Thursday, 29 October 2015

Reliable Laughs

Mrs. Parliament's Night Out
by Norm Foster
directed by Mark Mooney
Presented by Theatre Woodstock

It's not hard to understand just why Norm Foster has become the most phenomenally successful playwright in Canadian theatrical history.  His name on a theatre poster is almost a foolproof guarantee of some good laughs.  He creates memorable characters and juxtaposes them in intriguing situations.  His characters are endearingly familiar to us, yet endlessly varied.  He's not afraid to grapple with difficult situations in life, and his plays almost always seem to have one or two people in them whose stories do not end happily.

From the foregoing, it will be obvious to anyone not already familiar with his work that his plays are full of popular elements, yet resist easy classification.

This particular play can perhaps best be described as a homely comedic riff on the themes of Shirley Valentine.

Mrs. Parliament's Night Out is a fairly recent addition to the Foster canon, having been first staged in 2012.  And I have to say it bluntly: I don't think it's one of his best.  The complex situational comedy of Act 2 can be seen coming a mile away -- in fact, I guessed two plot twists that were going to happen in Act 2 well before they took place.  The performer taking the role of the title character is forced by the script into an unending one-note samba of nervous mannerisms.  A number of characters flirt with the edge of becoming merely stereotypes, and several actually tumble headlong right over that edge. 

The name of the title character seems to set you up for some sort of hidden political message, but if there was one concealed there it remained hidden from my view.  If there's no such message, then why such a choice of a name with very definite layers of meaning permanently attached to it?

Compared to other plays by Foster, this one is unusual in demanding rapid shifts of location at frequent intervals.  I didn't keep count, but there must be several dozen distinct scene shifts during the show, and this requires special attention from all involved in the production.

Director Mark Mooney also designed his own set, and it was both simple and useful in dealing with a multi-scene script like this one.  The stage was set as a box of blacks, with three standing light boxes across the back.  The lights inside these boxes could vary in colour.  Characters could enter and exit from the sides or around the light boxes.  The actors moved simple furniture (such as lightweight patio furniture) on, off, and around the stage.  The one really big mobile set piece was a grocery store produce counter, mounted on wheels to be rolled on and off stage.  The lighting design of Rob Coles worked very effectively to set moods and times for all of the many scenes.  With the help of this simple but versatile design, all parts of the stage were used from time to time.

At the centre of the cast is Elizabeth Durand, in the key role of Teresa Parliament.  Durand captured perfectly the nagging sense of life-passing-me-by in the early scenes, and flung herself with equal abandon into her many new adventures.  The nervousness was well played, and when it did become tiresome that wasn't really Durand's fault (see above).  I particularly enjoyed the way she finally allowed herself to blossom in the long closing scene, making believable what the script (I felt) presented rather lamely.

Don Connolly as her husband Chuck was an equally convincing portrait of a type of man that can be found everywhere.  His single-minded self-absorption was as believable as his desperate flailing about for some solution when he realizes that he's going to lose his wife.

John Hammond gave a warm-hearted portrayal of Steve Blackburn, the man who manages to capture Teresa's attention by giving her true attention first.  With numerous subtle touches of voice and face and gesture, he gave life to his character in an understated but totally effective manner.

Acting as a kind of Greek chorus, outside this triangle but commenting on it, are next door neighbour Carl Lewicki and grocer Alonzo Marx.  Paul Blower's presentation of Carl managed at first to avoid the stereotypical Jewish nosy neighbour that lies waiting in the script, but by the last act he was beginning to sound like any number of Jewish stand-up comics I'd heard when I was young.  In spite of that, he gave a sympathetic portrait of a very lonely man.

David Butcher as the grocer provoked uproarious laughter, talking most believably to invisible customers between his all-important chats with Teresa -- a prize comic role indeed. 

Around these five key personalities appear a whole range of others, many of whom appear for less than a minute: sales clerks, coaches, teachers, drug addicts, wine tasters, a boxer, and the list goes on and on.  There are 15 of these side characters altogether, divided between five different actors.  Kudos to all five -- Vanessa Giulano, Kim Serendiak, Fern Tepperman, Brian Moore, and Eric Terry -- for bringing these wildly varied little comic vignettes to brilliant life.

