Friday, 27 June 2014

Stratford Festival 2014 # 2: "Crazy For You"

In one of my favourite plays, Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, Madame Arcati is offered a drink, and replies thus: "If it's a dry martini, yes.  If it's a concoction, no.  Experience has taught me to be very wary of concoctions."  Well, my second Stratford show of the year is no dry martini, either shaken nor stirred.  It's definitely a concoction, but a totally delightful one all the same.

Crazy For You
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Ken Ludwig

At first blush, the idea behind Crazy For You makes it seem like a singularly unnecessary piece.  The songs all derive from various shows written by the Gershwin brothers, and principally from Girl Crazy -- which also provides the bones out of which the somewhat more complex plot of this show is constructed.  Why not just stage the original show again?  I'm afraid that's a question I couldn't answer without seeing the original, but I suspect that, like many shows of its time (1930), it is probably saddled with a storyline that is just too dated to work any more.

Anyway, when I got to the show, I revised my thinking in a big hurry!

If you want to produce an updated musical loosely based on the original, and full of riotous humour and good fun, you could hardly do better than turn to Ken Ludwig for the book.  The new story line has more twists and turns than a Swiss mountain road.  Of course, anyone who has ever seen any of Ludwig's comic plays (such as Moon Over Buffalo or Lend Me A Tenor) could easily predict that!  The strength of this show's book is particularly remarkable when you realize that Ludwig had to write it to fit and incorporate 18 Gershwin songs that were already in existence, and long-loved repertoire staples at that!  It's a strong testament to Ludwig's skill as a writer that the show moves effortlessly back and forth between the screwball comedy material and the well-loved classic tunes, while the songs effectively define the characters and advance our understanding of their inner selves.  Very few musicals in history have been so seamlessly integrated into a single whole.

As far as the material goes, then, this concoction is definitely made out of highest-quality ingredients.  What of the production?  Stratford has mounted musicals for almost as long as it has existed and, like everything Stratford does, they are mounted on a lavish scale.  But this is the classic Festival Theatre, of the raked semi-circle of seats and the rather small thrust apron stage.  To stage a musical designed for a proscenium theatre in this house, you have to throw out all preconceived notions and rebuild the show from scratch.

That is just what director/choreographer Donna Feore has done.  She has directed a number of musicals on this difficult stage now, and her inspired choreography has always been the shining star in her shows.  In this one, for the first time, I sense that her directorial skills have now caught up to her dance-making, and the resulting performance is stunning in every way.

The back wall of the stage is removed, and large set pieces roll in and out from the rear regions.  Large, but essentially simple, because leaving space for the action to unfold is paramount.  Descending drops are used to good effect in some scenes.  Two small balconies high above the two rear corners of the playing area provide useful spaces for "overhearing" the main action.  And the apron is expanded by a circular covering that provides a much bigger space for dance -- a prime consideration.

The easiest way to define Donna Feore's choreography for this show is to list what she doesn't do:  classical ballet.  That's about it.  Everything else seems to be fair game: the Charleston, jazz, waltzes, chorus lines, tap, soft shoe, the can-can, wild gymnastics -- it's all here.  The sheer energy of the cast is incredible.  You can actually hear people in the audience gasping for air as the dance numbers unfold!

Feore's staging is full of innovative stage pictures that naturally favour the audience in the centre of the house, but still leave plenty for people on the sides to see as well.  One of the finest moments was the drunk scene in Act II involving Tom Rooney as Bela Zangler, and Josh Franklin as Bobby Child pretending to be Bela Zangler.  The endlessly inventive tricks she had these two play, mirroring each other without actually seeing each other, had the whole audience in an uproar of helpless mirth.

Performers: aforementioned American actor Josh Franklin as Bobby is making his Stratford debut, but has a lengthy resume of leading roles on Broadway and national touring companies of other musicals.  It was easy to see right from the first scenes that he was a first-rank performer.  His easy, natural command of the stage and ability to dance off Feore's somewhat fiendish choreography without ever losing control of his singing voice was remarkable.  It's a clear tenor voice, and his diction was impeccable in both speech and song.

