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.

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A TASTE OF EMPIRE

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

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

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

FUN HOME

Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Directed by Robert McQueen
A David Mirvish Presentation of the Musical Stage Co. Production
At the CAA Theatre, April 19-May 20, 2018

Hannah Levinson (small Alison) balancing on her father Bruce (Evan Buliung) (photo Cylla von Tiedemann)

American cartoonist Alison Bechdel turned her own eccentric and troubled family story into a moving graphic novel (named one of the best books of 2006), and then came librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron and musician Jeanine Tesori, who seized the opportunity to turn domestic and personal dysfunction into a riveting musical that mixes pop with ballads and Sondheim-like song-dramas. Fun Home won deserved Broadway fame in 2015, and now the Musical Stage Company has put it on the Toronto theatrical map with a production that is probing, nervous, exultant, sweet, melancholy, and suffused with pathos without wallowing in self-pity.

Considered “the first mainstream musical about a young lesbian,” Fun Home has far more going for itself than its chief protagonist’s sexual orientation. An ironically entitled, explicit memory-play that has ostensibly been created out of Alison Bechdel’s memories and detailed journals she kept since the age of 10, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, it chronicles her childhood and the years preceding and following her gay father’s suicide. There are three Alisons in the musical or, rather, three ages of the same character: nine-year old Small Alison, Medium Alison, the college student, and adult Alison (feeling “stuck” at age 43) who literally looks over the shoulder of each of her younger selves as they experience various vagaries of life, and sketching scenes from her past in order to make sense of raw life. The father, Bruce, is a high school teacher who likes restoring old houses and who runs a funeral parlour (the fun home of the title) on the side. He is sometimes nastily authoritarian about order and neatness (his first song is about white damask), though his own private life is ruckled by his secret homosexuality. The libretto encapsulates things with staccato brevity, as the adult Alison remarks: “He was gay. I was gay. He killed himself and I became a lesbian cartoonist.”

Camilla Koo’s scenic décor expresses the father’s urge towards maintaining at least a façade of neat order by rigid straight lines of a minimalist set, with white walls and a green door, before morphing into a suggestion of a realistic home. The white walls of the opening link to the adult Alison’s vocation as cartoonist because they could be taken as a blank sketchpad for drawings or a white screen for her mental projections. The musical intertwines past and present, and the score and lyrics are dynamic interrogations in pursuit of certitude. Jeanine Tesori’s combination of musical styles are an ambivalent mix of anger and love, often creating (like Sondheim) a clever dissonance in multiple-part songs interspersed with pastiche numbers (a parody of the Partridge Family and a Jackson Five celebration). There are two numbers about sexual awakening (college-student Alison’s hymn to Joan in “I’m Changing my Major” and her ode to a striking delivery woman), and all these are part of a unified totality to articulate the principal themes and drive both the comedy and drama.

Alison (Laura Condlln) looking over the shoulder of Medium Alison (Sara Farb) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

It is a textured musical that holds fast to the modern trend in musicals to be exploratory, even diffuse as they explore themes that were hardly ever touched by old-style musicals. Yet, it is not without a fair share of zany humour as it balances the light and the dark, the joyous and the sad. It tells a story with remarkable conciseness, and this Canadian production honours the story with some remarkable performances. Eric Morin plays multiple roles, the most important probably being that of the young man who feeds Bruce’s covert sexual urge. The actor, though, looks too ripe for this part, though this is not to deny his acting talent. Eleven-year old Hannah Levinson plays young Alison with an appealing mixture of fun and frustration, delighting at balancing herself like an aeroplane on her father’s legs one moment, yet begging for his attention at another. Fuelled by irrepressible energy, she and her two younger brothers (played with a sense of naïve mischief by Jasper Lincoln and Liam MacDonald) can play in coffins, but Alison is a rebel at heart, especially when it comes to displaying her distaste for a “stupid” dress she is forced to wear by her father. Levinson gives a remarkably true and touching performance, and her singing is superb, especially in “Ring of Keys,’ with a display of amazing vocal and acting virtuosity. Sara Farb as Medium Alison maintains the high standard with her knockout solo “I’m Changing My Major,” a candidly comic coming-out number, giddily ardent yet nervously insecure about her falling helplessly in love with butch activist Joan (Sabryn Rock). Farb has never been more moving than in this role. And holding firm as the adult Alison, bespectacled Laura Condlln is almost a lookalike of Rachel Maddow, though very correctly without that journalist’s self-assured loquacity and irony. Condlln is the conscience of the piece, creatively questioning as she gives shape and substance to her ghosts of memory. And she sings far better than I expected, shining in the pointillist “Telephone Wire.”

