Sunday, 14 June 2015

Beauty Beyond the Reach of Time

Without question, the most durable classic in the National Ballet of Canada's repertoire is the Rudolf Nureyev production of Sleeping Beauty, which was originally set on the company by Nureyev in 1972 and is currently on stage for what must be its umpty-leventh revival.

This situation is not unique to the National Ballet of Canada!  In fact, any ballet company, anywhere in the world, with any pretensions to classic ballet style, must include productions of the three great Tchaikovsky/Petipa ballets in their repertoires.  The Nureyev version, though, is in a class by itself since it was created by a dancer-choreographer who had direct experience with the work in Russia -- where his coaches had direct experience reaching in an unbroken line back to Marius Petipa himself, the choreographer of the very first staging.

As a result, this particular Sleeping Beauty is indeed a museum piece, in both the best and the worst senses of that term.

Take the worst first.  The original costumes and sets were designed by Nicholas Georgiadis and were incredibly sumptuous (and expensive) in 1972.  Although they have been refurbished over the years, the dated style is really beginning to lay a heavy dead hand on the production as a whole.  Nowhere is this more true than in the final act where the yellow/orange/brown palette of colours looks like nothing so much as an autumn forest getting ready to shed its leaves -- not exactly the association one wants with Princess Aurora's joyful wedding scene.  Even if the choreography and staging are left untouched, I for one feel it is long past time that the visual look of this production were updated -- no, make that "totally changed".

And I would like to preserve the choreography untouched, because it is nothing short of masterly.  Petipa's reputation as the greatest choreographer of his day rested on firm foundations -- it certainly wasn't just good press agentry!  Nureyev's adaptive solutions are equally strong, and give the ballet a balance between male and female roles that was undoubtedly lacking in the original.  The ballet presents a whole range of high-level challenges to the dancers, with steps often going in the exact opposite direction to where one conventionally might expect.  Sudden stops and turn-on-a-dime moments abound.  And all of the choreography -- all of it, whether Petipa or Nureyev -- is intensely musical, and matched with near-perfection to Tchaikovsky's magnificent score.

For me, the music is the heartbeat of this ballet.  Some ballet scores are eminently forgettable, and many others (especially among modern dance works) use music which has an independent life beyond its use in the dance theatre.  But Tchaikovsky's score for Sleeping Beauty is the epitome of music specifically composed for and ideally suited to the dance.  There is not one single superfluous bar in the entire score.  Ballet Master Lindsay Fischer, in his pre-show talk, referred to Tchaikovsky's music as "this marvellous symphony", and so indeed it is.  Famous prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn once remarked: "Some passages are so light and precise one would think they were produced by hummingbirds' wings."  I heartily second both of those descriptions.

The sheer scope and high quality of every note of the music is the reason why I cringe during a live performance at the spots where either Nureyev or Petipa has seen fit to "rearrange" the music, shifting numbers from one place to another.  Once, just once, I would like to see a choreographer mount a version of Sleeping Beauty using the exact full original score, as composed, with the numbers following on from one to another in their original order.  I say that because Tchaikovsky's score is completely masterful in its use of subtle key changes, contrasts of instrumentation, and shifts of the musical character from one number to the next.  But alas -- probably for all time I shall be forced to cringe.  And then, after each performance, my first impulse will be to run home and put on my recording of the complete, uncut and unaltered original score.

(It could be worse.  In Swan Lake, Petipa actually introduced pieces by other inferior composers as well as butchering Tchaikovsky's original score!)

So, to the performance.  There is no ballet as important as Sleeping Beauty for making us all appreciate what an incredible asset the National Ballet has in its full-time orchestra.  This is not just a question of having bodies in the pit sawing, tooting, or tinkling.  The National Ballet Orchestra is definitely of a quality to stand comparison with the finest opera and ballet orchestras in the world.  And music director David Briskin has the full measure of Tchaikovsky's opulent score from start to finish.

The leading male role of Prince Florimund was danced by Naoya Ebe -- one of three dancers making his debut in the role during this run.  The hallmark of the Nureyev version is the significant number of solos given to the Prince -- and these are famous for their flashy virtuoso character.  Central to the role, though, is his beautiful introspective solo in Act II, conveying his loneliness and dissatisfaction with his present life and his court.  Ebe's technical precision in the high-energy moments is nothing short of breathtaking.  No doubt with more experience of the part he will grow more into the deeper, more emotional side of the character.

Princess Aurora was danced by Jillian Vanstone.  She displayed impressive control in the fiendish slow-motion of the famous Rose Adagio.  More memorable still to me her portrayal of the playful young girl throughout Act I, compounded of equal parts joy and mischief, and plainly shown in every step and every facial expression.  Vanstone equally captured the flowering into womanhood that marks the role in the final act.

The partnership of these two worked wonderfully.  Their grand adagio in the Act III pas de deux was a thing of beauty, and never have I seen the final pose unfold more gently and naturally, coming across for once as an integral part of the dance and not simply as a showstopping gymnastic feat.

Among the other women's roles, I was especially impressed by Hannah Fischer (another role debut) as the Principal Fairy who dances the sixth variation in the Prologue, and by Rui Huang as a notably sassy, smirking Pussycat. 

Stephanie Hutchison and Nan Wang both did fine work in the Diamond Variation in Act III. 

Kota Sato made an impressive role debut as the Bluebird.  Here's another fine dancer that I will look forward to seeing grow into the role with more experience.  Emma Hawes, also making her role debut, partnered him effectively as Princess Florine.

Typically you come away from a performance of Sleeping Beauty thinking of the work of the principal couple, and perhaps of the Bluebird.  I had a different reaction this time.  For once, I'm remembering the show as very much the sum of its parts, set with many excellent performances, but all working together to create the whole artistic world of Petipa/Nureyev/Tchaikovsky in its fullness. 