Ditto ditto ditto Natalie Daradich who appeared opposite him as the fire-eating desert girl Polly Baker -- but add to that the fact that Daradich is Canadian.  This heroine is no shrinking violet, and the actor who's going to perform this role has to have the gift of shooting fire out of her eyes and stopping men dead in their tracks with her commanding voice.  All of this Daradich certainly had, but with a fine clean soprano up to the highest notes of her songs and similar dance skills to her partner.  (Amusing footnote: publicity pictures and posters all show her smiling radiantly in Bobby's arms -- the curtain moment at the end -- but in reality, for much of the piece, she snarls and snaps at him in aggravation and outright anger!)

Round these two ranged a remarkable cast of three singing cowboys (in flawless three-part harmony), a highly skilled double bass player appearing as a cowboy to set the stage for "Slap That Bass", a troupe of 1920s chorus girls, more cowboys, and space forbids mentioning names -- but they were all terrific.

And then there were the character roles.  Stratford stalwart Tom Rooney must have had the time of his life playing the role of theatrical impresario Bela Zangler, especially in the incredible drunk scene I already mentioned.  Keith Dinicol, another long-time Stratford veteran, did well with the role of Polly's father, Everett.  All he ever really gets to do is reminisce about how wonderful Polly's mother looked on the stage of his theatre, but he manages to make it fresh on every one of the 7 or 8 occasions he has to say it.  Lally Cadeau made a very formidable society lady out of Bobby's mother, Lottie.

Pride of place among the character roles absolutely goes to Robin Hutton as Bobby's society fiancee Irene. Dressed to the nines, prim and proper at all times, she looked the very picture of a 1920s or 1930s movie heroine -- until Bobby dumped her.  Then she ripped open the side seam of her tight-fitted skirt and launched into a sexy, throaty, red-hot take on "Naughty Baby" that once again had the whole audience in an uproar of laughter.

So many other great moments -- and I'm sure other people will find their own.  All I really have to say about this phenomenal, inspired production of Crazy For You is:


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Masterly Production of a Flawed Masterpiece

Angels in America
by Tony Kushner
Presented by Soulpepper Theatre
Directed by Albert Schultz

This week, as part of the huge World Pride festivities in Toronto, Soulpepper Theatre has remounted their multi-award-winning production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.  To call this production a theatrical experience of a lifetime is a gross understatement.

Angels in America is a very unusual kind of play.  It’s a single play, a 6½ - hour epic (split for convenience into 2 parts) that deals with a huge range of emotions and issues in very difficult personal situations.  It’s a story very much of the time in which it was written (1990-95) and of the time in which the story is set (1985-1990), yet it is a story with implications for all times and places.    It poses many technical difficulties in staging, yet the best production would be one in which the technical aspects of the show are kept as simple and (at the author’s express request) as obvious as possible. An actor’s script it certainly is, which requires each of the eight actors to play two or more roles, yet one in which many of the characters are difficult to understand unless you have walked in their shoes.  And who among us has ever “walked” in the shoes of an angel?

Kushner’s script is subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.  It was written, rewritten, and developed over a period of several years.  The two parts were premiered separately, Millennium Approaches in 1991 and Perestroika in 1992.  The complete work had its first staging in 1993.  That subtitle, of course, flings this piece right into the ongoing battlefield of gay rights and recognition, as well as plunking it smack into the middle of the changing cultural landscape within the gay community itself.  It’s impossible to sort out critical reaction to the play from the emotionally-charged debates which have occurred and continue to occur over these issues.  This difficulty presumably also applies to my review! 

For your convenience, gentle reader, I am going to split my comments into 2 parts.

[1]  The Script

This sprawling, epic conception is a major and significant work of art, and well worthy of its claim to a place in the canon of major dramatic works.  But it definitely has its flaws.  (Indeed, show me a great work of art that doesn’t – if you can!)  There’s a great deal of philosophising in the play.  Some of it comes very naturally, indeed organically.  The prime example of this is the entire long scene with the angel which begins Part 2.  Her language attains a degree of poetry and insight, combined with a uniquely tragic authorial vision, which place it high in my estimation as a major piece of dramatic literature.  The overall similarity in tone to the text of Waltraute's long, tragic monologue in Act 1 of Wagner's Götterdämmerung was especially striking. 