Another standout number is Cynthia Dale’s rendition of “Days and Days,” Alison’s mother’s tortured cry from the heart about her dysfunctional marriage to a man tormented and tormenting. However, her role is thin and Dale gives rather mechanical line-readings at times. Evan Buliung as her husband Bruce acts with prickly edginess, though, ultimately, he misses achieving pathos—perhaps because he allows the character’s external mask to obscure the inner human vulnerability.

Robert McQueen’s production gleams with intelligence, taste, and measured control, maintaining admirable tension without becoming glum or overly sombre. Its only significant shortcoming is the lack of powerful sublimity at the end, but it has more than its fair share of virtues. In fact, it deserves to enter the history books as one of the best musical productions ever done in Toronto.

THE OVERCOAT: A MUSICAL TAILORING

Libretto and Direction by Morris Panych
A Canadian Stage Co-Production
with Tapestry Opera and Vancouver Opera
March 29-April 14, 2018

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy (photo: Dahlia Katz)

An ordinary man’s life is turned upside down after he has a new overcoat made for him. You wouldn’t necessarily think much of this seed of a plot, but Gogol made immense satire of it in his 1842 short story, and over a hundred years later, Morris Panych devised a gleaming mime-and-movement piece that went on to win immense favour and critical awards. Being a clever artist, Panych has not left this critical and popular success go to waste. Two decades after the debut of his smash hit, Panych has re-tailored his wordless Overcoat into an opera, with the considerable help of James Rolfe’s music that uses and reshapes Shostakovich, with some quotation from Bach and Beethoven, and a witty nod to Gilbert and Sullivan. Panych’s long-time collaborator and real-life partner, Ken Macdonald puts his own creative resourcefulness to the test, re-painting and adapting his modular set from Sweet Charity a few seasons ago at the Shaw to the minimalist requirements of this musicalized fable.

The physical scale of the production is still large, but the lyrics and music ally with the ensemble’s movement (choreography by Wendy Gorling) to expand the core feelings behind the characters and themes. After all, musical theatre cannot have the same verbal dexterity of intricate thought that straight theatre can have, but Panych knows this already, and he also exploits the potential of physical theatre to express human emotion. After all, movement divorced from feeling is abstract to a fault, and Gogol’s fable is anything but abstract. It satirizes human need, urgency, and foibles. Akakiy (lanky baritone Geoffrey Sirett) is an accountant who rhapsodizes numbers in his head. “Is there anything that doesn’t count?” he wonders aloud, suggesting extra connotations for the question. Zero is his favourite numeral. However, though his mind expands with the ecstasy of enumeration, his image shrinks in the eyes of others because of his shabby government overcoat that provokes their disdain and distaste. When the snuff-addicted tailor Petrovich (a very fine Peter McGillivray who also doubles as the officious Head of Department) makes Akakiy an imposing, almost regal overcoat, Akakiy’s fortunes turn. Panych repeats the wonderful moment when the new overcoat takes on a headless life of its own, with Akakiy’s rapture clearly showing. But the accountant’s material fortune doesn’t take into account the vagaries of life, and Akakiy is eventually reduced to a frustrated madman, imprisoned in an asylum where other inmates serve as a chorus or corps to register his descent into lunacy, with the overcoat becoming Akakiy’s straitjacket.

Akakiy surrounded by Mad Chorus (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Panych’s production is colourfully stylized, wonderfully lit by Alan Brodie, and cleverly costumed by Nancy Bryant in a manner that allows freedom of expressive movement, though the choreography of the commuters is sometimes overly repetitive with diminishing returns. However, the score (played by a 12-piece orchestra conducted masterfully by Leslie Dala), the ensemble sequences, and the singing work together to make the re-tailoring a major achievement, with especially fine work accomplished by Sirett (whose kinetic blissful quirkiness morphs into demented immobility), McGillivray (a double treat as tailor and head bureaucrat), Andrea Ludwig as a louche landlady who could have been generated by Brecht, and a superb mad chorus by Magali Simard-Galdes, Caitlin Wood, and Erica Iris Huang.

