Sunday, 22 May 2016

Theatre Ontario Festival # 6: The Art of Re-Re-Reviewing

One of my favourite authors, Helene Hanff, once said that when everyone else was reading ten books she would read one book ten times.  I'm the same.  It's also the way I watch movies!

With the live performing arts, though, things are a little different.  Once a book is published or a movie is released, its form and content are fixed -- unless the creators later decide to issue revised versions, such as second editions or director's cuts.  But live performances, by their very nature, are always different, one from another.  In the professional arts world, remounting a show usually leads to only slight changes in the appearance, sound, and general atmosphere of the production.  

In community theatre, of course, things can become a little -- okay, a lot -- more challenging.  Inevitably, there are actors or sound/lighting operators or (God forbid) a stage manager who can't go on to the Festival because of unexpected work or family commitments, illness, etc.  Therefore, new people have to be brought in and rehearsed.  The show, in any case, may have been put to bed for anything up to six or seven months before the time rolls around for the Festival.  The sizes and shapes of stages, auditoriums, and lighting grids can vary dramatically from place to place.  Sound characteristics of halls also vary dramatically.  The process of restarting rehearsals can lead to new and startling discoveries of what exactly can be teased out of the script to enhance the performances and give depth to the story. 

I first saw 33 Variations during its initial run at the Imperial Theatre in Sarnia.  That was in February, 2016.  A month later I saw it again at the Woodstock Theatre during the WODL Festival.  Two months after that (this week), I viewed the same production for the third time in the theatre of Saint Joseph's - Scollard Hall high school in North Bay, as part of the Theatre Ontario Festival.  What happened during those three months, and how did the play change each time?  And how did my perceptions of the production also shift across those three months?

That's really all I could ask myself when trying to write my review of this third performance, already posted.  It's the other questions and reflections which came afterwards that together form the subject of this rather different article.

It won't come as much of a surprise to any performing artists reading this essay that the play gained strength, with performances developing additional dimensions and added resonances across time.  To be sure, there were visible changes, such as the number and arrangement of the projection screens which did so much to enhance the performance in lieu of more traditional fixed scenery.  There was only one casting change during that time, as the pianist originally appearing in Sarnia had to be replaced in Woodstock.  However, the original pianist returned for the North Bay performance.

I want to take those screens as a starting point for my own experience or journey with this piece.  On each viewing I noticed new details on the screens which hadn't registered with me before.  In a way, this is a good thing, since the projections -- like all good scenery -- are really at their best when communicating to the audiences subconsciously rather than consciously.  It could, of course, also be partly due to the fact that varying stage sizes forced the screen layout to be changed each time, thereby putting the projections into a different spatial relationship with the actors.

But the same was true with the actors themselves.  On each viewing of the piece, there were new details of the action and the text that struck home for the first time with me.  Others, of course, I welcomed like the old friends that they became.  There would be passages that I could almost quote word for word, and passages that seemed entirely new.  In between were the parts which I didn't recall in advance, but which I instantly recognized as soon as the actor began to speak.

This experience of seeing the play three times in three different halls also sharpened my awareness of the spatial and acoustic differences among those three spaces.

More than anything else, this experience has powerfully drawn my attention to just how much depth of meaning and thought underlies the text of this play.  Each time that I have seen the show, I have found connections in new places, and had different thematic "aha" moments.  In particular, this script keeps digging deeper under my skin, leading me to make connections and find those themes in my own life.

I suppose that's no accident because I've been a passionate lover of classical music all my life.  That one fact certainly explains the intense gravitational pull that Moises Kaufman's script exerts on me.  But there's more to it.  Now that I've reached the time of my life when the deaths of those near and dear to me inevitably occur, this play speaks to places deep inside me that simply weren't awake at all twenty or more years ago.

I think my best example of that is my appreciation of the character of Beethoven.  All my life, I have struggled to create -- although in written form, and certainly nowhere near as significantly as that musical titan of all titans.  When he speaks in the play of how he can't decide how to finish his work, I can dimly appreciate his creative fire and the roadblock of his uncertainty after some of my experiences of struggling to find my way from the point where I am in writing a piece to its conclusion.