However, some of the other philosophical passages appear much more contrived, indeed almost stuck on, and decidedly pretentious.  Sadly, this was especially true of the ending – a long and involved exegesis on the myth of the fountain of Bethesda which hits us over the head with a tedious explanation of what many in the audience have already intuited from the play as a whole, if only subconsciously.  These weaker philosophic passages marked the only places during the production when I checked out of the play, momentarily, saying to myself, “Oh, no, they’re off on that again.” 

Once the author pulled out of his self-made philosophical traps, the script sparkled with wit, humour, energy, fire and endless surprises.  In a play of this kind, any “conventional” resolution of any problem would be a cheap cop-out, and would drag the play down to the level of soap opera melodramatics.  It’s very much to Kushner’s credit that he largely avoided conventional expectations; indeed, he did a fine job of subverting them in his writing. 

The script does go over the top occasionally with its humour.  Thank goodness the momentary parody of the ending of The Wizard of Oz (movie) remained only momentary.  Of course it was a tip of the hat to the gay community’s reigning cultural icon, Judy Garland, but it was so blatantly stuck on that it made me cringe.

The other major question remaining is somewhat didactic of me, but I am going to ask it anyway.  I have read that Kushner is a major admirer of the Brechtian epic method of gently easing the audience out of their emotional involvement with the characters every time they begin to slide into it.  But did Kushner intend this play to be an exhibition of Brechtian authorial technique?  I would have to say no.  Angels in America, epic in size though it may be, is a very searing and involving experience on many levels.  Although many of Brecht’s epic devices are used, Kushner’s characters ring with emotional truth and depth, each one struggling with his or her own agony as they draw us into their world.  I emphatically agree with Damien Atkins who said in an actor’s note in the program: 

…I realized that “Angels in America” is also (and perhaps most importantly) a call to citizenship, a desperate cry for all the living to care more about each other – to find in our lives, and in our words, more compassion.  The play implores us – dares us – to have as much compassion for Roy Cohn, who says and does unspeakable things, as we do for Prior and Harper and Louis and everyone else.

Compassion is a mode of feeling that seems very much out of fashion today, perhaps even more so than 20 years ago when this play was written.  I think it is this sad reality that makes the play as timely today as it was when first staged – and in some ways, perhaps even more so.  I might even go one stage further, and argue that a more appropriate subtitle for today would be “A Gay Fantasia on Human Themes”, since so many of the issues arising in this play are now seen coming to the surface in other societies than the United States.

[2]  The Production

Soulpepper’s management offered us the opportunity of witnessing the entire two parts in one day, with a 3 hour break in between Part 1 and Part 2.  In my opinion, this is the only desirable way to see it.  The work is such a continuous whole that a lapse of a day or two between parts would be destructive to the overall, cumulative power of the performance.

It took me about 2 or 3 minutes to enter into the world of the play at the beginning, but once I did I was hooked.  From then, I was riveted for practically every step of the way (with exceptions already noted).  The time stretches between intermissions are lengthy, but it was inevitable that I should sink right back into the world of the play after each break -- and then be shocked at how much time had elapsed when the next break came. 

The set designed by Lorenzo Savoini was simple but evocative.  I was particularly struck by the detail that each of the ten doors surrounding the space was different in colour, tone, or in the details of locks and latches.  Yet all ten were tired, worn, old – and actually came across as prematurely aged in relation to the clean classic revival details of the dark iron-grey wall panels.  We were left to decide for ourselves exactly what message the revised set of Part 2 portended – panels twisted open, one wall section missing, the central bed skewed at an odd angle, and looking (being?) smaller than the central bed in Part 1.

Lighting designer Bonnie Beecher produced wonderful lighting effects to highlight the multitude of spaces and times in which the story unfolds.   Richard Feren’s sound designs came into play in the outdoor scenes of course but also – crucially – in the hallucination and dream sequences.  The humming sounds during the visitations of the angel evoked powerful spiritual energy without any tacky devices like in-your-face chanting choirs of celestial voices.

The eight actors produced between them a whole raft of memorable performances.  The eight main roles they portray are all flawed, wounded, hurting human beings, each with his or her own cross to bear.  Damien Atkins, as AIDS-infected Prior Walter, has the most obvious cross but Atkins showed us other, less pleasant dimensions of the man and kept him from becoming a mere cypher of suffering sainthood.  Prior often uses humour to keep the horror of his situation at bay, and Atkins made the most of this, with splendid comic timing aplenty – particularly in the major scene with the Angel.  Gregory Prest did splendid work as Louis Ironson, the educated, philosophical Jewish lover of Prior who spends the entire play sinking lower and lower in his own estimation.  Ironson is a man of tremendous verbal energy, who can find a literary or philosophical or historic reference to any situation (I can relate), and his increasing bafflement as his words fail him again and again has to be handled carefully, lest it go too far, too fast.  Prest played the man and his limitations admirably.