BLACK BOYS

By Saga Collectif
Directed by Jonathan Seinen
A Buddies in Bad Times Production, March 1-11, 2018

 

(L-R): Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Thomas Olajide, and Tawiah Ben M’Carthy

Having already been a smash hit in 2016 and completed a three-city tour to Vancouver, Calgary, and Montreal, Black Boys is back for a brief run at Buddies. Offering itself (with tongue in cheek) as “a spiritual experience,” it is a 95-minute hybrid of dance, monologue, and discursive debate, circumscribed by the personal experiences of three black gay males in a predominantly white heterosexual world. The three are Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, a male with one black daddy and three white parents; Ghanaian-born Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy; and Thomas Olajide from Vancouver. The sparse décor (movable, gauzy sliding panels), restrained but effective lighting by Jareth Li, and strategic use of exotic costuming by Rachel Forbes later in the piece allow for greater sonic or vocal registers, and the two standout features are movement and monologue, especially with Virgilia Griffith’s dynamic choreography for solos and pas de deux (especially involving M’Carthy and Olajide).

Overall, it is fair to say that the piece is a spiritual experience, though clearly not in a religious sense. The church sequence is a hilarious parody of fundamentalist extremism and homophobia). In a well-wrought sequence about the history of “Amazing Grace,” the show hits a peak which is not, alas, held for long. Nevertheless, uneven though it is, what Black Boys manages to be a generally affecting subversive cross-genre entertainment—one that uses autobiography, sociology, politics, and sex as raw material with which to subvert the normal performative modes of gender, sexuality, and race. Anger is necessary fuel, and the black bodies become weapons of comment, protest, and attack. Sonic distortions (sound and video design by Stephen Surlin) conspire with gestural distortions to create an alluring complex, and there is ample comedy to balance the sombre, seedy, and troubling.

Jackman-Torkoff loves his own comedy, whether stripping totally early in the show, wearing a woman’s dress (rather badly), or parodying Brando’s cry for Stella from Streetcar. M’Carthy looks as appealing as black licorice, and has a voice and movement that are supple, sweet and sensuous. Olajide is sex and sin, racial pride and defiance rolled into one irresistible package. Trouble is that Black Boys over-extends itself, as some of the riffs go on with diminishing returns, and there are moments of hysteria as lean, loose-limbed Jackman-Torkoff is frequently self-indulgent in movement and vocal delivery to the point of grotesque exaggeration. However, he is not without merit, and he is more than balanced by M’Carthy’s incarnation of post-colonial African shame and, best of all, Olajide’s physical elegance and sensuality married to a potent vocal delivery that, in one stunning monologue about his black “frame” in a white “gallery,” that deploys well-wrought rhymes, crystallizes what this piece could have been as art rather than as interesting, provocative didacticism.

KING CHARLES III

By Mike Bartlett
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Presented by Studio 180 for the off-Mirvish Series,
At the CAA Theatre, Toronto until March 4, 2018
(Guest reviewer: Maria Heidler) 

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
Or, in Mike Bartlett’s award-winning play, let us address the crises that could occur following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Bartlett tells us that he has taken his inspiration from Shakespeare, and has given us a “future history”, a family epic (a 5-Act play with ghost and comic sub-plot) written in blank verse in the enveloping rhythms of iambic pentameter which, when performed by Studio 180’s superb cast, draw you into a very modern tale with modern speech; a musical of words, an opera of emotion.

As we await the start of the tale, the stage is bare apart from a top-lit, shallow, three-tiered dais which dominates the floor. Pre-show music is almost subliminal, with ghostly pulsating beats. Then a soft haze descends from above giving a sense of uncertainty – a problem yet to be solved?