Friday, 12 June 2015

Death and Resurrection

Amazing how much times have changed in the five decades since I first made the acquaintance of the work featured in this week's Toronto Symphony concerts.

In the mid-1960s, the number of commercial recordings of Mahler's Symphony # 2 could be counted on the fingers of one hand.  The Toronto Symphony Orchestra had not even performed the work yet.  In fact, as far as I could discover, the only performance to have taken place in Toronto by that date had been given by an orchestra and choir assembled for that purpose by conductor Dr. Heinz Unger.

Fast forward to today.  By now the Toronto Symphony has performed this monumental work so often that it almost ranks for frequency alongside Beethoven's Ninth.  Recordings proliferate with such rapidity that it seems scarcely a month goes by without a new release.  A number of conductors have now recorded the work more than once.  Leonard Bernstein, one of the earliest and most passionate American advocates for Mahler, actually managed to lay down three separate recordings, two of them taken in live performances. 

And the title, Resurrection Symphony, is as well known and automatic a label for this work as Choral Symphony is for the Beethoven.

Numerous commentators have tried to explain and justify why interest in Mahler suddenly began booming among musicians and audiences alike in the 1960s (and has not yet abated).  I have no intention of wading into that ongoing discussion.  I simply treasure the opportunity to hear this musical magnificence again in live performance.

For any lover of the Resurrection Symphony, attending a concert performance is essential.  No matter how fine recording technology becomes, not the most sophisticated home sound system can reproduce the actual physical impact of the music heard live.  The moments in the symphony that prove this point are too numerous to mention in anything less than a full-length analysis, so I'm just going to let the statement stand.

Unlike Mahler's preceding First Symphony, this one has no introduction.  It plunges abruptly into the midst of its dramatic course with a vehement opening statement for cellos and basses, laden with terror, that goes rumbling on throughout much of the lengthy first movement.  It's essential for the conductor and orchestra to get the shape of this long, winding theme right because so much of the movement's structural coherence depends on doing so.  The key hairpin sforzandi were perfectly placed, and the shape of that long rolling theme was exactly outlined, setting the stage for all the drama to come. 

The first movement takes the form of a long funeral march, but does have interruptions to the flow as the tempo speeds up in some passages and slows in others.  All these gear changes were handled very smoothly indeed.  If some of the accelerando passages were arguably a little on the fast side, no great harm was done as the overall shape of the movement was not lost.  The final coda, which has been aptly described as a descent into a burial vault, moved with just that kind of deliberation and unwavering slow tread.  Very gripping.

The first time I heard the symphony live, in about 1973 or 1974, an intermission was taken at this point.  Mahler in the score did ask for a pause of "at least five minutes".  This is more usually taken by giving the orchestra a short break to re-tune at this point, and also to have the vocal soloists enter here, as was done in this performance.

With the second movement, the real quality of Oundjian's interpretation began to shine through in earnest.  It's easy to play this symphony loudly.  Far harder is to tune down the sound of the huge Mahlerian orchestra to genuinely quiet tones, even to the musical equivalent of a whisper.  At various key passages from here to the end of the work, that is exactly what Maestro Oundjian and the orchestra truly accomplished.  I admit my memory may be at fault, but I can't recall any earlier Toronto performance in which the sound was slimmed down quite like this.

With that intensely quiet playing comes a real sharpening of concentration by the audience, and the feeling which simply cannot be reproduced in any recorded playback of two thousand people listening with absolutely rapt attention, holding their breath for fear of breaking the spell cast by the players and (later) the singers.  I know this sounds melodramatic, but I can only assure you that the silence was unbroken by any coughing or shuffling of feet.  This quiet intensity becomes absolutely critical in the numerous silent pauses during the long, turbulent finale.

The third movement scherzo continued from the second movement the relaxed, flowing style of the Austrian landler, but added to it was the necessary quotient of sardonic, ironic tone which infuses this movement and fills it with disquiet.  Here is the place where the woodwinds really get highlighted, with their brilliant, brittle lines skirling wildly above the flowing string parts.  The shrillness of those wind lines was as authentic a Mahler sound as one could wish.  Sadly, Oundjian's acceleration to the climax was miscalculated and the orchestra came apart for a moment or two.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Platts is a noted Mahler specialist, and her first entry in the fourth movement song, Urlicht ("Primal Light"), showed exactly why.  Her unaccompanied voice emerged out of the silence at the end of the third movement with exactly the right magical effect, lifting the key half a tone from the C minor of the scherzo to the D flat opening of the song.  Throughout this four-minute miniature tone poem, her sustained tone and sensitive interpretation of the text were exemplary.

Immediately Oundjian launched the orchestra into the long, dramatic finale.  The very opening crash very nearly lifted the roof off the hall but more gripping still were the succeeding quieter passages for the offstage brasses.  Throughout this long, panoramic depiction of the last day of the world, the echoing silences between the louder parts created again that gripping sense of communal participation which enfolds audience and performers in a heightened state of mutual awareness. 

The earthquake which rips open the graves was truly immense and terrible, and (unusually) Oundjian held himself to very nearly the same slow speed for the second eruption (most conductors whip through the repeat as fast as they can).  The march of the dead streaming to judgement roared along with immense, unstoppable energy, the Dies irae plainchant blazing above all the rest.

If there was a moment of disappointment here, it came in the flute solo which contrasts with the final offstage brass fanfares as the last sound from the disappearing earth.  It just came across a little too robustly; I have certainly heard it played with a more tentative, uncertain air, and more quietly too.