Next to Beethoven, the character I relate to most is Clara.  Her practice of continually switching from job to job mirrors my frequent switch-ups of the courses I taught in school.  It's also reflected in my lifelong pattern of indulging in a certain type of reading for a while, and then switching to a whole different type for the next span of months or years.  Clara's relationship with her mother is an edgy one and that also mirrors my sometimes-difficult relationship with my father.  Most of all, though, both of us share one shining commonality: it was that difficult parent who introduced both Clara and myself to the wonderful universe of classical music.  Now, there's a gift that keeps giving and giving.

As a social klutz myself, often seeking forgiveness for my sins of commission and omission, I can definitely identify with the similarly-inept Mike in the play too!

These thoughts didn't spring fully formed into my mind the first time I saw the show.  It took three performances for some of these themes and ideas to rise up above my conscious mental horizon.

If this play had come along twenty years earlier, I would certainly have enjoyed it -- but in a much more superficial way, I think.  Certainly, I could never have written this article in this form when I was still in my late thirties or early forties.

My third viewing of this play in particular, as well as a single remark made by adjudicator Mimi Mekler, has triggered off an interesting series of inward reflections.  This blog article really only covers the Coles Notes version.  The entire production has had a huge impact on me on so many levels that I can't even begin to explain yet.  All of which helps to explain, I think, why I began to cry Friday night during the final emotional moments of the show.

This beautiful, heartfelt, thought-provoking play has indeed come as a gift to me in my own personal and inward life.

Theatre Ontario Festival # 5: Who Gets the Hardware?

So the 2016 Theatre Ontario Festival is now history.  The legendary hospitality of the north ran at full stretch all week.  The Festival Committee from the Gateway Theatre Guild headed by Carri Johnson, Kelly Boegel, and Sally MacDonald went out of their way to ensure that we all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.

I don't think I've ever attended a Festival which encompassed such a widely divergent range of writing styles among the competing plays.  For me, this was the most fascinating aspect of the week!

I thoroughly enjoyed all the plays, and if I had to point out the areas for improvement in each one, well, what can I say?  That's what you get when you take a retired high school teacher and let him think he can write arts reviews!

It's been a delightful week all around, and I'm only sorry to have to say goodbye to all my friends as we take the road and head homeward.  This Festival is like a joyous family reunion which we all look forward to each year, especially those of us (and there are some from every region of the province) who are thorough-going Festival groupies.  We are the faithful who turn up every single year, whether we're involved in a competing show or not, just for the sheer joy of the experience in all its aspects!

Without further ado, then, here are the award winners:

[1]  Adjudicator's Award for Outstanding Ensemble
          Tamara Van Bakel, Nicole Wahl, and Shelly Meichenbaum in
          The Drowning Girls, Curtain Club (Richmond Hill)

[2]  Adjudicator's Award for "Cherry on Top" Curtain Call
          Dance sequence in Boeing Boeing, Northumberland Players (Cobourg)

[3]  Adjudicator's Award for Honest Presentation of Taboo Material
          The Company of Curved, Gateway Theatre Guild (North Bay)

[4]  Adjudicator's Award for Theme and Variations coordinated with the cast
          Dan Sonier (pianist) in 33 Variations, Theatre Sarnia

[5]  Adjudicator's Award for The 3 Cs:  Creativity, Commitment and Comedy
          Kristy Bird, Jody Ledgerwood and Anne-Marie Bouthillette as
          The Hostesses in Boeing Boeing, Northumberland Players (Cobourg)

[6]  Outstanding Coordinated Production (this award chosen by the Festival Stage Manager)
          Stage Manager Kaye Torrie in
          Boeing Boeing, Northumberland Players (Cobourg)

[7]  Outstanding Performance by a Female in a Supporting Role
          Andrea Hughes Coleman as "Dr. Gertie Ladenburger" in
          33 Variations, Theatre Sarnia

[8]  Outstanding Performance by a Male in a Supporting Role
          David Hoare as "Bernard" in
          Boeing Boeing, Northumberland Players (Cobourg)

[9]  Outstanding Technical Achievement
          John Willcock (Master Plumber) for
          The Drowning Girls, Curtain Club (Richmond Hill)

[10]  Outstanding Visual Presentation
          The entire design team of
          Boeing Boeing, Northumberland Players (Cobourg)

[11]  Outstanding Performance by a Female
          Audrey Hummelen as "Dr. Katherine Brandt" in
          33 Variations, Theatre Sarnia

[12]  Outstanding Performance by a Male
          Jamie Hunt as "Robert" in
          Boeing Boeing, Northumberland Players (Cobourg)

[13]  Outstanding Director
          Joan Burrows for
          The Drowning Girls, Curtain Club (Richmond Hill)

[14]  The Elsie for Outstanding Festival Production
          Boeing Boeing, Northumberland Players (Cobourg)

And that, as the say, is a wrap.  Well, almost.  I have one more personal reflection on a particular aspect of the Festival experience still to come in my final post for this event.

