Friday, 26 September 2014

Beethoven Nine at Roy Thomson Hall

This marks the third time since I began this blog that I have reported on a performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, the famous "Choral" Symphony.  Along the way I had to miss two more, one last year at Roy Thomson Hall and one this summer at the Festival of the Sound.  It says much for the power and universal appeal of this work that, even after the contributions of Berlioz, Liszt, Mahler, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Havergal Brian, and others, to the literature of symphony with chorus, this work is still known everywhere as the "Choral" Symphony.  

If you want to read and make comparisons, another concert review can be found here:

A Fine Nine

And then there's this review of my favourite DVD version of a truly historic live concert:

Concert For New Year's Eve -- Sort Of

It's not the season opener for the orchestra, but it is my first TSO concert of the season.  I have always been a fan of major works for orchestra, chorus and soloists -- and this one in particular.  Indeed, I actually had the privilege of singing the Ninth twice during my short tenure as a member of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir back in the 1970s.   There's one interesting offshoot of that experience.  As a baritone, I was always seated immediately adjacent to the string bass section of the orchestra, and it's impossible to miss the hard work they have to do in a couple of passages of the scherzo.  To this day, when I listen to the symphony, I hear the string bass parts in that movement sticking out like a sore thumb.  And at a live performance, I automatically find myself looking at them during those passages without even meaning or intending to do so!

And if all that isn't enough, the concert opened with a substantial bonus:  Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is actually a piano concerto in all but name.

So: how was the concert?  Well, for starters, Music Director Peter Oundjian did something that I have only seen done previously by guest conductors with this orchestra: he adopted the European style of seating the first and second violins to the left and right of the conductor respectively.  This was the standard layout for most of the nineteenth century, so it's a safe bet that all the great Romantic masters wrote their orchestral music with such a layout in mind.  And the proof is definitely there -- in passages where the two violin sections alternate notes or phrases with each other.  With this seating layout, there's a definite stereo dimension that would be lacking in the North American configuration.

The Rachmaninoff Rhapsody was marvellous, in a very unusual way.  "Subtlety" and "finesse" are not words usually associated with Rachmaninoff's music, but these qualities do in fact exist in plenty in this score, and the entire team realized that and gave it shape and form in sound.  Pianist Daniil Trifonov (making his TSO debut) played much of the work more quietly than many pianists, but with his powerful technical skills he was able to play much more incisively than many, which more than made up the difference.  It was actually a refreshing change to hear the work played by an artist who commands more than two volume settings ("Loud" and "Louder").  Oundjian kept the orchestra well in scale, and only once allowed Rachmaninoff's heavy-duty orchestral writing to swamp the pianist completely.

The Beethoven was far more impressive than the last time I heard Oundjian conduct it (almost a decade ago).  The first and third movements were taken at flowing tempo, without undue haste but also without dragging the anchors.  If that third slow movement at first seemed too rapid, it was well within bounds.  Oundjian more than compensated by not pushing and pulling the tempo nearly as much as some better-known conductors, and that gave the orchestral movements uncommon unity.  The solo horn part in the slow movement was delivered with rich, velvety tone and great assurance.

By way of contrast, the scherzo movement was taken at a slightly more relaxed pace than one often hears.  If it wasn't as fierce or ferocious as some performances, it certainly had energy to spare, and a clarity that can go missing at higher speeds.  The tricky acceleration from the scherzo to the trio went off without a hitch.

The same could not be said about the equally dangerous opening of the finale.  There was a brief scramble to get everyone on the same beat, only a second or two, but noticeable.  After that, things went much better through the variations for orchestra (again, at a more relaxed speed than often heard). 

Tyler Duncan opened the vocal part of the work in a way that really made my ears go up.  True, he had a rather heavy vibrato (perhaps forcing the tone?), but I have never heard the words of the opening baritone solo delivered with such a strong sense of the meaning of the text!  Soprano Jessica Rivera and tenor David Pomeroy both mastered their parts with clarity, diction, and verve.  Mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig had trouble making herself heard along with the other three, but sounded equally fine when she was audible -- perhaps hers is a more chamber-scaled voice.  Pomeroy's account of the march variation was as neat and accurate as any I have heard -- and that's saying a lot!  Many famous tenors have come to grief on the big leaps in that solo!

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir reconfirmed their long reputation for choral excellence with powerful singing, and no sense of strain even in some of the cruelly high passages Beethoven wrote.  Since the last time I heard them at Roy Thomson Hall, the choir has adopted a mixed seating layout instead of sitting in voice sections.  This has advantages and drawbacks.  Certainly the sound in full-choir passages is more blended, and comes across more powerfully.  Oddly, though, the reverse is true any time one section sings alone -- especially when it's a section entry.  Then the sound comes across thinner than before, as you no longer get the emphatic hit from one direction of the compass!  It's all a matter of swings and roundabouts, really.

Taken overall, a very good performance of Beethoven's late masterpiece.  Mind you, it wasn't the best one I've ever heard -- that would have to be one of the times I sang in it, of course!