From the moment of the choir's first murmured entry, the performance predictably took wings and soared aloft.  If it doesn't, the performers must be incompetent.  But the singers of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir certainly know how to fine down their tone to the very edge of inaudible for the first notes, and what is more to the point, have no trouble getting back to the same dynamic level for the entry of the second verse.  This can't by any means be said of many of the choirs who have recorded the work!  Soprano Erin Wall has a very large, dramatic voice, and I was a little concerned ahead of time, but needlessly.  Her opening notes emerged so gently from the mass of choral sound that I couldn't pinpoint the moment when I first became aware that she was singing.  It was a masterly execution of a difficult effect.

The remainder of the vocal/choral finale was all very well done, and the resplendent conclusion with extra brasses and organ joining in thrilled the audience, as it should and must.  But in retrospect, what I will remember about this concert more than anything is the incredible quietness, the breathtaking hush, the intense absorption of the audience in the symphony's less rhetorical moments.  I think that Mahler, who said that a symphony should encompass the entire world, would have been very pleased by that aspect of this performance.

Shaw Festival 2015 # 1: The Stuff of Eternity

Few characters have been so thoroughly imprinted into the common consciousness of our society as Peter Pan, the boy who never grows old.  Through the original play and book versions of the story, through innumerable stage presentations, through a sizable list of film versions, the story of this character and his dark nemesis, the one-handed pirate Captain Hook, have become one of the cultural foundations of the fine art of growing up for most of us.

Also in common with many other characters in the common consciousness, Peter Pan has become thoroughly wrapped up in the ever-loving grasp of the Disney Corporation.  In 2004, a novel entitled Peter and the Starcatchers (written by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson) was published by Hyperion Books, a subsidiary of Disney.  It led to a whole series of novels, all of which act as "prequels" to the original story created by Sir James Barrie.  The book was optioned for the stage by Disney Theatrical Group, and the stage version was created under the Disney aegis by Rick Elice.  It's on stage now at the Shaw Festival.

"Great" theatre this is not.  It's a gloriously funny, wildly imaginative romp, bursting through the space and time conventions of the theatre all over the map, right from the moment a group of actors walk onto the stage at the outset.  These actors mostly have set roles to play, but each one also takes turns stepping out of character to participate in the narration that carries the story rapidly forward.  In this way, the play covers a great deal of ground in a reasonable time frame.

With only three main exceptions, the characters in this story are all newly-created people with lives of their own.  The play manages to give us a fair bit of back story for many of these new characters.

Right at the outset, I need to comment on the one major problem I had with the show.  None of the adult actors ever succeeded in convincing me that they were children, for more than a few seconds at a time.  Voices, gestures, movements, all were too plainly adult actors playing at being children.  Never having seen the original Peter Pan staged, I can only speculate that the same problem might be encountered in that play.  But I have to also say that this problem certainly can be solved.  As an example, let me mention that I have seen more convincing children created by a group of forty- and fifty-something adults staging a performance of You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Ironically, the two most childlike characters on the stage were actually supposed to be adults:  Jonathan Tan's Smee and Billy Lake's Fighting Prawn.

Aside from this major obstacle, the show is vastly funny.  Kate Besworth gives a spunky performance as Molly, the "Starcatcher" of the title.  She's well partnered by the Boy of Charlie Gallant, who of course acquires the names "Peter" and "Pan" during the course of the play.  Gallant's finest moment was at the opening of Act II when he realized that he was looking for the first time at the sun, and that he was at last free.  His two fellow boy slaves, James Daly as the sulky wannabe leader Prentiss and Andrew Broderick as the eternally ravenous Ted, were both very funny too.

Molly's father, Lord Aster, came across well as a combination of stern man of duty and loving father in Patrick Galligan's interpretation.

One key diversion from Barrie's original story was the substitution of a mythical tribe of people called the "Mollusks" in place of Barrie's "Indians".  As the chief or king of the Mollusks, named Fighting Prawn, Billy Lake had a great repertoire of facial expressions and split second comic timing as well.  His sudden production of a kitchen timer on the remote Mollusk Island was just one of the many bits of comic nuttiness that earned him some big laughs.

Jonathan Tan's Smee was all over the map, in a role that suited this actor's trademark off the wall faces and hyper-fast voice beautifully.

Jenny Wright had two wonderful roles.  As Molly's nanny, Mrs. Bumbrake, she morphed beautifully from prim, proper, starched British nanny to happy, open-hearted sailor's wife.  Her one scene as the mermaid, Teacher, was a memorable combination of brief but effective character development with graceful aerial acrobatics.

Now that I've covered all those characters, it's time to talk about the man who acted them all off the stage: Martin Happer as the pirate Black Stache.  It's a show-stealing part even by the previous standards of Captain Hooks who have stolen the show in virtually every staging and film of Peter Pan ever seen.  Barrie's original imagination of a pirate obsessed with manners and "good form" remains unique, and this play takes the concept and pushes it not just to the limit, but far beyond.  This is not a problem, though, as the entire show is off the wall when judged by conventional theatrical standards.

Happer musters a flexible voice, significant gestures, and a whole roster of facial expressions to create this most original and unusual pirate.  I won't disclose how it happens, but the scene at the climax of the play where he expects to find the treasure and instead loses his hand had the entire audience in an uproar.  Don't think an actor can find ten different ways in succession to say, "Oh, my God!"?  Think again.

Jackie Maxwell's direction of this wild and crazy piece takes it right to the places where it needs to go.  The staging of the crowd scenes is very effective, people moving to all sorts of interesting spots.  Timing throughout is magnificent, the silent moments beautifully balancing the raucous ones.  This company's use of such devices as the hand-held steering wheel and the blue water drapes is also imaginative.  Costuming defined characters very well.  The integration of music, singing, and dancing reached its hysterical climax in the mermaids' song which opens Act II.  I won't say any more -- this one you have to see for yourself to believe.  Most impressive is the clear delivery of the complex intercut recitations of narrative.  If those ever got muddied, the entire story would be lost, but under Maxwell's guiding hand the narrations were all crystal-clear.  And although this can certainly be expected at the Shaw Festival, kudos to the dialect and voice coaches for helping the actors find the nicely understated differences in accent that helped define character without triple-underlining it in bold-faced italic and red ink as some theatres are apt to do.