Mike Ross portrayed the closeted Mormon legal clerk, Joseph Porter Pitt, with humanity shot through with emotional pain as he struggled to cope with his hallucinating wife and his repressed homosexual nature.  His situation is the closest the play comes to a conventional melodrama, the tale of a man who loves and loses, again and again, ending with nothing and nobody.  Ross ensured that the character remained intensely human, never turning into a soap-opera star turn.  Michelle Monteith as Harper Amaty Pitt gave us a fascinating character study, a woman drifting back and forth between reality and unreality so slowly and smoothly that neither she nor we could say for certain when and where the line was crossed. 

I actually felt sorriest for Troy Adams who plays the role of Belize, the ex-drag queen nurse.  His part comes closest at times to becoming a 2-D stereotype of any of the characters, and that’s a nasty situation for any actor to cope with.  Adams managed to breathe humanity into even those moments, and showed particular power and depth of character in the final scenes in hospital with Roy Cohn.  As Cohn himself, Diego Matamoros gave an excellent account of the manipulative power broker who finally comes up against the wall in a situation (AIDS) where he can’t buy his way out.  As nasty a piece of work as Cohn is, Matamoros yet drew our sympathy as he died in hospital, alone except for a nurse he hated and the ghost of the woman he had doomed to execution decades earlier, Ethel Rosenberg. 

Joe’s mother, Hannah Porter Pitt was played by Nancy Palk.  As written, she is probably the most perplexing character in the piece, a woman of vehement mixed emotions kept on a tight rein of social, moral and religious expectations.  In the scene where she sits through the night at Prior’s bedside in hospital, humanity begins to seep out of her through little tiny cracks in her façade.  Palk did fine work in keeping those little leaks from spreading out to drown the character.  Her compassion was of a piece with everything else about her personality (restricted, proper, repressed and conventional) but it was still very real for all that.

Raquel Duffy had the tough task of portraying the most unconventional character of the lot, the Angel who appears to Prior Walter – in dreams?  In hallucinations?  In reality?  With movement restricted by flying wires and huge stiff silver wings, Duffy still gave a powerhouse performance of that beautiful sequence of the script to which I already referred – and more besides.  Hortatory voice and blazing, glaring eyes, peremptory gestures, an expression of unutterable sadness on her face as she described how heaven had disintegrated into disorder, all went to create a memorable portrayal of a character that could so easily have become embarrassing. 

The actors did a splendid job of playing the numerous minor characters too.  I won’t try to credit all of them, because it was too often hard to be sure who was doing which parts, but I simply have to mention the splendid apparition of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg by Nancy Palk (I think).  Her recurring presence at Roy Cohn’s deathbed became one of the most memorable portrayals of the entire show, a smug, self-satisfied woman who has at last been proved right beyond all doubt. 

Kudos, also, to director Albert Schultz who kept this huge, sprawling, sectional piece on a tight rein throughout.  His choices in matters relating to stage pictures were mostly very well-judged (a couple of embarrassingly tacky “Brechtian” crosses and upstagings in the opening sequences aside) and the balance nicely drawn always between reality and imagination, a critical element.  The play cracked along at a good clip, never rushing but never dragging either, and even the overwritten parts of the script crackled with energy and purpose. 

If Angels in America is, as I have said, a flawed masterpiece, then this gifted company, director, and staging team have performed the admirable feat of making it seem closer to perfect than it really is, a provocative, powerful and emotional theatre experience not to be missed. 

Saturday, 7 June 2014

A Cinderella Story for Today

One of the brightest and funniest productions the National Ballet of Canada currently owns is their staging of Cinderella, choreographed by James Kudelka towards the end of his stint as the company's Artistic Director.  It's a delightful entertainment, not least because Kudelka has completely re-imagined the story in more contemporary terms.  Designer David Boechler has set it appropriately in the party-mad Roaring Twenties, with sets and costumes straight out of an Erté painting.  All of this is built upon one of the greatest and most undervalued of ballet scores, the masterly full-length Cinderella (Op. 87) composed by Prokofiev in 1940-1944.