These short little comical scenes, by the way, are really difficult to bring off in a stage play because of the frequent pauses for changing locations.  Under Mooney's direction, these scene changes were handled very quickly without seeming rushed, so the pace never had time to flag.  Similarly, pacing within scenes was nicely varied without ever becoming lie-down-and-die slow.

Take it all by and large, I found Mrs. Parliament's Night Out to be very well staged, very well acted, and mildly to moderately amusing.  What I missed was the strong sense of humane empathy which I have found in full measure in many of Foster's better plays.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Symphony at Sea

It was a simple, bold programming idea, and somewhat daring with it.  This week the Toronto Symphony Orchestra mated together two major works, both composed in the first decade of the twentieth century, and both using the sea as a theme.

It sounds obvious, and yet it's hard to imagine anyone else pairing the music of Debussy and Vaughan Williams on the same concert.  All the more praise, then, to music director Peter Oundjian for this imaginative and compelling programme concept.

Debussy's La Mer (The Sea), aptly subtitled "Symphonic Sketches", was composed in 1903 and eventually became popular after Debussy himself conducted a performance five years later.  Before that, I'm sure orchestras and conductors alike had trouble with his novel idiom.

Even after more than a century of acquaintance, La Mer can still be a tough nut to crack.  The constant shifts in tone, dynamic and instrumentation add up to a convincing tone portrait of the sea in many different moods, but also contain any number of traps in interpretation -- not least in terms of the careful attention to balance of the various elements which has to happen so that whatever needs to be heard is audible at every turn.

I have to tread carefully here, because I was seated well over to one side of the hall and the sound picture may not be as true as in other locations.  But I did feel there were moments in this performance when balance suffered, when the heavy brasses became too overwhelming in the wrong way or the cellos and violas too quiet.

Certainly Oundjian's performance of La Mer lacked for nothing in energy, spirit, and motion -- and all three are essential.  The best parts overall were the quiet passages where sound seems to shimmer rather than vibrate.  But the buildup to the majestic final coda was also beautifully handled, and here the balance problems certainly did not occur.

Of course, it doesn't help matters that La Mer is not really among my favourite Debussy works!

The new and more detailed program book included a detailed three-page graphic diagram illustrating the ebb and flow and development of the music in a pictorial manner which is new to me.  I look forward to sitting down at home with this and listening to a recording of the music again with these graphics in front of me.

After the intermission, the large, majestic, grand first symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams:  A Sea Symphony, composed between 1903 and 1909, and first performed in 1910.  This 70-minute work for choir, soloists and orchestra is truly symphonic, and a first rate conductor and orchestra are absolutely essential to bring it fully to life.  I've heard it sung before by a fine choir which was let down by the relatively weak contribution of the community orchestra called upon to do the honours.  So, in a very real sense, last night marked the first time I had truly heard either of these fine works.

A Sea Symphony shares with Mahler's mighty Symphony of a Thousand (premiered the following year) the idea of an opening that reaches right out, grabs the audience, and pulls them forcibly into the music's world.  The brass sound a fanfare in B-flat minor, the choir enters unaccompanied on the same chord, and the full orchestra and organ leap in at the choir's fourth note (which happens to be the word "sea") as the key flies upwards to D major.  This opening has to be both pinpoint precise and visionary in its impact.  Oundjian and company launched the lengthy voyage with both those qualities in full measure.

A few minutes in there's a shift of tone as the orchestra launches into a folk-like tune, sounding for all the world like an old sailors' sea-chantey -- although it is an original melody.  Here, baritone Russell Braun had to lead the choir into this rapid song, and then into the succeeding slower passage on "And out of these, a chant for the sailors of all nations".  I felt that he was straining at the notes in these pages, and the uncomfortable edge of the solo contrasted notably with the free and open sound of the chorus.