This brings me back at the end to the script, the place where all plays both start and finish.  This one is very much of our era, and full of throwaway topical references which will likely become dated very quickly.  How well will this piece stand the test of time?  That's an issue of copyright, as I see it.  If the copyright holders insist on strict adherence to the text in future, it's doomed to turn into a museum piece just as the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas did under the stultifying influence of the rigidly authentic D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.  Time will tell.

Meanwhile, though, Peter and the Starcatcher is a funny, glorious rampage of theatre gone wild, and should be a must see for anyone who loves to laugh -- as I always do.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Round and Round the Bedrooms

A couple of years back, Soulpepper Theatre mounted an unusual and hilarious production of the complete trilogy of plays, The Norman Conquests, by British comic writer Alan Ayckbourn (read about it here:  See the Conquering Hero Comes ).  Another of Ayckbourn's unconventionally structured comedies is now on stage at Soulpepper: Bedroom Farce.  It was first staged two years after the 1973 premiere of The Norman Conquests, and compresses the trilogy's perspective of simultaneous scenes in different locations down into a single play.

Despite the title, which is itself a jab at the peculiarly British genre of the bedroom farce, this play is not really farcical.  Like the preceding trilogy, it contains a few farcical elements but plays out more as a dark comedy, a comedy whose characters are at times closer to bleak despair than any other emotional state.

I have seen Bedroom Farce staged twice before, so I thought I was familiar with the play.  But a new realization dawned on me after last night's performance -- something that has been waiting to jump out at me as soon as I was ready to notice it.  Ayckbourn grew up in a family world of broken marriages, and as he grew older he got into relationship difficulties himself, as well as watching friends get into such troubles.  Unquestionably this has influenced his writing to some degree.  I finally noticed that the four men in the play are all, in varying degrees, selfish, self-centred idiots who are completely blind to the needs and feelings of their respective partners.  The women, therefore, tend to emerge as the "victims" of the set-up (with the notable exception of Susannah, but more about her later).  Come to think of it, a similar comment could be made about the male characters in The Norman Conquests.

This play's action involves four different couples, all connected in some way with each other, and the action takes place simultaneously in three of their bedrooms.  Right away, you can guess some of the complex technical and artistic problems this script levies upon theatres which try to stage it.

Set designer Ken MacKenzie has solved the all-important problems of fitting the three bedrooms on one stage very neatly.  The trick he's used is to make the middle bedroom get a little narrower as it moves towards the front of the stage.  In this way he gains enough space to make the two side bedrooms big enough to use hold a bed plus movement space, while still inclining their back walls towards the forward corners of the stage.  The three doors are neatly placed almost adjacent to each other up centre, but so arranged that each one has its own discrete access to the backstage area.  Each bedroom has its own distinctive look and feel, in furnishings, in wall coverings, and in floor coverings.  The walls include some charmingly cockeyed doors and windows.  They might work as perspective from the right height, but I suspect that they were deliberately made to look "off".

Lighting designer Louise Guinand came up with appropriately different lighting for each room, keyed to the hanging or standing light fixtures in each case.  She also did a very neat job of keeping the light locked onto the lines where the floors change from room to room.

As far as I could see, no heads every strayed into adjoining rooms when actors came near those lines.  One or two shoulders may have done, but this was probably unavoidable -- especially in the middle room, which was by far the most cramped (by intention).

The first bedroom we see occupied, down left, belongs to Ernest and Delia, a couple in their middle years.  It has a comfortable middle-class air to it, and is the only one on the set with an ensuite.  That's a requirement of the script in Act II in particular.

Ernest, played by Derek Boyes, is perhaps the blandest character of the lot.  He endures a lot, suffers a lot, and takes it all with good humour until the pressure gets to be too much.  When he does explode, the transformation is memorable, to say the least.  So is the shocked reaction from Delia which makes it plain that this has probably never happened before in all their years of marriage.

Corrine Koslo's Delia is the most stereotypically British comedic character of the entire cast.  That's exactly the way the part is written.  If you think of Patricia Routledge in Keeping Up Appearances, you'll have a very good idea of this character and the way her mind works.  She gets the best of the laughs in the early running because she makes the most breathtaking leaps of subject, object and logic which leave poor Ernest gasping for air.  Koslo delivers all these wonderful lines with turn-on-a-dime comic timing, perfectly deadpan, and in a marvellous voice that's always clear as a bell without shouting.  In fact, I can envisage her perfectly when she's on the phone, as being the person that everyone in the room at the other end of the line can hear word for word.

Their son, Trevor, is at the heart of many of the contortions of the story that unfolds while Ernest and Delia are out for their anniversary dinner in a restaurant.  Trevor, as played by Ron Pederson, has an engaging, open facial expression and vocal manner -- all of which belies the fact that he never really hears a single word anyone addresses to him. 

At one time, Trevor had a relationship with Jan.  The next bedroom we enter, stage right, is the bedroom of Jan and her husband Nick.  Nick has suffered a back injury, is confined to bed, and in this role Alex McCooeye succeeds in being absolutely the most miserable invalid you can imagine.  Aside from the back pain, he's always suffering from his fear that Jan really likes Trevor better and wishes she could get back with Trevor again.  The green-eyed monster rears its ugly head, not for the last time.

Jan, for me, is the most sympathetic character among the three younger couples.  In part, it's because she expends so much good humour in dealing with her cranky husband, but also because Caitlin Driscoll plays the part with a breezy manner and friendly, winning voice. 