Prokofiev's music gives full rein to his lyrical side, and also to his ability to depict character in music as well as events.  His sweeping melodies for Cinderella in Act I combine an air of sadness with a longing, and indeed a hope, for something better.  The dances for the stepsisters simply cry out for comic treatment.  (This, by the way, was traditionally supplied by having one or both of the stepsisters danced by a male dancer in drag.)  The waltz for the ball scene is one of the composer's finest inspirations, a memorable, sweeping theme that keeps building and becoming more and more wild until -- suddenly -- the clock strikes 12, in a hair-raising, dramatic passage full of deep, densely orchestrated bass notes.  And that is only one of the many wonderful waltz tunes scattered throughout the score.  The third act includes a traditional divertissement of national dances, used to suggest the Prince's search among the women of the world for the one who can wear the slipper.

One distinctive feature of the music demands comment, before I get onto the actual performance.  Those wonderful waltzes are much deeper-toned than the symphonic waltzes of the Tchaikovsky ballets.  The um-pah-pah rhythm in the bass is often set by tuba and trombones, and the melody frequently entrusted to cellos or violas.  It's a dark colour, but it's a warm kind of dark tone, not a bleak or frightening one.  And when the orchestra does feature the higher instruments, the contrast in tone is made that much more striking.

The special genius of Kudelka's production is the way that he brings a new slant to each of the traditional elements of the story.  The stepmother becomes a fuddled but ingenious alcoholic.  The stepsisters are not so much wicked as they are determined social climbers oblivious to all else, and their meanness towards Cinderella arises more than anything because they are completely unaware of her feelings.  In this new look, the Prince becomes a man searching for an escape from his public 24-7 persona.  The scene at the ball incorporates steps from such 1920s dances as the tango and the Charleston.  That third-act divertissement, so often cut in other productions, here becomes an actual journey around the world (a very quick one of course!), and allows the Prince to develop his character even more as he searches for the woman who will help him become fully himself.

The comic highlights of the show mostly have to do with the choreography for the stepsisters: for the wannabe-elegant sister (Stephanie Hutchison) a whole collection of wannabe-graceful dance moves, and for the myopic stepsister (Tiffany Mosher) an endless quest to find whatever or whoever she needs to find, often without her frequently lost or stolen black rimmed glasses.  The characteristic stance for both is en pointe but with legs held completely rigid.  Hard to believe that two fine ballerinas could be so graceless. 

The star of the show is, of course, Cinderella herself (Jillian Vanstone, making her role debut).  For her, Kudelka has created extraordinarily graceful dances with a mop and broom as her partners.  These are already memorable in Act 1 when she is bare-footed but even more striking in Act 3 when she dances with one pointe shoe on -- for the obvious reason!  The great strength of the role is Cinderella's determination to carry on and be more fully herself, reflected in her every step and turn. And has there ever been a more glorious entrance for a dancer in any ballet company than her arrival at the ball?  The pumpkin carriage descends from the flies as if it were borne below a hot-air balloon, pulled gently down by garden fairies drawing long ribbons, with Cinderella seated inside upon a luxurious couch, swathed in fur and sequins, and looking every inch a royal figure.

(One of the most delicious details of this production is the 
hidden seatbelt in the pumpkin coach under all that drapery.  
Think of it, a prima ballerina making an entrance
 while strapped into her seat!  
The mere thought of it always gives me the giggles!)

Her prince, the man so at odds with his inherited position, was Naoya Ebe (also making his role debut).  For him, and for his four officers, the choreography is complicated but looks easy and natural, a Kudelka trademark.  This is especially true of their intricate interwoven moves in the world tour sequence.  Ebe and Vanstone made a fine couple in the ball scene, once they finally allowed their love to overcome their natural reserve and shyness towards each other.

In the difficult job of trying to keep up with those zany stepsisters, the two Hired Escorts (Keiichi Hirano and Jonathan Renna) veered hilariously between put-on good humour and not-quite-hidden despair and disgust.  They, too, have very intricate choreography to navigate and made it all look "inevitable" (in these comic roles, "natural" is not quite what is wanted!).

And as a final note, character dancer Kevin Bowles made a very good thing indeed out of the comic role of the news photographer, always getting in everyone's face with his flash camera.