See you all next year, friends!

Theatre Ontario Festival 2016 # 4: Rub a Dub Dub

This review covers the final show of the four competing shows in this Festival.  There are still two more articles to come in the next day or so.  Watch for them!

The Drowning Girls

Written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson, and Daniela Vlaskalic

Directed by Joan Burrows
Presented by The Curtain Club (Richmond Hill)
Representing ACT-CO (Association of Community Theatres - Central Ontario)

For the second time this week we have a script which digs down deep into the roles women play in society.  The difference is that this play takes us back a century to the early 1900s, and across the ocean to Britain -- not that things would have been noticeably different in Canada at that time.

This script is written in what I could only describe as a "kaleidoscopic" style.  Much of this 70-minute piece proceeds in a type of choral recitation, with bits and pieces of lines chopped up, tossed around, intercut and repeated by the three actors.  By contrast, there are other segments where the characters settle into slightly more extended and more traditional "scenes" for a minute or three.  The divisions between scenes are marked by recitation of sentences from newspaper stories about the historic events which make up the story material.  As a writer myself, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall to observe the process by which three writers created this most unusual script.  

For the only time in this Festival, the audience was greeted by a closed curtain on the stage as we entered the theatre.  The show's name appeared in a gobo with a lovely shimmering-waves pattern on the curtain.

The lights went down, the curtain opened, and as it did so we heard the sound of a harmonium (a parlour organ) playing Nearer, My God, to Thee.  We saw a raised platform, two steps up, running across the stage with a backdrop of black curtains.  Three Victorian bathtubs stood arranged in a neat row, foot ends towards the audience.  There was nothing to give any indication of place, nor of time (apart from the age of the tubs), and it didn't really matter.  Unquestionably the simplest -- and most gruesome -- set of the week.

One by one, the three women emerged from the tubs, each one with a loud scream and gasping for air.  We heard the unmistakable sloshing of water and saw it dripping out of their Victorian bloomers.

Because of the kaleidoscopic style of writing, it takes some time for the full story to emerge and coalesce.   Eventually it becomes clear that the three women we see are three victims of a single man, who has murdered each one by drowning her in the bath -- all in the space of barely two years.  It also becomes clear, or at least did to me, that the three victims are now in some kind of post-death limbo.

This masterly script throws you off balance right from the start.  It begins as it means to go on, as a kind of game between the first two women to emerge.  The three victims each manage to express a wide range of emotions throughout the play about their common husband, their expected place in society, the dead end in which each found herself trapped which made her susceptible to the man's charm.  There's a good deal of bitterness being flung around, but it's so carefully leavened with the black comedy of the play as a whole that you don't necessarily notice at first.  Those angrier or sadder observations slip in under your guard, and then the realization of exactly what society did to these women gradually creeps over you later, after you stop laughing.  Exactly like -- like cold water in a bath.

Each woman in turn gets her featured scenes in which she tells the key elements of her story.  In those scenes, one of the other two briefly becomes another character.  For instance, Margaret briefly plays Alice's mother, while -- in one of the most outrageous vignettes of the play -- Bessie later becomes Margaret's doctor.  These scenes also contained the most over-the-top part of the whole play, and one of two aspects which I found disconcerting.  In both the cases I mentioned, the actor who was assuming a different character also took on a ridiculously exaggerated voice as the new character.  Margaret's voice as "Mother" was tremulous, but deep pitched -- an odd contrast.  Bessie's voice as the "Doctor" sounded like a cartoon character getting ready to bellow "Fee, fie, fo, fum!"  And indeed she did bellow sharply at Margaret a couple of times.  In both cases, exaggerated physicality matched the exaggerated voice.  It was cute in a cartoonish sort of way, but quickly became tedious.

The other element which began to seem repetitive and unmotivated was the frequent climbing in and out of bathtubs.  I recognized that it marked scene divisions, but wondered if it needed to be done in this way quite so often.