Jan leaves Nick, against his wishes, to go to a housewarming party given by Malcolm (Gordon Hecht) and Kate (Katherine Gauthier).  Predictably, disaster strikes because both Trevor and his strange semi-estranged wife Susannah come to the party.

Welcome to the middle bedroom, the home turf of Malcolm and Kate, the narrowest and tightest room on the stage.  These newlyweds carry on like a pair of 10-year-old school kids, hiding things on each other everywhere -- but especially inside the bedcovers and pillows.  Funny at first, it becomes wearing after a couple of minutes, in spite of Hecht's and Gauthier's best efforts.  For me, the length of this scene is one of the few serious miscalculations I've ever found in one of Ayckbourn's plays.

Susannah was magnificently portrayed by Amy Matysio.  It's easy to play this strange woman as "all victim", but Matysio made her much more interesting by swerving wildly from confidence to neurosis to rage, and back again, all in what seemed only seconds.

Since Trevor and Susannah can never be in the same room without fighting, and since their fighting quickly turns into an out-and-out brawl, the party is ruined.  The rest of the night passes in trying to sort out the resulting complications, and in the process everyone does stupid things and makes the whole mess even worse.  By the end of the night, Jan is at wit's end with Nick, Malcolm is sleeping in the car because he's mad at Kate, Trevor is passed out on Jan's sofa, and Susannah is sleeping with Delia while Ernest grumpily has to make do in the guest room.  Did you get all that?

This is where the team spirit of the company really goes into high gear, as it must, to keep these various inane activities from [a] seeming inane and [b] becoming tedious.  This the cast has done by upping the stakes only a little at a time over a very carefully considered curve right from the moment of the fight through to the last minutes of the play when peace uneasily settles over the world the following morning around 10:00, give or take.

All the same, though, the tone isn't really farcical, as I said before, and it would be a mistake to try to make it so.  In order for it to really work as a farce, the entire shenanigan would all have to take place in one house, along one hall of bedrooms, with people madly running from room to room.  But right here is where the tone of the play becomes darkest, as it looks like all four marriages may be on the way to the divorce court.

The final scenes, where everyone and everything finally settles down, were beautifully handled by all concerned.  Each of the characters gave the distinct impression of feeling it safe to relax, just a bit, as the volcanoes of their respective spouses' tempers finally stopped erupting.  This production did a masterly job of winding down the tension, bit by bit, until the final moments of the show.

Director Ted Dykstra deserves a world of credit for pacing this intricate show so carefully, and for creating believable characters out of each of these people, almost all of whom in their different ways make life miserable for those around them.  I also credit him for keeping the overall tone light enough that the audience still felt comfortable laughing at the antics of the company.

A Very Different Mythic Inspiration

Last month, I had my first-ever encounter with the fascinating style of contemporary American playwright Sarah Ruhl with a performance of her play The Clean House given at the Theatre Ontario Festival by Theatre Sarnia (read about it here: Stunning Production of a Truly Unique Play ).  At the detailed adjudication the morning after the show, adjudicator Ron Cameron-Lewis mentioned that Ruhl's play Eurydice would be staged this month at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto.  Well, I was so taken with The Clean House, that I promptly decided to take in Eurydice as well, and that's what triggered my current Soulpepper binge (three plays in two days).

Ruhl's modern revisioning of the ancient Greek myth of love lost, found, and lost again, is told unconventionally from the viewpoint of Eurydice.  But that's not surprising -- there's nothing the least bit conventional about Ruhl's work.  As Paula Wing put it in the programme note, "...she heads straight for the roller coaster. Her plays are complex, exhilarating experiences that call on our deepest emotions."  I had to quote that because I couldn't think of any better way to say it!

Ruhl also takes the ancient story and plonks it down securely in the present day.  This doesn't mean that she includes modern topical references.  It just means that her language is very much of today, and so her characters can be dressed and can behave in a very contemporary way. 

(In passing, I find myself wondering whether theatre artists 100 years from now will still find her work valid -- and if they do, whether they will stage her plays as period pieces or in a way that seems contemporary to them?)

We first meet Michelle Monteith as Eurydice and Gregory Prest as Orpheus.  Their actions, on a sunny day at the beach, are very much those of a modern couple in love.  Their words, on the other hand, lend a distinctly Eve-and-Adam feel to this first scene.  He is piecing out melodies in his mind and tries to sing them to her, but she finds it hard to repeat them.  Prest was especially fine in the moment of disclosing that he had invented music with 12 parts, eager but controlled, as if he were saving all his energy for his creative task.  Eurydice's eagerness is of another kind, the eagerness of a bright-eyed, energetic young woman eager to live in and experience each moment to the fullest.

Monteith's Eurydice is all innocence, wide-eyed and wondering, and so is easily persuaded away from her own wedding reception by a captivating but frightening stranger.  It's a choice that leads to her own death, and the quick shift of the action (still only a few minutes old) to the Underworld, where the rest of the play takes place.

Set designer Lorenzo Savoini has created an Underworld of simplicity.  A gently sloping steel gangway stretches down from stage right to stage left across the back wall.  At the one-third mark along it, a wall panel opens to disclose the elevator on which the newly dead arrive.  At the two-thirds mark there is an oblong glass screen which eventually proves to be a window into darkness.  In front is just a bare stage.  Across the wall are set bright blue fluorescent tube lights, all placed horizontally.  The only other note of colour is the interior of the elevator, which appears glowing red each time it opens.  All else is shades of grey.