Ever-Fresh and Always Timely Comedy

by Moliere
Verse translation by Richard Wilbur
Presented by Soulpepper Theatre
Directed by László Marton

The French playwright Moliere is famed as one of the truly great authors of comedy in the entire history of the theatre.  Among his plays, Tartuffe is one of the best, and one of the most popular too.  I find this curious because the script totally skewers one of the great sacred cows -- religious belief and practice -- by showing how it all too often descends into arrant and arrogant hypocrisy.  Moliere's blunt take on this kind of false piety led to the church hierarchy banning the play when it was first performed.  I also wonder if observant followers of religion see themselves in this play or laugh at what seem like portraits of hypocrites known to them.  At any rate, the play is always timely because smooth operators who manipulate our emotions for their own ends are always with us, even when religious belief isn't the cloak they choose behind which to conceal their schemes.

This production used the now-classic verse translation into English by Richard Wilbur.  It's odd that normally I don't like plays written in rhyming verse (I've become very tired of A Midsummer Night's Dream, to name one) but in this case I don't mind.  Wilbur's versification flows easily and naturally, and his choices of rhyme are both clever and unforced.  It's a very suitable feeling for a play which was originally written also in rhyming verse.

The one feature of the play that always jars me a little is the officer's laudatory speech about King Louis XIV.  Moliere actually wrote himself into a trap here, a trap in which the villain had so thoroughly won the entire contest that only a royal or divine deus ex machina could get him and his characters out of the mess they were in.  But of course the play was written for court performance, and any artist preparing new work for such a powerful ruler would have to know for certain which side of the bread ought to be buttered!

Director László Marton has chosen to stage the play in modern dress and a very plain set, using a style close to farce.  That in itself is no bad thing -- the script certainly isn't period-specific.  But even with that being so, the opening is a rather confusing choice.  The actors come on and dress themselves with costumes and wigs out of the period of Louis XIV, taken from two large costume racks.  These are then wheeled off, the final pieces of furniture and walls are rolled into position, and the play begins -- but in modern clothes.  The period clothes and wigs are never used, although the costume racks make a brief re-appearance.  This all seemed pointless to me.

The only other directorial choice that bothered me was the frequent ascent of the actors into full-out screaming.  Problem: it's unintelligible.  It might be argued that the emotion counts far more than the actual words of the text, but even if we allow that it's just plain unpleasant.  This needed to be tamed just a little, bringing the screaming down far enough that the words could still be heard.  That's a fine line to judge, but in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre (a rather intimate space) there is really no excuse for words getting lost in the shuffle in any way.

Well, what of the actors?  As is predictable with Soulpepper, you get a strong cast with some familiar faces and a number of less-familiar.

Among the former group, Raquel Duffy was splendid in the role of Elmire until the end of the seduction scene when she started getting into screaming mode.  Oliver Dennis did fine work as Orgon, the credulous deceived man.  His anger when he turned on his son Damis was credible because it didn't go over the edge -- just skirted it.  Gregory Prest made a strong Cléante,  An open, honest facial expression carries this character far, and that -- together with a caring manner that didn't preclude strength of persuasion were all there in Prest's performance.  In the smaller role of M. Loyal, the bailiff, William Webster was masterful in his turn-on-a-dime switches between coaxing gentleness and forceful dominance.

Diego Matamoros brought the house down as the hypocritical Tartuffe, and with good reason.  His smooth delivery of the two-faced lines of the part was a delight, as was his physical activity in the table scene, darting rapidly from place to place to look for spies.

And yet, my favourite performance of the entire cast came from among the younger, less known actors.  As the maid, Dorine, Oyin Oladejo had a much bigger role than usually assigned to servant characters, and she made the most of every moment of it.  Voice, gesture, facial expression, all were employed to show exactly what she thought of the idiotic antics of her social superiors at the same time that she was earnestly hunting for ways to help them out.  I'm sure we will hear more from this gifted actor!

Colin Palangio as Damis did a fine job with a difficult, rather two-dimensional character.  However, I wonder why the costume designer Victoria Wallace thought fit to dress him like he'd just come in from visiting a gay leather bar.  Katherine Gauthier as Mariane, his sister, was the one serious misfire among the major roles.  She played Mariane as about twenty going on twelve, and that sloped rapidly downwards when she got angry until she was throwing a four-year-old toddler tantrum right on stage.  Not funny, just embarrassing.

Well, it's one of the perils of tackling such a well-known classic that many people will arrive in the theatre with some preconceived idea of how the piece ought to be done.  I'm not arguing for too much statuesque, classical gravity here, or for relying solely on text with no action, but I did feel that this production went too far in the other direction at times.  Certainly it was funny, and I laughed a great deal, but there were times when the words "less is more" were popping into my mind at some of the excesses on the stage.  Definitely entertaining, but by no means the last word on this play.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Shaw Festival 2014 # 4: The Man Sadly Disarmed

My final show at the Shaw Festival for this year is another dear old favourite, Bernard Shaw's comedy Arms and the Man.  This is (I think) the fourth time I have seen the play staged.  Sadly, it came off as a rather weak entry.

Let me qualify that right away: it wasn't a bad performance.  At a theatre festival such as Shaw there is no such thing.  Directors, actors, designers and technicians all operate to the highest professional standards and thus every show is certainly a good one.  And there's the rub.  In reviewing plays at such theatres, it becomes easier to be hyper-critical about flaws that might pass unnoticed in less stellar company.