It's very much of a piece with the show as whole that the comedic characters made their curtain calls very much in character.  For once I felt sorry for the people who galloped rudely out the exits as soon as the curtain fell on the final act -- they missed some of the best laughs of the day!

The ending of the music is fairly quiet and gentle, and this obviously suggested to Kudelka his most inspired conception: that the Prince and his Princess end the story, not in his palace as tradition would dictate, but in her kitchen garden, dancing quietly and lovingly together.  She has successfully freed him from his superficial royal lifestyle for a life more honest and more real.

Sadness and Longing in Music

One of the greatest gifts of music is its ability to reflect and heighten our emotional states, to arouse feelings in us beyond anything we knew we could feel.

At the Toronto Symphony concert last night, I had only my second chance ever to hear a live performance of a work that, for me, embodies that principle in its fullest form.  As a bonus, the concert also included three other genuine masterpieces!

After 1945, composer Richard Strauss was in a state of melancholy coming close to genuine despair.  The cultured world in which he had grown up was gone, gone forever, amid the rubble left behind by the Nazi madness.  During these last years of his life he composed several works steeped in those emotions, all of which are for me incredibly moving.  None are more so, though, than the final group of four lieder for soprano and orchestra which he composed during the last year of his life, 1948.  Although he did not conceive of these as a cycle per se, they have always been performed as one and are now known as the Vier letzte Lieder  ("Four Last Songs").  There are two things that link these four songs inextricably into a chain: the thread of poetic meaning in the verses, and the magnificent orchestration, a true summation of the composer's lifelong development in that art.

The verses by Hesse and Eichendorff speak of autumn, and twilight, sleep, and night -- all symbols of death.  Although the mood is dark, the songs welcome death with calmness, with resignation, and above all with a sense of completeness and fulfilment.  The Eichendorff song, Im Abendrot ("In Twilight"), was composed before the others, but it is rightly given the place of honour at the end of the cycle as this is the song where the singer finally -- in the very last line -- pronounces the word itself:  "Ist dies, etwa, der Tod?"  ("Is this, perhaps, death?").  What follows then is the last and perhaps the greatest of Strauss' many lyrical orchestral epilogues: slow, quiet, quoting the Transfiguration motif from his early tone poem Death and Transfiguration, and at last pausing during the final extended cadence to recall the trilling larks (flutes) heard earlier in the song.  It's the most heart-rending, utterly perfect conclusion that could possibly be imagined.

The impact of this music is so immense and intense upon me that I can't even write about it without bringing tears into my eyes.  That in part is due to a recollection of a 1975 concert in the Royal Festival Hall in London, where I heard these songs for the first time.  I had no idea what to expect, but the power and intensity of the performance were overwhelming.  Soloist Evelyn Lear had the entire audience held in rapt attention that stretched on for many seconds after the last notes faded to silence.  In my estimation, that concert stamped her forever as an artist of the very highest rank.

How then did soprano Sondra Radvanovsky fare by comparison?  It's a deeply challenging work, the words and melodies calling for a lyrical quality and careful text interpretation while the heavy lush orchestration forces the singer to go loud.  The first song was delivered in a trumpeting full voice, and I was a little concerned, but in the remaining three she shaded her tone much more and achieved a genuine pianissimo at the end.  Apart from one minor glitch in the third song, she had the music firmly in hand although I could have wished for clearer diction.  But in the final number, none of that mattered.  I just abandoned myself to the music, closed my eyes, and let the tears come as they would.  The orchestral sound was marvellous throughout, and that final cadence under the flute trills faded into silence exactly as it should.

Now, what about the rest of the concert?  It opened with a neat, precise performance of the overture to Don Giovanni (Mozart) led by resident conductor Shalom Bard.  The rest of the program was led by music director Peter Oundjian.  The Strauss songs were next, and then after the intermission we were given the two suites from Daphnis and Chloe, Ravel's revolutionary ballet score of 1910.  In a way, the term "suite" is a little misleading, since it implies a collection of short excerpts.  These are simply two large chunks detached from the whole score -- the first suite encompassing the battle in which Chloe is kidnapped by pirates, and the second giving the end portion from the sunrise through the pantomime of Pan and Syrinx (with its languorous flute solo) to the roof-rattling Danse generale in hectic 5/4 time which ends the ballet.  This is a famous orchestral showpiece indeed, and all departments of the orchestra were right up to the mark.  The only beef I have is that the all-important choral part was omitted.  Ravel treated the choral sound as part of his sound palette, so no words are used, but a lot of important musical material goes missing when the voices are left out!  But still, a spectacular performance driven through to a rousing conclusion.