Here, Ruhl shares her own particular take on the world of Greek drama.  She uses a chorus, yes -- a chorus of three Stones, played by Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster (Small Stone), Alex McCooeye (Big Stone), and Oyin Oladejo (Loud Stone).  Their slow, maimed entrance across the length of the gangway is a fascinating, stylized procession -- almost like ballet done in hyper-slow motion.  But  finally they seat themselves at the high end, against the back wall.  They do not function like a traditional Greek chorus, commenting on the action.  Rather, they act more like guides and law enforcers to the main characters, reminding them of the "rules" of the Underworld as needed.  Sometimes they sit still for very long periods of time, before suddenly interjecting themselves into the action again.  In one scene, they leave the stage and appear instead behind the window in the wall, watching and speaking from there.

And here, Eurydice meets her dead father, played by Oliver Dennis, and we come to the true heart of Sarah Ruhl's conception.  For Orpheus, the play is the traditional search for a way to find Eurydice and bring her back to life.  For Eurydice, though, the play becomes about her recollection and reconstruction of her relationship with her father. 

(Sarah Ruhl wrote the script after her father became ill with cancer.  It premiered in 1993, and her father died in 1994.)

Here, too, we encounter the most surprising and unconventional tool in Sarah Ruhl's theatrical language -- the use of silence as an element of the drama.  Long periods of time pass with nobody saying a word.  After all, what need is there to hasten speech when you have all of eternity to frame your next thought?

A particular example is the scene where Eurydice has newly arrived, met her father (whom she does not yet remember), and asked him to take her luggage and her to a hotel room.  After she has asked several times, "Where is my room?", her father proceeds with great care to build one for her using long pieces of rope.  These are attached to anchors in the floor, and to hooks hanging from the flies, until an outline of a room emerges in the middle of the stage, complete with door.  All of this is done with an obvious expression of care and love on Dennis' face, and all without a word being spoken. 

I deliberately am not using the word "mime", since it is all done in a realistic fashion, with real ropes, and without any of the conventions of classical mime being used.  It's a key part of Ruhl's theatricality that the most normal things are done in the play in absurd or illogical ways, with a complete air of reality.

It's fascinating to watch the unfolding play of expressions and body language as Monteith's Eurydice gradually re-discovers her relationship with her father, a truly loving one.

Meanwhile, Orpheus is struggling alone on earth with his grief.  From time to time he dashes in, along one or other of the theatre's side walls, tries to communicate with her by various ridiculous means, gives up, and leaves. 

It's fairly late in the play when we are at last introduced to the Lord of the Underworld, played by Stuart Hughes.  He is, of course, the same mysterious stranger who lured Eurydice away to her death, but now instead of a dark tux he's wearing a young child's play clothes and riding a tricycle.  I don't know if this particular touch is specified in the script, but it's of a piece with Ruhl's quasi-absurdist sensibility that she encourages people to "play" within her scripts, in every sense of the word.

And then, the unbelievable happens: Orpheus discovers the musical notes that will unlock the doors of the Underworld.  The Stones quiver in fear, for the first and only time, Orpheus has his brief moment with the Lord of the Underworld, and then he leads Eurydice in slow motion back towards earthly life -- with the catastrophic result taken directly from the ancient myths.  She calls his name, and he looks back. 

Meanwhile, in another long, slow, silent action, her father has dismantled her room, packed up her things in her suitcase, and lain down to sleep -- a kind of second death.  It's the most poignant, heartbreaking moment we've seen yet, but it`s about to be topped.

When Eurydice reappears, the Lord of the Underworld is there to welcome her.  In the key departure from the ancient myth, he comments that she has decided to come back.  She sees her father lying there, tries to recall him to wakefulness, but is told that it's no use.  He dipped himself in the river again and has now totally forgotten everything.  With palpable despair, Monteith cradles Dennis in her arms. 

For anyone who thinks of a play primarily as words, Eurydice is bound to be disappointing.  At the performance I attended, several people left early.  I'm willing to bet that if I asked them why, they would say, "Nothing was happening!"  That couldn't be farther from the truth.  Sarah Ruhl is the type of writer who doesn't come right out and tell you what happens -- she gives hints in her words, clues in her actions, and leaves it up to you to pull it all together and give it meaning and purpose.  I found this play was a fascinating experience, different from any other play I've ever seen, and worlds apart from the wildly comic ethos of The Clean House, in spite of some outward similarities.

This poignant and heartfelt piece demands a thoughtful, sensitive approach which allows enough time for the ideas to unfold, within the performance and within the minds of the audience.  Director Alan Dilworth and the Soulpepper company have done their end of that task beautifully.  I hope I've succeeded in doing mine.

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Mystical, Mysterious and Powerful Drama

I remember hearing about the famed Yiddish/Russian play The Dybbuk when I was young, growing up in a neighbourhood with a sizable Jewish population.  Later on, I read in a book about a powerful production of the play staged by director John Hirsch.  However, the current production at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto marks the first time I have been able to see the play performed.

The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds was originally written, piecemeal, and with much revision, between 1912 and 1919 by S. Ansky.  Sources that I have read have differed about whether the play was originally written in Yiddish and then adapted into Russian, or originally in Russian and then adapted into Yiddish (both of these quite different versions were created by Ansky).  In either case, it has been widely translated and adapted into other languages and continues to hold the stage.  This production uses a new English-language adaptation by Canadian playwright Anton Piatigorsky.

The story takes place in the 1880s at the shtetl of Brinnitz in the Pale of Settlement, the region of Imperial Russia where Jews were permitted to live.  Adaptor Piatigorsky describes Brinnitz, in his program note, as "...a complete universe; it lacks for nothing, but then it's also a prison from which there is no escape."  A strange but undeniably accurate duality.

But then, this is a play which deals in dualities.  Incorporating Ansky's researches into the authentic folklore of the shtetl, it places the Ashkenazim legends of demons and wonder-working rebbes in stark contrast to the rigid Jewish customs of worship and study.  Like many works of art in many cultures, it explores the dangers of communing with the dark powers, while also uncannily suggesting the possibility that a demonic possession may be on the side of the good and the right.  In exploring the morality of the community's customs, the play finally arrives at a solution which is both unique and disquietingly beautiful.