The script in the final act contains two key pieces of dialogue which in retrospect define the entire character of Raina Petkoff, the young woman at the heart of the story.  One is when she and the Swiss mercenary soldier, Captain Bluntschli, discuss her "noble attitude and thrilling voice" which she puts on to good effect when it suits her.  The other is where Bluntschli states that he thinks she is a schoolgirl of 17 years, and she contemptuously replies that he should learn to tell the difference between a schoolgirl of 17 and a woman of 23.

I take the trouble to mention these two script portions precisely because Kate Besworth, who played the role of Raina, and director Morris Panych, absolutely ignored them.  This Raina is a flappy, fluttery, frantic blonde schoolgirl whose voice rises to a screech far too often.  There is no sign at all of any kind of noble attitude, and the voice is never thrilling -- only grating.  This serious misfire is made more noticeable by the fact that her mother, Catherine (Laurie Paton), and her fiance, Sergius (Martin Happer), both get the noble attitude and thrilling voice exactly right, on cue, as needed.

It matters because the pretensions of so-called "civilised" people are one of the main targets Shaw aims his satirical skewers at in this script, and Raina is the main vehicle of those pretensions.  When she doesn't conform to the description of her in the script, a large part of the fun in the show disappears altogether.

Having said that, I then have to turn around and say that I very much enjoyed the way Besworth played her opening scene with Bluntschli (Graeme Somerville) where he climbs into her bedroom when being chased by his enemies.  The tone between the two of them is just right in this scene.  It's later in the play that Besworth goes over the top in quite the wrong way.  Somerville is an excellent Bluntschli -- reasonable, rational, calm and collected at all times -- even when he decides to surrender to his foes.

Laurie Paton is particularly excellent in the second act, as she describes her "civilised" way of life, complete with a new electric bell to summon the servants.  Martin Happer plays as good a Sergius as I have ever seen -- a dashing figure of romance with a commanding voice and enormous physical presence on stage.

Norman Browning is near-perfect as Raina's father, Paul.  In one scene, his wife (Catherine) says, "You would only splutter at them."  And Browning does splutter, and fume, and fuss, quite uselessly.  It's a fine reading of one of Shaw's most incompetent male characters.

The other bit of casting that worried me was having Claire Jullien as Louka, the maid.  The way the part is written (and it is a good part), Louka comes off most often as a young girl full of beans and vinegar.  Jullien quite sensibly played her as an older woman, thirty-something perhaps, ready to make her break and move on and up in the world.  It tipped the whole dynamic of her scenes in an unexpected direction but the choice worked very well.

I did grow a bit tired of Peter Krantz as Nicola, the servant who fancies himself engaged to Louka, but that's just because I don't much care for his slow, deep voice or his standard hurt-bloodhound facial expression.  He certainly did the part justice.

Designer Ken MacDonald's set was a gigantic cuckoo clock.  In the first two acts it's exterior could just as easily have been a mountain chalet, which is after all what a classic cuckoo clock represents.  But in Act 3 the clock was turned around, and we saw its interior, complete with giant-sized gears and wheels which revolved noisily whenever anyone opened the central doors.  I know, it was kitschy, it was cutesy, but it was funny and it certainly made people laugh (including me).  I can recall one occasion when the doors opened but the clock didn't do its thing, and I wondered if that was a glitch or intentional.

Charlotte Dean's costumes all suited the play, the place and the period (the 1880s in Bulgaria) ideally -- with one glaring exception.  Paul Petkoff's housecoat was a beautifully well-worn full-length dressing gown, obviously long loved and long lived it, but was that really the sort of garment that Raina and Catherine would have given Bluntschli in which to make his getaway?

Now, please don't get me wrong.  As I said before, this was (like all productions at the Shaw) a good, entertaining, and definitely funny show.  It's just sad to reflect that it could have been so much better with more attention to the words of the text from all involved.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Shaw Festival 2014 # 3: Powerful Marriage of Comedy and Tragedy

It intrigues me that the two great classic Irish playwrights, John Millington Synge and Sean O'Casey, complemented each other so neatly in their choice of subjects and settings.  Synge's most famous plays chronicle the rural life of the Irish countryfolk, while O'Casey's great works dig deep into the lives of the working poor of Dublin.

The Shaw production of O'Casey's classic drama, Juno and the Paycock, was as powerful as one could ask, a fitting tribute to one of the greats of the world of drama -- and to the terrible fates of the men and women he wrote into this play.

O'Casey himself insisted that laughter must be used to knock down things as they are, so better things can grow in their place.  It's of a piece with this belief that the most unnerving scenes in this play are interwoven with the most comical ones, and that the last word of the script is comic and not tragic.

The Shaw's Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell, directed this play herself and her Director's Note was a heartfelt examination of connections between the world of the play in the 1920s and the city of Belfast where she later grew up during "the Troubles".

With the aid of a simple but evocative set by designer Peter Hartwell, the tenements of Dublin came to life on the stage.  The series of suspended windows above the walls, leaning over the room (and lit with varying degrees and colours of light) emphasized the crowded, cramped conditions of life in the poor districts.

The women become the heroes of the play, with the men -- both seen and unseen -- not perhaps the villains but certainly the source of much of the misery that pervades life.  Jim Mezon as Captain Boyle and Benedict Campbell as his sidekick Joxer Daly typified the irresponsibility of men who were drinkers first and workers a long way second, or not at all.  Their scenes provide the comedy of the piece, both verbal and physical, and Mezon and Campbell did fine work in playing off each other.  Charlie Gallant as Johnny showed another kind of irresponsibility, that of the young who recklessly commit their lives to the service of one idea or another without fully understanding the consequences of what they preach.  Fear and terror were etched on his face right from the beginning, before we fully found out the causes, and stayed that way throughout.