As the play moved towards its inevitable and tragic end, Margaret did have one more scene as "Mother", a far less jokey scene in which she realizes after reading the papers that the same man has claimed more than one victim, and resolves to call Scotland Yard.  The headline reading resumes, leading up to the point where the three women chorally recite the death sentence on their murderer.

There are also ensemble scenes.  One most remarkable one involved all three women dancing with an unseen partner -- who was of course the same partner.  Since the three are of three quite different heights, they hold their arms around the unseen man in three different positions -- just another example of the attention to detail brought to the show by the actors and their director, Joan Burrows.

Speaking of detail, the set had one spectacular surprise for us -- some distance into the piece -- when three practical showerheads hanging above the tubs suddenly came on and gently poured water down upon the drowning girls.  The first time it happened, I thought it might be simply a projection because the stage was covered with a richly-coloured light wash at the moment.  (In such a large theatre, I was seated far enough back that I couldn't hear the running water!)  But when it next happened in full light the flow of water from the showerheads was unmistakably real.  I doubt if most people in the audience even registered the presence of the showerheads before their first "appearance" as part of the action.  As adjudicator Mimi Mekler dryly observed afterwards, how often do you see a show whose list of credits includes a Master Plumber?

By now, you are probably wondering when I'm going to speak to the work of the individual actors involved.  It's hard to do, because the show as a whole is so beautifully balanced, and the ensemble work is so critical to the success of the play.  The three made a first-rate ensemble, and singling one out for praise over the others would be both unnecessary and untruthful.

Tamara Van Bakel as Bessie, Nicole Wahl as Alice, Shelly Meichenbaum as Margaret -- all three were superb,  Van Bakel brought great energy to her portrayal of the doctor.  Wahl was a thorough spitfire in the scene where she confronted her mother, the anger more effective as she flung defiance at the much taller figure of Meichenbaum.  And Meichenbaum herself captured most effectively the loneliness which made her an ideal victim, and the fear and unease as her husband rushed her through the business of going to a doctor, making a will, and handing him her money (Margaret was the last and swiftest of the three murders, her husband killing her when they had been married for one day).

One of the more gruesome details of the murder stories was the fact that, after each killing, the husband went down to the harmonium in the parlour and played.  Of course -- Nearer, My God to Thee,  (This was just before the sinking of the Titanic gave rise to a legend about that hymn which has grown legs of its own, even in James Cameron's otherwise impeccably researched film).  The three women first sing it in the middle of the play, again in an exaggerated cartoonish manner which is especially memorable for Margaret's horribly tone-deaf singing that manages to wander through every key of the harmonic universe in 3.2 seconds, a feat I would have thought impossible.

But then at the end, they joined in the hymn again -- simply, beautifully, in lovely and well-balanced three-part harmony.  A symbol, perhaps, of order restored with the execution of Mr. Murderer?  I don't know.  But to me it was a symbol of hope: the hope that these three women found peace in death, and that changing times may help to ensure that no one else ever suffers their fate.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Theatre Ontario Festival 2016 # 3: The Variations Strike Again!

This review covers the third performance in this year's Theatre Ontario Festival, held in North Bay, Ontario.  Each play gets a short public adjudication from the stage and a longer, more detailed adjudication the next morning, from this year's adjudicator, Mimi Mekler.  Just an FYI note: I do not attend the detailed adjudications unless I have my review more-or-less finalized before that time.

33 Variations
Written by Moises Kaufman
Directed by Henri Canino
Presented by Theatre Sarnia
Representing WODL (Western Ontario Drama League)

With this performance, I am setting myself a near-impossible task.  How in heaven's name am I supposed to come up with anything new to say about this show, which I have already seen twice and reviewed twice????

Links to previous reviews:  

Sarnia performance, February 2016:  Variations on the Theme of Life

WODL Festival performance, March 2016:  WODL Festival 2016 # 5: Powerful Variations

Ah, well, try we must.  Succeed we shall!

With each successive viewing I become more conscious of what a remarkable play this is.  Unique in structure, unique in subject matter, and uniquely humane and gently honest in probing some very deep, murky, and challenging themes.  While plainly dealing with the act of artistic and scholarly creation, and the fate of people trapped by illnesses which set a term to their creative lives, it also invites all of us to contemplate and think deeply and inwardly about our own mortality, about our own deep compulsions, about our own scales of value.  The play charts the shifting dynamics of family relations and friendships, and in the end registers as a strong plea for more self-awareness as a prerequisite to more closeness with those around us.