Soprano Erin Wall made her first entry after a reiteration of the opening fanfare, and her trumpet-like tone fitted the moment perfectly.  One of the things I admire most about Wall is her ability to bring her big sound right down to a single thread of tone while remaining both completely pure and rock-solid in pitch.  This was amply proven at the end of the first movement, when she floated her final pianissimo "Behold the sea itself" with both security and serenity above the murmuring of the choir.

The second movement nocturne, "On the beach at night alone" showed Braun to much greater advantage.  Here, his lieder-like tone was absolutely to the point in the gentle evocation and meditation on "the clef of the universes".  Balance between soloist and choir was impeccable, and the long quiet orchestral postlude beautifully shaped.

The scherzo, "The Waves", had plenty of energy, and the big tempo change for the grand procession of "Where the great vessel sailing" was perfectly managed by Oundjian.  The Mendelssohn Choir are absolutely in their element in such complicated music, the sort of piece that has everyone madly counting beats and rests in their heads when they're learning it!  The power and vigour of the music were perfectly captured, and perhaps only the last inch of joyous abandon was missing as the choir flung the last word, "following," off into space.

The long final movement brought the loveliest singing of the evening, in the quiet choral chanting of "Down from the gardens" and in the long, lyrical duet of the two soloists.  The grand outburst of "O Thou, transcendent" was beautifully shaped and sung loudly, but not too loudly, to leave still some room to grow into the final climax a few moments later.  Braun and Wall again sang as one in the urgent passage of "Reckless, O Soul, exploring."  Here, these two were indeed "carolling free" -- the text exactly describes the quality of their duet.  Then came the soaring climax, with Wall's voice ringing securely out above all else on "Sail forth!", and Oundjian powering through the complex orchestral combination of three major themes, with all of them clearly audible -- a magnificent moment.

I could have wished for a longer breathing space before Oundjian launched into the quiet epilogue, but there's always the danger of false applause! 

That epilogue was masterful, gentle, withdrawing into the infinite distance as the lines of poetry clearly indicate ("O farther, farther, farther sail.").  Once again, soloists and choir floated the high notes gently into the air while the orchestra as gently pieced out the final chords.  Pure magic.

Peter Oundjian has certainly shown his mastery in the music of Vaughan Williams in the past -- even winning kudos from Gramophone magazine for his live recordings of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies -- and this performance of A Sea Symphony fitted right into that line.  If the pairing with La mer was unexpected, it certainly worked well and made for a truly memorable evening of fine music.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Stratford Festival 2015 # 5: The Karma of Greed

I doubt if the word "karma" was known in London in the early 1600s, but in its common use today it perfectly describes the moral lessons contained in Ben Jonson's comedy, The Alchemist.  Every single character in the play, in some way or other, gets roughly pulled up short on account of his or her own greed.  What's truly remarkable is that nobody, and I mean nobody, escapes unscathed.

Alchemy was a pseudo-science which claimed to be able to convert base metals into gold.  While it was a popular belief of the Middle Ages, and the belief still existed in Jonson's day, in practice it was less reliable even than a lottery ticket.  But that didn't stop serious thinkers and con artists alike from claiming that it was possible to achieve this strange goal.

Jonson's play takes as its point of departure an outbreak of the plague, a far-from-uncommon occurrence in medieval cities with their deplorable lack of public sanitation.  Since Lovewit, the master of the house, has shut up his house and left town to escape the plague, his servant Jeremy has joined forces with two other lowlifes -- con man Subtle and prostitute Dol Common -- to lure the gullible into the house and fleece them by a wildly diverse range of deceptive tricks.

Their "customers" run the gamut from an uneducated man trying to operate a shop through a couple of self-righteous Puritans to an egotistical man of means, but one and all fall for the various scams to which these pretenders subject them.  And in the end, the three tricksters each get what's coming to them as well -- and it isn't the proceeds of their con games.

This is an especially tricky play to stage well, perhaps the reason why it's not often produced.  The action becomes increasingly complex as the story unfolds, with the victims coming into the shysters' den in multiples, rather than one by one.  The contortions of trying to keep each gull in play while preventing them from seeing each other suggest a farcical treatment, and that has certainly been done.  But on the other hand, the script is emphatically verbose in a way that's needed in order to give depth to all the characters, and those lines really do have to be heard.  The clear delineation of the characters is essential for us to understand the increasingly contorted twists and turns of the plot in the latter innings.  I picture the script in my mind as being almost a rope with language tugging on one end and action pulling the other end.  Or, as another writer put it, the play actually has to proceed at two different speeds simultaneously. 