Against these thoughtless men O'Casey contrasts the women.  Mary Boyle and her mother, Juno, work hard to bring in what little money the household can earn.  Juno in particular struggles to hold her family together, not just financially, but as a family.  It's a struggle she's destined to lose, the specific tragic fate of so many Irish women known to the writer.  In the end, Johnny suffers the fate of execution at the hands of the violent activists, while Juno and Mary must set out to make a new home for themselves elsewhere, leaving the Captain and Joxer to fend for themselves.

In this tragic denouement, the two women emerge as the two most powerful presences on the stage.  Marla McLean brings great dignity and quiet strength to her portrayal of the disgraced daughter, pregnant out of wedlock.  Mary Haney's performance of Juno is full of life and energy throughout the play, a vivid portrayal of a woman caught between opposing forces but refusing to be crushed or beaten down.  Haney rose to heights that were simply beyond praise in her final scene, her repetition of Mrs. Tancred's earlier lament for the death of her son.  This speech, halting, with heart-breaking pauses, was delivered in absolute pin-drop silence as the whole audience were drawn deeply into her sorrow.

Although the enemy is totally different, and the two writers were totally different too, Juno Boyle here definitely touches hands with Maurya in Riders to the Sea by Synge.  The poetry and music of the English language as spoken by the Irish reaches its apex in these two magnificent death laments.

Juno and the Paycock will never be a popular play, but it's certainly a powerful drama, and the Shaw company with Maxwell directing gave it a powerful performance that will be long remembered.

Shaw Festival 2014 # 2: Jollity and Mirth (?)

When an author describes his play as "a farcical comedy", the audience has a pretty good idea what to expect.  There will be complications in plenty, but none that cannot be resolved in time for a light-hearted ending.  Farce demands a certain level of desperation in the characters to really make the plot spin as wildly as it should.  Comedy requires that we can recognize some aspect or aspects of ourselves in the characters so that our laughter will be infused with just that note of rueful recognition essential to good comedic theatre.

J. B. Priestley wrote many serious, idea-rich plays during his career, but his 1938 "Yorkshire farcical comedy" When We Are Married has always been one of his most popular.  And no wonder!  Priestley creates a rich assortment of varying personalities, brings them all together into a single house on a single night, and then -- with a single letter read aloud -- tosses the whole assembly into thoroughly funny comic mayhem.

Like most comedic plays, When We Are Married is a very definite period piece.  Unlike many of the genre it does not date too badly.  This is largely because the mainspring of the action is the fear (among the 6 main characters) that their deep dark secrets will be exposed, and their dirty laundry aired in public.  Who among us can honestly say that he or she wouldn't suffer from similar fears?  And so we can all relate to the terror of the Helliwells, the Parkers, and the Soppitts even if the specific cause of their fears holds no terror for us today!

I make the point that this play is a period piece precisely because the Shaw Festival's production ignored the period in presenting the visual and sound aspects of the play.  Instead of going back to the Yorkshire town of Clecklewyke in the years just before World War One, the designers have effectively set the play in 1938, the year when it was first performed.  But Priestley was quite specific in his intentions: the events take place on the 25th anniversary of three couples who were married, all at the same time, in the 1880s.

The reason why this matters is crucial.  The letter which sets the whole party on its ear is an announcement that the parson who married them 25 years earlier was not legally qualified to do so, and therefore none of the three couples are properly married!  This news would only raise a few eyebrows in 1938, what with King Edward VIII having lived so openly with his divorced mistress Mrs. Simpson just a couple of years earlier (before he abdicated and married her).  Even in the early 1920s the old social strictures were starting to vanish, and by 1938 they were largely dead except among people old enough to remember Edwardian times.

Also, a well-off Yorkshire household in, say, 1911, wouldn't be decorated in the height of London fashion of that era.  It would be thoroughly Victorian and old-fashioned by such standards.  Albert Parker rubs the point in repeatedly with his ranting about wanting "no swank and lah-di-dah",  So the set, in beautiful Art Deco, the costumes in similar style, and the 30s-era music used between scenes, grated intolerably on me.  The one genuinely Victorian-looking piece on the stage, the piano stool, looked completely out of place.

I can think of one practical reason why the designers (Ken MacDonald on set and Sue LePage on costumes) and director (Joseph Ziegler) connived in such a poor choice.  The shorter dresses used allowed the women to move about more quickly, an admitted advantage in the frantic moments.  But then, half the fun of doing the piece in genuine period clothes is seeing the dignity and pomposity of the characters, characteristics which are clearly present and emphasized in the text.

Well, enough of that,  The actual performance was a delight from start to finish, thanks to a strong ensemble cast with many of the Shaw's best people, and the brisk pace which they and the director brought to the piece.  Curiously, the author introduces a whole raft of minor characters first, before bringing in the principals.  Jennifer Dzialoszynski had wonderful presence and comic timing as the maid, Ruby Birtle, who gets far more laughs than a maid is usually allowed.  Her recital of the lengthy high tea menu in the first scene was hilarious.  Charlie Gallant was excellent as Gerald Forbes, the young chapel organist who reads the letter that throws the fat into the fire.  Mary Haney gave a wonderful account of the drunken charwoman, Mrs. Northrop, who gleefully and maliciously spreads the good news around town.