In previous reviews I've gone far more into the nuts and bolts of the production.  Here I need to add only a few observations about the performance I saw this week.

A casting note: pianist Dan Sonier, who played for the original run in Sarnia, was unable to take part in the WODL Festival performance in March.  However, he appeared again in this performance.  It was the first time I ever registered the way in which he maintained his stillness and impassivity even when one character or another plumped down on the piano bench right beside him.  That's only one of several ways that this production plays fast and loose with conventional notions of time -- a breach of convention which itself becomes one of the most rewarding conventions of this show.  His playing was as excellent as ever.

I still feel that the writing in the early scenes between Mike and Clara is the great weak link of the script, but Clare Ross and Darryl Heater came closer than ever before to making their characters believably human in those scenes.

Ross also gained notably in dimension and power in her later scenes in the second act.  Consider her final moment, where she closed the book gently and then said, "And that's all."  Somehow she touched a vein of deeper truth here than ever before, and she brought the tears to my eyes.

That was also true of Audrey Hummelen in the central role of Dr. Katherine Brandt.  The scene of the x-ray scan in Act 1 ended with her sobbing in pain on the examining table.  It was a powerful scene each time, but on this occasion she found an additional depth of desolation and loneliness that was truly heartbreaking.

While all of the cast were as fine as ever, Andrea Hughes Coleman went farther and deeper than on two previous occasions as Dr. Gertie Ladenburger, the archivist.  I'd never been so aware that this woman, no less than Katherine or Clara, has to take a challenging emotional journey throughout the play.  Her proud exit after Katherine called her a "kind acquaintance" was more intense, more devastated and devastating than ever before.

It's been a real privilege to be able to see this fine performance of a remarkable script on three different occasions.  Thank you again to director Henri Canino and company for sharing this intense and thought-provoking experience with us.

Theatre Ontario Festival 2016 # 2: When Love Was Blue and Jets Were New

This review covers the second show of this year's Festival.  The four shows, winners of their respective regional competitions, are now entered for this province-wide event.

Boeing Boeing
Written by Marc Camoletti
Translated by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans
Directed by James Finan
Presented by the Northumberland Players (Cobourg)
Representing EODL (Eastern Ontario Drama League)

While comic plays with farcical elements are common enough at Festivals, it's a little less usual to see a performance of a show that can truly be called a "farce".  Boeing Boeing can certainly be called a farce, and the author plainly stands in the honourable French tradition exemplified by the classic farces of Feydeau.  Many of Feydeau's favourite elements are there: the sexual shenanigans, the multiple doors, the grumpy servant, the man desperately clinging to his sang-froid as his reputation flies out the window, and the lovable klutz who ends up getting the girl (well, one of the girls, anyway).

Once again, as so often before, I'm reminded of John Mortimer's classic description that farce is tragedy played at 130 revolutions per minute.

As some people will recall from the 1965 film starring Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis, the story revolves around one horrible day in the life of Bernard: an American playboy in Paris who is simultaneously engaged to three different air hostesses from three different airlines.  The play takes place entirely in the living room of Bernard's Paris apartment.  That's all you need to know, and the farcical possibilities immediately begin to write themselves in your head.

There's no question in my mind that the Northumberland Players under director James Finan have staged a tight, coordinated production with full understanding of the possibilities inherent in the material.  The special genius of this performance is the quality of their added comic schtick which is  not described in the script.  The best farce plays leave plenty of room for the director and performers to build in their own special touches.

This play is very definitely a period piece.  It gets tilted that way by the fact that the first of the three air hostesses we meet works for TWA (Trans World Airlines), an American company that has been gone now lo these many years (so has Pan Am, which also gets mentioned in passing!).  But the real period reference that no producing company can duck around is the fact that all three hostesses mention that they are shortly transferring to the new jet airliners.  

(I'll diverge here for a moment because -- after almost 70 years of regular jet flights -- most people have no idea what a huge difference that little fact could make to Bernard's carefully-plotted and complex scheme.  Put it simply.  Overnight, the flight time from New York to Paris was slashed from 14 hours with one stop to 6.5 hours with no stops.  All other major overseas routes were similarly and dramatically shortened.  Even Bernard fails to grasp the full significance of this new development, obvious from the fact that he still thinks he'll be able to keep himself in the air, as it were.)