Stratford's current production of the play successfully solves most of these difficulties -- but not without getting into some other deadly traps that could easily have been avoided.  Director Antoni Cimolino and assistant director Graham Abbey have captured a good balance between the opposing forces of language and action.  Designer Carolyn M. Smith has created a simple environment defined by a sizable table at one end of the long stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre and a smaller reading desk at the other end, with a couple of branched candelabra to add a bit of height.  Upon these pieces of furniture appears a delicious assortment of beautifully conceived props: an alchemical book, a crystal globe, an orrery, a lantern, an elegant cushion which actually proves to be a hat, and on and on.  It sounds overly busy as described, but actually there is still more than ample room to move around -- and all the space does get put to good use.

That long, narrow arena stage really forces actors to keep moving so that all the audience in turn can see and hear what is happening.  This aspect of the show worked well.

The three con artists anchor the entire show, their convoluted trickeries providing the through line that the entire play runs upon.  Stephen Ouimette plays a gruff, even truculent, and definitely sloppy and slovenly Subtle (the alchemist of the title).  Jonathan Goad gives a multi-personable reading of Face, the trickster who is really Jeremy, the servant in charge of the house.  He appears by turns as several different people, and gives each one a convincing reality.  Brigit Wilson is a raffish Dol Common.  It's a testimony to the strength of her art that, although playing here a character very similar to her Bawd in Pericles, she comes across as a very different sort of person.  The Bawd was very businesslike, rough but brisk, but Dol Common plainly comes from a much lower and rougher-edged stratum of the world's oldest profession.  These three actors clearly capture the uneasy nature of the alliance that binds the unholy trio together in their pursuit of wealth.  The opening quarrel scene might soon be forgotten but whenever they are on stage together there's always an underlying edge of tension between them.

Among the rest of the cast, I especially enjoyed David Collins in the role of Lovewit, when he returns at the end of the play to discover the shenanigans that have been going on in his house.  Antoine Yared came across well as the na├»ve and suggestible Dapper.  Steve Ross is excellent as Drugger, the shopkeeper who desperately wants some extra help to succeed in his business.  Wayne Best is exactly what his character name says he is -- Surly -- and also gives a great performance in both physical and verbal comedy when he reappears disguised as a Spanish nobleman.  Rylan Wilkie roused plenty of hilarity as the young, impetuous Puritan Ananias while Randy Hughson struggled to control him as the older Tribulation.  Jamie Mac had a few good moments as Kastril, the young nobleman who wants to learn how to quarrel effectively, but at other moments his performance did become rather "stagey".

That was even more true of his sister, Widow Pliant (portrayed by Jessica B. Hill).  For whatever reason, this character was turned into a two-dimensional walking cartoon caricature -- certainly not a believable person for me at any rate. 

The other serious miscalculation occurred with the character of Sir Epicure Mammon.  This should rightly be one of the comic gems of the production.  Sadly, here too there was an element of caricature, and it arose from the costume.  It's all very well to suggest that this gentleman of means and leisure has ample wealth -- but was it really necessary to give him an ultra-ample doublet that would have fitted your average grizzly bear with room to spare?  That silly costume forced Scott Wentworth into ridiculous "stagey" business which detracted from his otherwise strong performance.  For anyone who has ever read a delightful book called The Art of Coarse Acting, that was exactly what was happening with Sir Epicure Mammon -- and with the Widow Pliant and Kastril too, come to that.  Actors of this quality do the audience no favour when they reduce their work, or are reduced, to that level.

So, what we had was a funny production of one of theatre's most incisive and surgically precise satires -- a production with many strengths that was sadly let down somewhat in a few key areas. 

No question about it, I laughed -- but there were also times when I found the show a good deal less than funny, and that should certainly not have happened!