And then, we come to the three main couples.  Joseph and Maria Helliwell (Thom Marriott and Claire Jullien) are the solid and respectable hosts of the party.  Jullien was especially good in the scene where she threatens to leave for Blackpool.  Meek Herbert Soppitt and his overbearing wife Clara were finely played by Patrick Galligan and Kate Hennig.  The scene where he finally snaps and puts her in her place was hilarious.  Patrick McManus and Catherine McGregor were first-rate as the over-pompous Albert Parker and his quiet wife Annie.  The scene where she neatly dismantles him, line by line and inch by inch, is one of the funniest scenes of verbal comedy that I know and these two did it with style and superb comic timing from both.

A final word of praise for the beautifully-played scene in which the drunken newspaper photographer Henry Ormonroyd (Peter Krantz) and his lady-love Lottie Grady (Fiona Byrne) untie the tangled knot of the story.  This was played with subtlety and some truly gentle grace notes, a beautiful and touching contrast to everything that had gone before.

I have to admit that I probably laughed louder and longer than many of the people in the audience, largely because I know and love this play so well.  But make no mistake: the laughter was long, loud, and hearty right from the first minute of the show onwards.  The cast and director certainly did not put a foot wrong in their performance.  And probably, only a director/actor who is also a trained historian would get so wound up about the visual aspects of the show being wrong-footed!  (I plead guilty to the lesser offence!).

In the ways that count most, this production of When We Are Married is a total delight and a definite must-see!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Shaw Festival 2014 # 1: Advanced Thinking -- Where Does It Get Us?

This season's production of Bernard Shaw's The Philanderer marks the first time the Shaw Festival has staged the work with the original (discarded) third act and without the third act as published.

The Philanderer was Shaw's second play, and the one in which he found his voice as a playwright.  I've commented before about the times when Shaw the political pamphleteer takes over from Shaw the dramatist, and how those passages are generally deadly in the theatre.  His first play, Widowers' Houses is heavily beset by that flaw.  But in The Philanderer the pamphleteer is content to let his ideas bubble to the surface as an integral part of the relationships among the principal characters, and the play is all the better for it.  Mind you, it's certainly easier to do that when the principle ideas of the piece have to do with a key relationship issue: the morality (or otherwise) of the institution of marriage and the laws which enshrine it into society.  Much of the comedy (and it is funny) arises from Shaw's favourite device of throwing you the reverse of what would "normally" be expected in any situation.

It's also a kind of early study for many later Shaw plays, presenting a scenario in which a man who prides himself on his "advanced ideas" struggles to avoid being pinned down to either one of two very strong-willed women -- one quite conventional, and the other anything but.  For additional amusement, there are the fathers of the two women -- again, with one coming across as totally conventional and the other seeming so on the surface but rather different underneath.

The performance opens in silhouetted lighting with loud noises of sexual ecstasy proceeding from the stage.  The stage direction in the script reads, "A lady and gentleman are making love to one another."  Of course the phrase carried other connotations in Shaw's time from the ones it carries today.  In other plays this kind of modern interpretation might be disastrous.  But here it totally makes sense, since the entire first act of The Philanderer arose out of an unpleasant experience connected with a passionate love affair which Shaw had.  Not only that, but it's abundantly apparent from the script that Shaw's characters aren't very honourable in their relations (to use another olde-world phrase!).

Designer Sue LePage's set is a handsome drawing room in a well-to-do home, but not heavily overdecorated -- which is a sensible choice, given what is to happen.  Between Acts 1 and 2 a song about smoking (a complete social no-no for women of the day) is performed by a man dressed and bearded as Henrik Ibsen, flanked by two women in mannish dress.  This device plays off all kinds of ideas thrown out in the coming act.  But it also allows the three main units of the drawing room to be uncoupled, rotated, and relinked behind the singers to form the equally handsome set of the Ibsen Club's library.  After the intermission, the curtain rises on the dining room of Dr. Paramore's house, 4 years later, and the backdrop is now a mere skeleton of the units that formed the first 2 sets.  Very suggestive.  Also suggestive are the overturned chairs that litter the floor.  Not only suggestive, they are also annoying as everyone studiously avoids noticing them or mentioning them or even becoming aware of them until -- finally -- someone picks one up, dusts it off, and sits down on it.  Those chairs are annoying not least because I kept wondering when someone was going to do something with or about them!  Talk about pulling focus.

That was the one serious flaw in the otherwise admirable staging of the piece.  Director Lisa Peterson obviously has a flair for the stage picture, and used it to the full.  The pace of the show was excellent, too, running smoothly and fluently without overspeeding.  Only once or twice were lines lost when a character inopportunely moved or turned while speaking.

The central trio of characters are the first to appear.  Grace Tranfield (played by Marla McLean) and Leonard Charteris (played by Gord Rand) are the couple making love as the lights aren't coming up.  Late as the hour may be, they are all too soon joined by Julia Craven (Moya O'Connell), another of Leonard's amours, and the fat is in the fire.  These three actors delivered excellent performances of three characters who are, at the heart, stubborn and selfish to a fault.  One of the tricks to making this play work at all is the need to keep all three of them sympathetic, and this the company certainly accomplished.  O'Connell in particular executed a whole series of rapid physical movements to prevent Rand escaping her, to great comic effect.  This whole scene was played right on the edge of "too much", but only once did I get the feeling that it went over the edge and then the feeling was only momentary.

