,” “the mechanical bride,” and “surfing” as he sought to divide media into “hot” and “cool” categories—much to the consternation and displeasure of other intellectuals with less racy zest but heavier gravitas. He was far more popular among youth than the Don of Canadian Literary Criticism, Northrop Frye, a colleague at the University of Toronto and with whom he had a well-publicized feud. McLuhan’s brilliant career was interrupted abruptly when he suffered a massive stroke that rendered him speechless, though he was known to have suffered periodic min-strokes or petit mal seizures prior to this calamity. A brain tumour the size of a golf ball was removed in what was then the longest neurological surgery in history. McLuhan’s legend grew post-operatively: when he awoke an hour after surgery and was asked how he felt, it was reported that he remarked this depended on what was meant by “feeling.” But this bravado aside, he had, in fact, lost loads of memory but acquired a larger hypersensitivity to noise.

I recapitulate all this simply to rehearse what Jason Sherman’s play also rehearses in its own peculiar way, as well as to suggest how the cart can lead the horse on stage—which is what happens in Sherman’s long one-act drama that shows the heavy burden of its background research. Sherman is one of our best-known and most celebrated playwrights. I have admired his trilogy relating to Judaism, and he often displays a scorching wit in a dual sense of satire and intellectual mettle. However, his gifts don’t save The Message, a play that has had a sad history. Meant to open the Tarragon season in 2003, it was met with strenuous objection by the McLuhan estate and was, therefore, shelved. But 2018 is a different era and nobody thinks any longer of McLuhan (or Northrop Frye, for that matter) in quite the same reverential tones as in the 60s and 70s. But this triumph over delay is a Pyrrhic victory because the play tells us practically nothing new about McLuhan. It is also obsessively repetitive and somewhat crude in its strategies, wavering between expressionism and the broadest, most vulgar vaudevillian comedy, indulging in cardboard representations of women (McLuhan’s wife; his secretary at the Centre for Culture and Technology), and running through some of his ideas on media theory like a de rigueur homage.

The play’s structure is self-defeating because it is necessarily fragmented, beginning in literal darkness (a cliché) with the great man’s massive stroke, and moving via flashbacks through a repertoire of puns, wordplay, and wicked wit well beloved by McLuhan fans. R.H. Thomson plays McLuhan as vividly as he can (“Oh, boy!”), though it is mainly vocal virtuosity for he is rooted or situated in a bed or chair for most of the show. The best epigram in the play is, of course, McLuhan’s “It’s just aphasia I’m going through” that is scribbled on a pad, and the best monologue is a post-surgical rambling monologue that resembles something out of Samuel Beckett and is rendered wonderfully by the actor. (The weird scene with student-disciples dressed as sheep is probably another pun: scholar-sheep, anyone?) Patrick McManus plays an ad man, an NBC executive who tries to get McLuhan to boil down his theories for pop appeal, as well as an empathetic Irish priest (McLuhan was Catholic and loved James Joyce’s writing) with all the clichés of those breeds intact, while Peter Hutt first (as decreed by script and director) overplays the role of Feigen, the American business man who helped advance McLuhan’s career, before showing us the real human being later in the play. I confess that in his trope from bum-waggling, crudely roaring clown to serious confidant, Hutt gave me the most pleasure, apart from Thomson. The two actresses in the ensemble, however, afforded almost none. Sarah Orenstein (usually good) is obviously at the mercy of the script as McLuhan’s Texan-born wife, and there is nothing especially interesting in her acting. Nor is there much of real interest or value in Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster’s pallid university secretary (her lacklustre voice is off-putting), though her cigarette and cigar lady in a topless restaurant offers something to a male gaze, though not much else to anyone’s mind.

Camellia Koo’s set and Charlotte Dean’s costumes don’t add much to anything, though Rebecca Picherak’s lighting does. At one point, McLuhan suggests that the country we belong to is just an hallucination—an idea that appeals to me—though it could also be said that Sherman’s play is a sort of hallucination itself. And a not very engaging one at that because it looks and sounds trite and manages to divorce feeling from idea while attempting to be clever.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.