The Finan team of director/set designer James and costume designer/constructor Jamie totally captured the look of the period.  The primary red, yellow and blue uniforms of the three hostesses were not accurate reproductions but definitely appropriate in style with the tightly fitted blazers and short, slit skirts.  So was the maid's frilly apron and cap.  Robert's dorky, ugly sweater was perhaps not period-accurate but certainly suited the character.  

The apartment was painted overall in a gentle light grey, with white trim.  Glistening white leather furniture (and a blazing red heart-shaped cushion) provided seating areas, and more.  A flashy Pop Art piece, a spectacularly creepy mirror, and a desk with a pop-out secret compartment were all useful additions.  So was the big capital letter G on the wall (the initial of all three girls' names) and the picture frame on the table with pictures of all three hostesses stacked inside it. Best of all were the brilliantly coloured doors:  yellow downstage right to the principal bedroom, pink upstage right with a circular silver porthole to the kitchen, white french doors up centre to the hall, a green door up centre left to the bathroom, a red door up left to the small bedroom, and finally a blue door down left to the middling-nice bedroom.

Adjudicator Mimi Mekler reminded us of Ken Ludwig's dictum on farce: whether you have $500 or $50,000 dollars, spend it on the doors!  All doors shut firmly, with a satisfying clunk, and no walls quivered -- the ideal effect wanted.

A quick run-through who's who in the cast, because I really want to focus this time on some of my favourite moments in this zany farce.

Kristy Bird was crisp, efficient, and sexy-without-sensual as Gloria, the TWA hostess.  David Hoare was (at first) a suave, smooth operator as Bernard -- gradually unravelling at the seams into Act II and finally coming completely apart in Act III.  It was the classic Greek tragic fate of the man brought low by his own hubris -- and played, as it has to be, at 130 revolutions per minute!   Jamie Hunt played a whole raft of delicious caricatures as Bernard's dorky school chum, Robert.  Jody Ledgerwood provided sensuality to burn as the Italian hostess Gabriella, mingled with turn-on-a-dime switches to anger.  Anne-Marie Bouthillette created a different kind of character again as Gretchen from Germany, mixing sex and practicality with kisses and pouts.  About that pout: combined with her dark hair and eyes, and with a tightly bobbed hair style, her tight costume gave her a distinct look of Betty Boop, a look which actually served her character very well.

No, I did not forget someone, because for me the maid, Berthe, played by Helen Pitt Matthew, was the outstanding performer of the show.  Never over the top, but just one notch away from it, her comic schtick was always perfectly judged.  So was her timing.  Her accent was the most believable, and her words -- although rapid in places -- were always completely audible thanks to her superb diction.  It was her expressive face and body language that sealed the deal.  Every look, every gesture seemed to generate laughs from the audience -- and who was I to disagree?  I laughed heartily too!

Favourite moments.  Oh, my -- where to begin?

The incredulous look on Robert's face as he sees Bernard getting liberally smooched -- and more -- by Gabriella.

The look on Bernard's face each time one of his fiancees tells him that she will be transferred to the jets and so be able to spend much more time with him.

Berthe's perfectly timed "Frankfurters... and sauerkraut!" on being told that Gretchen will be coming to dinner that night.

The hilarious kiss when Robert gets surprise-attacked from behind his newspaper by -- I think -- Gabriella.  Sometimes it's hard to remember which hostess did what to whom and when.

Gretchen's ecstatic ode to her loneliness as she "soothes" herself on the couch with the heart shaped pillow underneath her.  (If you can picture this, great!  If not, better not ask.)

Bernard and Robert attempting to persuade each girl in succession to go away for a nice night in the country at St-Germain-en-Laye (which probably isn't even in the country any more today!).

The perfectly timed curtain line of Act II:  Berthe filling the glasses, and telling Robert to "Drink up!" because it's going to be a rough night (it already is, of course).

Robert's repeated shenanigans as he rapidly switches the photos in the frame, again and again.

The gradual degrees by which Gretchen allows herself to fall in love with Robert.

The fight scene between Robert and Bernard, uniquely staged behind the couch with heads, feet, etc., popping periodically into view at some rather odd angles.

Robert's repeated and carefully graduated pronouncements that "Nothing is impossible."