With the arrival of the two fathers, the central group was completed.  Reliable as ever, Michael Ball played Joseph Cuthbertson, the drama critic, neatly centred on the tightrope between his staunch principles and his failure to live by them.  Ric Reid was marvellous as Colonel Daniel Craven, the mustache-blowing old sol-jah of the Empi-ah to the life.  One of the greatest comic highlights of the show was the moment in the last act when these two men, coming at the situation from opposite directions of thought, suddenly realized that they had arrived at the same idea and walked off together, echoing each other like Tweedledum and Tweedledee!

That left, among the major characters, Dr. Percival Paramore (Jeff Meadows).  I'd have to re-read the play, and in particular read the original third act (which was new to me).  Was it just the actor and director, or does the script in fact turn him from an ineffectual dodderer in Act 2 into a kind of a tragic hero in Act 3?  That's how the role was played, and the change in tone was sufficiently powerful to make my eyebrows keep jumping up at the things he said, and the way he said them.

The final moments of the play, when the relationship between Leonard and Julia is brought forward once again, are powerful and (like all of Shaw's best) contain an unexpected reversal which in this performance is beautifully prepared and perfectly timed.

One other delightful comic touch must be mentioned: Kristi Frank as the Ibsen Club's page, roller skating through the Club's library in a completely dignified manner!

Take the show as a whole, it was extremely entertaining and thought-provoking in equal measure.  Definitely well worth anyone's time!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Stratford Festival 2014 # 7: A King Like No Other

Shakespeare's history plays have never been as popular in Canada as the well-known comedies and tragedies.  Partly this is because the history underlying them is not well known to Canadians today.  But Stratford has done them all, and King John is no exception.  This marks the fifth time the Festival has staged the play, the first being in 1960.

If people today remember one fact about John, it is generally the way he was bullied by his barons into signing the Magna Carta, a document which is held to be at the root of some of our most cherished legal rights.  Curiously, this incident doesn't even appear in the play -- perhaps because those rights had not evolved in Shakespeare's day nearly as far as they now have come, and therefore the Magna Carta simply did not seem as significant a forerunner as it now does.

King John was not a good man,
He had his little ways,
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.

In some ways, that famous little verse by A. A. Milne seems to sum up the character of the King as he appears in Shakespeare's text.  He's depicted as a careless, slipshod sort of monarch, lacking in sound judgement and given to impulsive action without careful forethought.  This is not, perhaps, entirely unreasonable although the historic John had considerably more to him than this view suggests!

What Shakespeare's text has done is to open up some ingenious and intriguing interpretive possibilities in the minds of director Tim Carroll and his cast.  Most unusually for Stratford, this King John is a kind of darkly comical take on the way an Elizabethan audience might have experienced the play.  The ceiling of the Tom Patterson Theatre is crowded with chandeliers with burning candles, such as would have been used to light the hall for an indoor performance in Shakespeare's day.  The costumes (designed by Carolyn Smith) are Elizabethan, rather than Gothic, as audiences in Shakespeare's time always saw performances in what was (for them) "modern" dress.  The props and set dressings are a hodge-podge of everything between the 1200s and the 1500s, because research into company records has shown that Shakespeare's company had no compunction about mixing periods in this way.

Director Tim Carroll refers to this in his programme note as a "game" played with historical evidence.  Certainly there is no indication that this is "the way it was done" but it does open up interesting perspectives for the audience.

As does the casting of Tom McCamus in the title role.  McCamus is an actor very much at home with the ironic, the sarcastic, the "nudge, wink" of the aside comments and facial expressions, directed to the audience, that alter their perception of what they are seeing.  Taking this style into the role of King John certainly works much better than would be the case in many other Shakespeare histories.  But it's still a bit startling for the audience.  The history plays, when they are staged, tend to be done with great seriousness -- after all, history is a serious business, is it not?

(The author, also a historian, is tweaking the nose of his own profession here!)

King John, as played by McCamus, is perfectly summarized by one key moment.  When Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope's legate (Brian Tree) appears to pronounce the Pope's excommunication on the King, John turns around from the opposite end of the stage and gives him an airy wave of welcome, twiddling his fingers in the air as he does so!  Of course the audience laughs at his insouciance -- how could we not?

In this role the comical touch works especially well because John's true opponent in the play, his brother Geoffrey's widow Constance, is all tragedy,  The script permits her no other alternative.  And she is a perpetual, powerful presence in the drama -- a continual reminder that John may be King by right of force but that her young son, Arthur, is the King by divine right of succession.  Her speeches are heavy-duty, laden with significance.  This is a woman of great force of character, embarked on a crusade to set things right, and the role obviously demands an actor capable of great power and weight in presenting this woman.  Again, ideal casting: among all the current company, Seana McKenna best fits that description (for my money, anyway) and her performance in this role is the perfect counterweight to the lighter presentation of the King.