That ended the pre-printed program, but it was still just 90 minutes, and Oundjian had promised an encore.  This proved to be very substantial indeed.  The orchestra is touring to Europe in August, and one of the works on the tour is the Symphonic Dances of Rachmaninoff.  It's a notable headline work for the Toronto orchestra, and is included in one of their live-concert CD recordings.  The encore was the third and final dance, as fiendish and demonic a work as can be found in all of music.  The fast sections which begin and end it are shot through with all kinds of insane changes of time signature and fierce cross-rhythms.  In between you get the last and darkest of Rachmaninoff's brooding Romantic melodies.  The coda is introduced by multiple repetitions of the composer's favourite Dies Irae theme, and then turns to the Russian Easter hymn which he set so memorably for voices in the much earlier Vespers.  Here it precipitates a full-scale battle which ends the piece in an uproar.

If you want to show what an orchestra can do, this is one of the best pieces I know for the purpose.  On Saturday it felt a bit loose around the edges, but having heard them do it before I know it will tighten up a great deal before the tour.  Certainly the closing pages, with the Dies Irae, the Easter hymn and the ferocious coda, were as hair-raising as anyone could ask.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Stratford Festival 2014 # 1: "Mother Courage and Her Children"

One of the great advantages of living so close to Stratford is that it becomes easy to just bop up there for a single performance and then come right home again.  Quite a switch from the days when I lived in Elliot Lake and Stratford was a single annual expedition with 5 or more plays crammed into as few days as possible!  So this was my first outing of the season, but I already have tickets for 5 or 6 more plays -- and may even add one or two more as the summer wears on!

Mother Courage and Her Children
by Bertolt Brecht and Margarete Steffin
Translated by David Edgar
Directed by Martha Henry

Right away, some of you may be wondering about the attribution of this play to two people.  However, scholarship has now thoroughly established Steffin's role as a major (if not equal) collaborator in the creation of this and other Brecht scripts, while some of his other works were created in collaboration with other women in his life.  The program notes on this occasion included a detailed examination of what the concealment of Steffin's role says about the value placed on women's contributions in society.

I actually saw this show over a week ago.  The reason I withheld this review until now is that I saw the play in a preview, and did not want to publish my thoughts and comments until after the show had its official opening night.  Also, I had a great deal I wanted to say and (for once) I definitely needed time to organize my thoughts before beginning -- so this is going to be a bit longer than average.  Please bear with me!

This was my first-ever experience with a Brecht play, and I had definite expectations based on the little I had read about him and his work.  This experience proved the old saw that "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" since I had gravely misunderstood the nature and purpose of a Brechtian dramatic conception.  Incidentally, as Brecht's name has now become a widely-accepted adjective in the theatre world, I wonder how the man himself would feel about being transformed into a theatrical demi-god or seeing his work performed in one of the world's leading classical theatres?

Undoubtedly this is a funny play -- up to a point.  I forget exactly where the point came, but it was somewhere early in the second half that I found myself saying in my head:  "Why are you laughing?  This isn't really funny at all, certainly not something to laugh at!"  I think others may have been having similar feelings because the audience's laughter grew gradually more uncertain as the play rolled on. 
Brecht himself described his work as "epic theatre" but I have trouble seeing the connection as the word carries other and quiet different connotations for me -- in particular, the "heroic" connotations of classical epic poetry.  Mother Courage is so intensely anti-heroic!  It has a lot of funny lines but I wouldn't precisely call it a comedy.  It has heavyweight dramatic moments but certainly isn't a tragedy.  It has emotional scenes which are immediately short-circuited by "business as usual".  The characters simultaneously invite you into the world of the play and gently push you back out of it.  In the end, you leave the theatre neither loving nor hating the characters but wondering what the hell made them behave that way!  And as you start thinking about that issue (and perhaps discussing it with others), it is then -- after the show is over and done -- that you are processing the whole experience the way Brecht wished.