Then the lights dim to a tolling of bells and choral accompaniment, as the 12 members of the cast enter and process the stage with amber candles. Charles (David Schurmann) then addresses the audience to set the scene. He tells us that this is the funeral of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. Already his famous dry wit is apparent as the Royal Family gather around, and talk of his becoming King at the forthcoming Coronation. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Rosemary Dunsmore), corrects them by stating that he is King already on the death of his mother. She is ignored!

In Joel Greeberg’s fine production, scenes flow seamlessly one into another, giving the play pace and momentum. This is partly achieved by minimal set decoration, and by props and basic furniture being handled by cast and crew in neatly choreographed sequences with the dialogue continuous. This echoes how the play would have been performed in Shakespeare’s time.

Now, the King receives his weekly visit from the Prime Minister (Gray Powell) and is asked to sign into law, a Bill that has been passed by both Houses of Parliament for a Statutory Regulation of the Press and Media. Charles is concerned it restricts the freedom of the Press and asks for alterations, but the P.M. refuses. Charles later receives the Leader of the Opposition (Patrick Galligan) to voice his concerns, but this Tory can’t be swayed, not wanting to jeopardise his already tenuous position. In the meantime, both Charles and his son William, Duke of Cambridge (Jeff Meadows) have been separately visited by an apparition of Diana, Princess of Wales, who has promised both they will be “the greatest King of all”. Now Charles, tired of his many “ling’ring” years as heir-in-waiting, asserts his Royal Prerogative and dissolves Parliament. The P.M. threatens a new Law, bypassing the Royal Assent and pushing through the Bill.

In tandem with this drama, we see Prince Harry (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) in hoodie and jeans, hanging with his mates in pubs. We learn that his marriage to Meghan Markle was short-lived (Bartlett has variously updated his script since the play’s opening in the U.K. in 2014) and now he meets a vocal Republican, Jess Edwards (Jessica Greenberg), whom he falls for. The “ginger-jester” is still being hounded by the rumour that he was the lovechild of Diana’s friend, James Hewitt…that ginger hair said it all! Maybe his“outsider” status draws him to this anti-monarchist, although in a lover’sspat re his previous marriage, he points out that “she was from Hollywood –you’re from Cricklewood!” This rebellion has all the fun of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, but…anarchy is afoot. Riots take place across the country and Buckingham Palace is besieged.

(L-R): Jeff Meadows (Prince William), Shannon Taylor (Princess Catherine), Rosemary Dunsmore (Camilla), and David Schurmann (Charles III) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Charles increases the Guard and has a tank placed in the forecourt. Meanwhile, Jess is also besieged—by the Press who dig up compromising photos from her past. Charles offers to protect her and agrees to Harry’s wish to become a commoner. Impasse rules the Kingdom. But now Kate, William’s wife, (Shannon Taylor) shows her immense power and feminist principles and, in Lady Macbeth fashion, spurs her waffling husband to mediate between King and Parliament. William emasculates his father in the most public way, and both he and Harry threaten to isolate their father if he will not come to the table. He capitulates. Charles is forced to abdicate in favour of William, who plans to sign the Bill and restore the status quo. Even Harry backs down and rejects Jess and reverts to his Royal entitlement. The Coronation takes place and the processional is accompanied by an atonal dirge that reeks with foreboding. William takes his place on the Throne with Kate at his side, an Equal Consort. As Charles takes the Crown to place it on his heir’s head, he remarks at the bejewelled perimeter encircling – Nothing! Signifying nothing! The Hollow Crown.

A powerful play – particularly at this moment in history. Superbly performed by a fine cast who ‘spoke the speech, trippingly on the tongue’ and were not tempted to veer into farcical territory re the British (especially the “Royal”) accents. Also, stature and body language were spot on – even William signed the Abdication with his left hand!