Part of the genius of this production is the way in which, dramatically and scenically, it captures these strange dualities. 

The stage is bare, dark, starkly furnished with a few chairs and tables.  Other pieces appear and disappear as needed, but everything is simple and plain.  This includes the Ark of the Torah which centres the first (synagogue) act.  Dark scrim draperies define spaces while lending an air of misty distance to the scene.  Mist and smoke add evocative atmosphere, as does repeated use of high lighting from above to emphasize facial features.  On occasion, a brilliant flash of full stage lighting underlines a moment of mystical power.

The first act uses large numbers of actors portraying various members of the community.  As the scene progresses, the key characters become clearer.  The uncanny, mysterious Messenger is played with subtlety by Diego Matamoros.  This man's little insinuations and comments are slipped in almost casually from time to time, but he is an undeniable physical presence, his very stillness drawing the eye at key moments.

Colin Palangio gives a strong performance as the young, inquisitive Channon, a man whose studies in the forbidden lore of the Kabbalah open him to the intrusion of the demonic world.  The moment when he dies at the end of Act One, clutching the book of the Kabbalah, was impressively staged, with the black scrim slightly but clearly separating him from the rest of the community.

Alex Poch-Goldin conveyed clearly the mixture of cunning and apparent openness of Sender, the rich merchant.  In the later scenes, his collapse at the revelation of his own folly was equally effective.

Hailey Gillis was most expressive in conveying the unease, the sense of dread at her approaching marriage, of his daughter Leah.  Throughout the second act, the tension built in her unremittingly to the climactic moment when Leah refused to marry, her voice overlain by the amplified voice of the dybbuk, the spirit of Channon which had invaded and occupied her body.

The third act introduced the last key character, Rabbi Azriel.  William Webster gave a beautifully restrained account of this man of God filled with all-too-human doubts, the old scholar saddled with the perhaps-undeserved reputation of being a miracle-worker.  For me, one of the most moving moments of the piece was his long reply when the Messenger asked if he was afraid.  This speech, focusing on the life-and-death responsibility he carries in the situation, could so easily descend into mere melodrama, but Webster's Azriel kept it at a very human, almost conversational level, and was all the more attractive a character for it.  At the same time, he lacked for nothing in vocal power or stage presence when confronting the dybbuk in the climactic rabbinic trial and exorcism.

One of the challenges of the play is the extent to which Channon should be represented onstage during these later scenes of possession.  Director Albert Schultz wisely chose to have Channon stand or sit right with Leah, often holding her, which also simplified the speaking of both voices simultaneously.

The rabbinic trial and appearance of the soul of Nisin was for me the most powerful scene of the play, not least because of the stillness of the characters compared with much of what came before and after it.  The actual exorcism, by contrast, seemed a degree less powerful.  For me, it had much to do with the revelation of the promise Sender and Nisin had exchanged, when young, that their children should marry, and the further revelation that Nisin was Channon's father.  This broken promise in retrospect can be seen as the central mainspring of the drama.

The final scene, though, was the true climax of the entire evening, as the spirit of the exorcised Channon spoke once again to Leah.  It was plain that this entire exchange happened within Leah's mind.  In these last moments, Gillis developed an arc of joy and wonderment in both face and voice that had never been there before throughout the play.  The moment when she chose death so she could be with Channon, her beloved, was heartachingly lovely.  Here, we suddenly realized, was the only way that the dilemma arising out of Sender's negligence could be remedied so that all would be set right and balance and harmony restored again.

The entire play was staged by director Albert Schultz with an appropriately ritualistic feeling, the division of the stage into concentric spaces in every scene highlighting this concept.  Many scenes were arranged with non-speaking characters of one sort or another appearing in the background, behind scrims, engaging in ceremonial activities such as prayers or recitations.  The circling motions of the exorcism scene came as a stark contrast to what had, hitherto, been patterns based on squares, and highlighted the complete departure from the world of everyday which this final ritual represented.

In our modern, rationalist world, it would be all to easy to sneer at the religious beliefs and practices of the people of Brinnitz.  This would be a grave mistake.  In truth, Ansky and Piatigorsky seem to be telling us, we build the world we live in by our words and our actions.  In the end, no matter what beliefs we espouse (if any), we can still set our entire personal world spinning wildly out of control by failing to carry out a promise solemnly made and truly meant.  In a society like ours, where over half of marriages end in divorce (to give only one example), this is a message that desperately needs to be heard.  Perhaps the malicious dybbuk is only a metaphor for whatever dark shadow of selfishness each of us carries within our own self.

At any rate, a huge vote of thanks to Soulpepper and director Albert Schultz for undertaking this challenging and complex play, this multi-layered exploration of the darker sides of our world and of the peoples who inhabit it.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Gripping Mixed Programme of Dance

At one time, the management of the National Ballet was taking its life in its hands by programming a modern dance work.  As a regular subscriber for over 30 years, I found these experimental excursions into modern territory fascinating, but I know many did not -- because any program involving a modern work inevitably saw many, many empty seats that would normally be occupied for more mainstream classical ballet repertoire.

Tempora mutantur.  Last night I was startled to see a nearly full house at the Four Seasons Centre for  a program consisting entirely of works new to the National Ballet's repertoire.  There are a lot of risk factors involved in programming new work, as last night's performance aptly illustrated.  Originally announced last year with the subscription offers was a ballet version of The Tempest choreographed by Alexander Ratmansky.  This was nowhere in sight, and plainly failed to materialize for reasons unknown to me.  But never mind.  The programme we did get was a striking synthesis of many different artistic and intellectual cross-currents, and left me with the definite feeling that all three of these challenging works ought to be staged again.