It was abundantly clear throughout the performance that director Martha Henry had a firm grasp of what was needed, and was full of imaginative conceptions to make the show come to life.

Mother Courage aptly demonstrates the reality that a classical actor can do just about anything on stage short of twist himself or herself into a pretzel (some of them can even do that!).  The show includes numerous songs, which are directed to be sung and played by members of the company.  To reinforce the "unreality" of the presentation, the company members strolled around the auditorium before the show and at intermission, meeting and chatting with audience members.  I met one young company member who said he had never picked up a guitar until the preparations for the show began but was now playing it on stage!  Only one of the singing actors had any significant issues making herself heard, mostly when she was facing the other side of the Tom Patterson Theatre, but it didn't really matter because her body language conveyed her meaning quite readily!  The songs were composed by Keith Thomas in a style that bridged folk and music hall, with a strong dash of cabaret thrown in.  This worked very well for the piece.

The set comprised an anonymous dark backdrop crowned by a sloping straw-fringed roof, with a single large tree stump near the fore stage point.  Other set pieces were whizzed on and off by the performers.  In spite of the long, narrow apron stage, Mother Courage's wagon was a large, unwieldy piece that could only just be turned around on the stage.  Plainly it required a considerable effort to move it.

One of the greatest ironies of the script is the way that Mother Courage herself (real name: Anna Fierling) oscillates between hard-nosed businesswoman and nurturing mother, while she almost simultaneously builds up and then demolishes every indication of any truth behind her business nom de plume.  As she ranges the battlefields of the Thirty Years' War, she's always on the lookout for a chance to make a fast profit any way she can.  At the same time, the mother in her struggles to keep her three children out of the war from which she is making her living.  The performer who can reconcile all the divergent aspects of this character within a single person must be an actor of extraordinary power and skill. 

Seana McKenna has certainly proved herself to be all of that and then some over the years.  Her resume is a roll-call of memorable performances, fully living up to the stature of some of the great central roles of the English-speaking theatre.  With that in mind, I have to say that this was one of the most gripping performances I have seen her give.  She stayed at all times in the character's self-made trap, ricocheting between the contradictory motives of profit and nurture.  McKenna's wonderful voice can command the attention of the audience, even in the most intimate asides, and at full throttle goes ringing off into space, leaving a distinct echo behind.  Her finest moment came when the body of her son Swiss Cheese is carried in for her to identify.  In what could have been an emotional blockbuster moment, McKenna still kept her emotions on a tight rein to fulfil the intentions of the playwright.  The feelings were there, and could be felt, but were never allowed to cut loose.  All of her gifts came into play as Mother Courage, right down to the heartbreaking moment at the end when she slowly and effortfully pulls the wagon around and down that long, long stage one last time -- alone.

Next to Seana McKenna came another powerful stage presence, Ben Carlson, in the role of the Chaplain.  Playing a man of diffidence and unworldly naivete is certainly something I have never seen this actor do before, but as always the character and all his words came across with great clarity and a strong dash of humility.

Geraint Wyn Davies played the camp cook with a bit of bravado and a lot of subtlety, not always the strongest quality in his work. 

Among Mother Courage's children, the strongest one is -- has to be -- the deaf-mute daughter Kattrin.  Last season I found Carmen Grant a little out-of-place with her characteristic smiley expression as the nun Isabella in Measure for Measure.  As Kattrin, what a difference!  The smile was still there but shot through at all times with a characteristic sadness.  With what desperate energy she strove to make herself understood, to be heard!  A performance to remember.

E. B. Smith was an appealing mixture of masculine dominance and child-like naivete as Eilif, the older son who is first to go into the war.  Antoine Yared was also excellent as the child-man Swiss Cheese, taking his duty to the paymaster and the strongbox so seriously that it ends up costing him his life.  His eager facial expression and speech were perfectly suited to this role.

Finally, I have to commend the fine work of Stratford newcomer Deidre Gillard-Rowlings as the camp following whore, Yvette Pottier.  What a wonderful mixture of flamboyant voice and gesture, but always leavened with more than a touch of true humanity.  Excellent work in what could easily lapse into a stereotypical cardboard cutout of "whore with heart of gold".

All in all, a memorable performance.  And I'm still thinking and processing what I saw and heard.  Since that is what Brecht wanted, this production has to be counted as a success.