The third key character in the story is Philip, the Bastard.  Originally appearing as the son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge, he is quickly identified by Lady Faulconbridge as the bastard son of Richard the Lion-Heart (oldest brother of John).  King John takes Philip into his service and Philip becomes the most loyal of John's supporters throughout the play -- probably all too aware that without John's support he will become nothing and nobody.  Another large role, requiring many appearances and many shifts of tone, and again very aptly and rewardingly cast with Graham Abbey.

As a typical Shakespearean historical play, perhaps more pageant-like and less of a character study than some, this show of course requires the casting of numerous minor characters.  It should go without saying (but I'm going to say it anyway) that the minor roles were all cast from strength, as is typical of this Festival.

To keep these history plays from turning into fossilized dinosaurs, it's essential that the director maintain a high level of energy throughout.  This, combined with the unexpected elements of humour already mentioned, Tim Carroll absolutely delivered.  This King John is certainly a rewarding experience!

Oh, PS:  Thank goodness I finally got caught up on Stratford, because in 2 more days I begin my yearly binge at the Shaw Festival with 4 more plays to see this week!  (massive sigh of relief!)

Stratford Festival 2014 # 6: The Love Story for the Ages

I've always been fascinated by Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra -- what I know of it, that is, for this summer marks the first time I have ever seen it staged.  It's not the most common play on stage, not least because it requires two extraordinarily gifted actors to carry off the two lead roles, as complex and diverse (and big) a pair of roles as you can find anywhere in the theatre.  It's had something of a reputation of being disastrous for the ladies in particular.  Consider this scathing review of a Broadway production starring Tallulah Bankhead, from back in the middle of the last century:
"As Cleopatra, Miss Bankhead barged down the Nile -- and sank."

The play also fascinated me because of the sheer size of the role of Cleopatra.  Remember that in Shakespeare's day that role would have been played by a boy.  Was there a boy actor of uncommon ability and strength of character in the company when this play was written?  Was there perhaps a girl disguised as a boy? (think of Geoffrey Trease's novel Cue For Treason).  Was the role split between two or more boys?  The way the play is written, too, requires Cleopatra to appear as a woman whose character is so diverse that she looks and sounds almost like she suffers from bipolar syndrome.  This can easily descend into mere caricature if not handled with care.

So, to this production, directed on the Tom Patterson stage by Gary Griffin.  Yanna McIntosh as Cleopatra simply owned the stage, from the moment she first appeared.  She's an actor noted for both great subtlety and great power, as she's shown in other seasons.  It was all there in this performance.  She managed all the turn-on-a-dime mood shifts with the most sudden snaps from mood to mood, but kept the character completely believable and sympathetic while she flipped over from jollity and mirth to rage.  Even in the long death scene, which could easily sag or drag, she sustained remarkable intensity without going over the top into melodrama or histrionics.  It's a long play, but I still craved for more when it was over, and McIntosh's performance was the major reason.

As Antony, Geraint Wyn Davies delivered a workmanlike performance, but for me simply wasn't in the same league.  If anything, I would have liked to reverse the casting with Octavius Caesar (see below).  Wyn Davies is a little too addicted to "bluff and bluster" style, and it didn't work well through his scenes with Cleopatra, although it was well suited to his scenes with other Romans.

Octavius was played with suitable emphasis and inner strength by Ben Carlson, one of the most versatile of the current crop of strong leading actors at Stratford.  His finest moment was the restrained, moving delivery of his eulogy over the dead body of the queen at the end.  I'd love to see what the play would look like with him as Antony, simply because I've never yet seen him tackle a role that he couldn't play really well.  Wyn Davies' characteristic style would, I think, have worked better for him in Octavius.

Tom McCamus was ideal for the anti-heroic, ironic Enobarbus (an invention of Shakespeare's, by the way, not a historic character like many of the cast).  His voice and face were well-suited to the man who always lets the heroic air out of the balloon whenever the others get too pompous or elevated.

Around these four characters there swirls a large assortment of minor roles, all played with aplomb by various members of one of Canada's strongest, deepest acting companies.  Out of them I would single out Cleopatra's two ladies-in-waiting, Iras (Jennifer Mogbock) and Charmian (Sophia Walker), excellently contrasted with each other and with the queen, and very moving in the death scene.

In the restricted space of the Tom Patterson Theatre's long, narrow stage, there's no room for major set pieces or giant rolling towers of scenery.  Designer Charlotte Dean aptly evoked the ancient world with restrained touches: small piles of amphorae at the corners, and a few appropriate pieces of furniture whisked in and out as needed.  Costumes were suitably eye-catching when necessary, but not over-the-top with luxurious overkill.

Director Gary Griffin made most effective use of the front and back exits from the stage by having a new scene come on and the dialogue begin at one end before the actors of the previous scene had finished exiting at the other end.  Stage pictures were composed carefully, with an eye to the audience on all three sides of the stage, no small achievement on such a restricted platform. 

In spite of my dissatisfaction with Antony, I think this is the one play of all I have seen at Stratford this year that I might choose to revisit.  There are two reasons: one is to again revel in Yanna McIntosh's magnificent performance, and the other is to become better acquainted with the poetry of Shakespeare's text, always better heard aloud in a theatre than read in silence at home.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Stratford Festival 2014 # 5: A King to Remember

Shamefully late!  It's been over three weeks since I saw Stratford's production of King Lear, and there is no excuse.  Procrastination has always been one of my personal Seven Deadly Sins!