The evening opened with a nervy, intense, and ultimately engrossing new work choreographed by Guillaume Cote, Being and Nothingness.  The opening sequence, a stark, edgy solo for a woman in a dark room with a single bare light bulb glaring overhead had originally been staged last season (for my comments, see this post: Innovation Both Exciting and Moving ).  The solo was danced by Greta Hodgkinson, for whom it was created.  This expanded version of the ballet continues on through a series of scenes involving different characters, with the woman from the opening ultimately returning to conclude the ballet.  The idea of using dance to comment on the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre is certainly both brave and intriguing, and the resulting work could easily bear those same descriptions. 

The setting too has grown, and now includes a single white-framed window, a single white door, and a small old-fashioned white washbasin with working plumbing -- all standing in the middle of an empty stage with side and back walls of the stage space plainly visible.  The door and the window are movable.  Within this space are a single chair, a carpet, and a utilitarian metal-framed bed.  The overall impression was of a room in an early twentieth-century asylum for the insane. 

Cote's choreography certainly abetted that impression, from the opening solo right through the ballet.  One and all, the "characters" (unnamed) seemed to be trapped in the prison of their self-imposed realities, unable or unwilling to break free.  Movement styles varied widely, from the frantically jerky (opening solo) to the tentative (a woman trying to attract the attention of her partner as he stares blankly out the window) to the robotic (a man shaving, danced with energy by Dylan Tedaldi) and the fluid.  The final sequence, in which Hodgkinson first answered a ringing phone which plainly conveyed a terrible message, and then struggled in vain to convey her distress to her blasé partner, left a haunting imprint in my mind.  After his departure, she was left alone, again executing the contorted figures of her opening solo until at last she blew out the light and darkness fell. 

The dark setting was of a piece with the spiritual darkness and vacancy which seemed to reign supreme in this world.  Definitely thought-provoking and gripping but, like the philosophy which inspired it, depressing to linger over (for me at least).  And some elements seemed frankly inexplicable and out of place.

The piano music of Philip Glass, with its obsessively repeating little melodic figures, was the perfect accompaniment to this nightmare delirium of endless mental and emotional paralysis, and was expertly executed by pianist Edward Connell. 

After the first intermission, we then turned to two of the three ballets contained in Alexei Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy (I have been unable to discover what the third one is).  Ratmansky is a leading internationally famous choreographer who works in a classical style notably mingled with modern influences.  His trilogy of ballets explores the conflicting influences which did so much to shape Shostakovich's music, not only as a composer standing poised between the classical/romantic musical world and the innovations of modern music, but also as a man caught between his own determination to express himself with artistic truth and the contrary (and shifting) demands of the Soviet propaganda machine.  The composer's own responses to these cross-currents results in a curious and sometimes uncomfortable mixture of seriousness, satire, drama, and outright vulgarity.  I feel that Ratmansky is uniquely qualified to take on the task of bringing these multiple colliding currents into visual life on the dance stage.

Certainly, Symphony No. 9 accomplished this task with great success.  This symphony, in five short movements, is one of the composer's more enigmatic works, and resists simple explanation of its meaning or purpose.  The dancers moved across a bare stage in front of a cyclorama backdrop, in plain costumes.  The choreography pitted two couples and two individual dancers against the movements of a corps de ballet.  The dancing of the couples and the soloists was relatively free-wheeling, certainly individual, while the corps displayed either unanimity or (in some cases) sequential imitation of movement.  In the final movements a projection of machine parts, and marchers holding red flags, appeared on the cyclorama.  Although this overtly drew attention to the dictatorial machine ruling the Soviet Union, it also highlighted the relatively mechanistic choreography of the corps de ballet in contrast with the more liberated style of the soloists and couples.  At the conclusion, it was clear that the liberation was at an end -- and perhaps this was the message of Shostakovich's music, which was written quite rapidly during the months after the end of World War Two.

Another intermission, and then came the Piano Concerto No. 1.  This is a lighter work in tone, and lighter weight as well, being scored for a smaller orchestra of strings and solo trumpet.  This time the pieces of machinery were in the form of hanging sculptural red objects.  Costumes too were brighter, with more variety of colour (including leotards and tights coloured grey in front and mauve behind) -- all of which helped to lighten the feel of the work.  In keeping with the music, the cast of dancers is reduced as well.  The bright red leotards worn by the two women of the lead couples here (Svetlana Lunkina and Jillian Vanstone) were obviously calculated to draw our attention to them, although I was not really certain why this mattered so much.  This struck me as very much an ensemble piece, more so than the preceding Symphony No. 9.

Even more than the symphony, this concerto in four brief movements swerves wildly between the jocular and the solemn.  Throughout the first three movements the choreography ebbed and flowed in harmony with the music (a Ratmansky trademark) but in the rapid finale, essentially a march gone berserk, the choreography and the music seemed to me to have parted company.  Aside from that one moment of dissatisfaction, I definitely felt that Ratmansky's work continually illuminated Shostakovich's music, and vice versa.  And I definitely enjoyed all three ballets on this programme, and would be glad to see any of them staged again.

Both the symphony and the concerto were expertly and lovingly performed, with pianist Zhenya Yesmanovich and trumpeter Richard Sandals outstanding in the concerto.

One thing is for certain: Toronto is definitely living through a "golden age" of the music of Shostakovich right now.  In addition to these two ballets, we had last year's Nijinsky which included a complete performance of his Symphony No. 11.  The Toronto Symphony, too, has mounted that symphony several times in recent years, toured with it, and recorded it, as well as performing and recording the Symphony No. 7.  For those of us who enjoy this Russian master's music, it's a great time to be living around Toronto!