A DELICATE BALANCE

By Edward Albee
Directed by Diana Leblanc
A Soulpepper Production at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
Opened January 18, 2018

(L-R): Oliver Dennis (Tobias); Kyra Harper (Edna), Laura Condlln (Julia),  Brenda Robins (Claire), Nancy Palk (Agnes), and Derek Boyes (Harry) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Edward Albee’s comic and dramatic varnish can often camouflage the less than firm underpinnings of some of his plays. Opening in a cozy living-room of a suburban home, where Agnes, smugly serene and imperious wife of Tobias, a man cocooned in his own gentle concentration and deference, sets a tone of mandarin elegance very reminiscent to that of a Henry James character, A Delicate Balance gleams with satiric wit. The middle-aged couple are deep into their ritual of evening drinks and conversation, dominated, of course, by Agnes, who claims to be astonished by what is unfolding within her—a feeling of encroaching madness as “a gentle loosening of the moorings,” a sense of being adrift, a stranger in the world. Tobias’s initial response is a WASPish joke, in the sense of gentle irony, well-mannered and almost a throwaway before anisette or some cordial. But Albee is merely playing a game of satire, making sure that there is as yet no crack in a foundation he wishes to shake to its core in due course. It is evident that the couple are no longer sexually intimate with each other, one reason being Tobias’s fling with Claire, Agnes’s alcoholic sister, who has moved in with them, and who delights in boosting Tobias while embarrassing Agnes. And so, the ritual turns into something else.

There is talk about infidelity, frigidity, a lost child (the couple’s only son who died young), and the collapse of the fourth marriage of Julia (the couple’s daughter), who returns home quite desperate and unhappy at not having merely lost yet another husband but her own room as well in the family home. Things go from bad to eerie, with yet another desperate arrival—that of best friends, Edna and Harry, who seem terrorized by something unnamed. Soon, the new arrivants seem to be taking over the home with a sense of entitlement, and new sparks fly as the metaphorical ground shifts. Agnes drops her scorn and arrogance in moments of genuine bafflement. Tobias has a difficult time maintaining his rectitude. Harry remains frozen in terror. Julia goes to tear-streaked, rage-inflected pieces. Claire, alcohol-fuelled, sees reality the clearest, justifying her emblematic name. The play moves into existential horror. The mood is one of plague, disease, distemper. And huge cracks appear in characters’ composure, igniting explosions of anger, dismay, bafflement.

But this is where Albee turns from gleaming, witty dramatist to pretentious metaphysician or allegorist. The terror is never specifically identified, though it is probably a combination of fear of impending death and of a generalized existential need to feel comforted and wanted. Indeed, Albee crystallizes this existential truth with black humour in the final act, where it becomes abundantly clear what each character lacks in life. The truth of each character is forced out, and what first seemed like little holes or cracks are magnified into something psychologically cavernous.

In short, A Delicate Balance attempts its own balancing act of anomalous feelings and actions, rhetoric and genre, and it is really a landscape of hills and caves rather than one of gentle slopes and plains. Diana Leblanc’s production, however, is eerily flat and often monotonous, though intelligent. Hampered by the configuration of a playing area set between two sides of an audience, Astrid Janson offers a tidy carpeted living room with sideboard, sofas, and crystal, but  even Andre de Toit’s attempts at mood lighting (sometimes abrupt) do not create a sense of enveloping existential danger. Patrick Clark’s costumes are serviceable, as is John Gzowski’s sound design. The acting is generally competent, but several of the performances seem superficial and not especially vivid or fully fleshed. Derek Boyes and Kyra Harper, for example, are fine as the friends with a sense of entitlement, but they never seem credibly terrified by anything existential. They seem to be having a bad day rather than being shaken to the core by an unfulfilled need. Laura Condlln gets close to being over the top but manages to depict Julia’s spoiled brat neediness and frustration vividly. In what is often the showiest role, Brenda Robins is more of an epigrammatic joker than soul-shaken alcoholic. The comic lines come forth but there is no sense of the depth and horror of disease. As gentle but quietly frustrated Tobias, Oliver Dennis explodes more frequently than he should so that when the ultimate explosion is required as he reveals what he has been disguising for so long, he seems to be merely repeating the same anger at what had gone before. On the other hand, Nancy Palk is correctly in character as Agnes: imperious, serene as she lobs nasty verbal grenades at Claire, perplexed at the invading friends, and over-compensating for humiliations, but the degree of radiance is somewhat lower than it should be because the general tone of the production is genteel and conversational. The cast and director seem to have forgotten that all is not naturalism in Albee. I would have liked a disturbing hill or threatening cavern or two to figure more prominently in a rolling plain.