First of all, the short review, given by a dear friend to a server at dinner immediately after the play:  "King Lear?  Above and beyond...."

(These words were spoken in a voice that hovered somewhere between reverent and awestruck.  The friend who said it is a long-time passionate theatre-goer and certainly is not afraid to say so when a play doesn't come up to standard or expectation!)

Now, my longer review.

King Lear is revered as one of the most challenging plays in the Shakespearean canon, partly because of the size and scope of the leading role, and partly because the play itself hovers on the verge of unreality.  The mere idea that a king would decide to divide his realm among his daughters, at any period before the late 20th century, appears almost ludicrous in view of what we know about patriarchal societies in all periods of history.  Thus, before one can even set to work on Lear, one has to come to grips with this question:  why did he do it?

It's the tremendous variety of answers to that question found by directors and actors alike that make this play so endlessly invigorating to artists and audiences both.  Certainly I have always found it so, and this marks either the sixth or seventh production of Lear that I have watched.

Among the productions I've witnessed, though, never has any taken the view that King Lear, even before the play begins, has already descended noticeably into dementia.  But that is what we see and hear, right from the get-go, and thus Colm Feore as Lear is faced with the notable challenge of finding somewhere further to take a character who appears to have gotten halfway there even before he starts!

All I can say is that Feore more than rose to this challenge, and his Lear is one of the most memorable and powerful I can recall.  In voice, in action, in body language, his interpretation starts strongly and continues to grow and grow throughout the lengthy span of the play.  That's not to say that it necessarily gets bigger and louder throughout, but certainly he finds more and more nuance at the quiet end of the scale to match the growing power of his bigger moments.

Others may disagree, but for me the play always stands or falls (besides Lear, of course!) by the performances of two of the other roles: the Fool and Edgar.  This is because of the scenes played out among these three at the dark centre of the piece.  Stephen Ouimette as the Fool gave a performance carefully, casually toned to sound like no more than a collection of throwaway lines.  Ironically, this underlined the Fool's utterances far more than any amount of pointing and actorial-directorial "underlining" could have done -- a fascinating choice.

Evan Buliung did excellent vocal work in changing his voice to become Poor Tom, his assumed character as a penniless beggar.  His face, too, was a study in contrasting expressions, one which would be lost in a larger space but remained clearly visible in the Festival Theatre.  This facial work assumed critical importance in his major scene with his father, Gloucester, movingly played by Scott Wentworth.  This scene became one of the emotional highlights of the performance, as it should be but too often is not.

A surprise in the casting was Mike Shara in the villainous role of Cornwall.  His main scene is the one in which he blinds Gloucester ("Out, vile jelly....").  Shara has hitherto been cast, at both Shaw and Stratford, in comedic roles -- and why not, since he is a master of comic timing?  It's always fascinating to see an actor stretch into unfamiliar territory and Shara did it convincingly enough to make me want to see more of his work in tragedy in the future.

Almost as surprising was the casting of two newcomers and one second-season veteran as Lear's three daughters.  These are likely to become stereotyped roles.  As Joan Ganong said many years ago, "Cordelia's apt to be a bit mouselike."  The other two, Goneril and Regan, often come out acting and sounding like two peas in a pod.

As Cordelia, Sara Farb was anything but a little church mouse.  She played all her scenes forthrightly, with a steel backbone underlying the strength in her words of honesty, truth, and compassion.  Goneril (Maev Beatty) appeared for once as a character totally distinct from both of her sisters.  She came across exactly as the frustrated lady-of-the-house trying to cope with the disarrangement of her home by her father's insistence on inviting himself at the most inopportune moment.  I almost expected to hear her start saying things like, "Please don't sit on the sofa, the maid just plumped up the pillows for the guests."  It was left to Regan (Liisa Repo-Martell) to play out the traditional "witch-queen", which is eminently suited to her lines and to her family connection as wife of the repulsively psychotic Cornwall.

Jonathan Goad was admirable as the loyal and good-hearted Kent.  Brad Hodder was appropriately disgusting as the opportunistic Edmund.  Karl Ang made much of the smallish role of the King of France, who offers to wed Cordelia under her father's displeasure.

The simple settings were totally appropriate and workable without need of any fancy technical foobaz.  One of the things I admire about Antoni Cimolino's directing style is the way he has turned the Festival Theatre back into a stage for actors, rather than one primarily for techies and this production was a prime example.

Not that technical aspects of the show were slighted by any means!  But that was precisely where I encountered the one serious drawback in the production.  The storm was convincing, powerful, overwhelming -- and made it impossible to hear the actors clearly.  Throughout the storm scene I caught perhaps 6 words in 10, if I was lucky -- maybe not even that -- and I was seated in Row H, eight rows up.  I wonder how people under the balcony overhang fared?   There's always a loss of sound when you're seated under an overhanging balcony in any hall.

Apart from that issue, Cimolino's direction produced a powerful performance of Shakespeare's tragedy, one that allowed each character to make the most of a role while keeping the story-telling clear and opening our thoughts to the deeper implications of this challenging play.  And to return to the lead role for one final thought, I would certainly rate Colm Feore's Lear alongside the great performances I've seen in the past by the likes of William Hutt, Douglas Campbell, and Peter Ustinov.  Worthy company, indeed.