The look on Bernard's face, after successfully calming down Gretchen and Gabriella when he suddenly realizes he's forgotten about Gloria in the small bedroom.

There are so many, many more moments in the show that I could mention, and I'm sure every person in the audience could list their own personal favourites.  We all had a delightful evening -- we laughed ourselves silly from start to finish.  Full marks to the Northumberland Players for a sharp, tight, polished presentation of a classic farce, a genre that is always much tougher than it seems at first blush.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Theatre Ontario Festival 2016 # 1: Living Life on the Edge of the Curve

It's that time of year again, as the "best of the best" in Ontario community theatre assemble in North Bay to present their work in a 5-day event which is part festival, part symposium, part seminar, part competition, part family reunion, and all exciting.

Today's review takes in the first of four entries.

Written by Kristin Shepherd
Directed by Maureen Cassidy
Presented by the Gateway Theatre Guild
Representing QUONTA Drama Region (Northeastern Ontario)

There's always a special anticipation to seeing an original work presented in a festival.  For me, this was enhanced by hearing advance buzz about Canadian playwright Kristin Shepherd's new piece, Curved.  The comments from people who saw the show previously really intrigued me, because they ranged right across the gamut from the most extreme of positives to the most extreme of negatives.  Not only that, but most of the comments I heard addressed the script rather than the performance -- a sure sign of a provocative piece of writing.

What I did not do was to read the extensive notes about the show given in the programme.  I have always felt that any work in the performing arts (with very rare exceptions), in order to be a good and strong piece, has to explain itself clearly to the audience on its own terms without external verbal supports.  I look forward to reading those notes after I finish writing this article.

The set designed by Arndt von Holtzendorff presented an unusual collection of visual elements which kept suggesting new and different images in my mind throughout the preshow period.  A multi-tiered riser covered most of the stage.  Roughly semi-circular, its edges moved in a series of gently scalloped curves around the space.  The base colour of beige was highlighted with a series of decorations in magenta which hinted at swooping draperies of cloth.  Alternately, the whole colour scheme could have represented a multi-tiered cake.  A series of six poles across the back carried upright oval shapes which suggested egg beaters or alternately wind turbines.  Gentle ramps, painted in magenta, led up to the lowest tier, and a larger ramp crossed the back stage, sloping up to the highest level at centre stage and back down again.  The whole assemblage also looked to me uncannily like an old-time carnival ride.

(I was somewhat amused when adjudicator Mimi Mekler explained after the show her take that the colours represented flesh and blood and the upright ovals represented "volvos" in the word used by character Wavy -- that is, "vulvas".  Of course, Mekler had the distinct advantage of having thoroughly read and analyzed the script in advance as part of her preparation.  I try to avoid advance familiarity with the show whenever I can, as a way of putting myself into the position of "audience" as much as possible).

Across the front of the stage, three stand microphones clearly prepared us for something resembling stand-up comedy -- or perhaps a lecture.

A gentle background pre-show soundscape was difficult to hear over the buzz of conversation in the theatre, but could have been rain falling or the sound of sticks rattling.

The show opened with a series of long monologues.  The actors all did a good job of simply "being" in the moment.  In this case, it meant that each one was talking to us, giving disconnected bits of information, reaction, emotion, and the like, which in time would go to help us build up a total mental picture of the whole person.  What they were doing was solid and whole and convincing.  The one difficulty I had was with Del (Tanya Webb) whose first appearances consisted of walking across the stage behind the others, tossing out a single tart comment directed at one or more of them, and then walking off.  In that opening sequence she began by acting as a kind of Greek chorus, while her relationship and role in the lives of the others was still hidden from us.  For me, this was a source of confusion and unclearness: who was this woman, and how did she relate to the others?

The key and memorable moment came when Del was herself addressing the audience and -- with a wholly appropriate blend of irony and menace -- asked, "You want plot?"  With a snap, the stand-up black comedy of the opening sequence was over and we were plunged into the world of the play.

In a play which is so much an ensemble piece, it would be invidious to single out one performer or another as the "lead".  All played a critical part.  In a very real sense, the five women related by ties of blood or love or concern are like five different blends of characteristics which might go together to make an ideal or "perfect" person -- a being which, of course, has no existence in our reality.  Thus, you have the sensuousness and love of Granny Wave, the business head of Estelle, the playful energy and positive vibe of Wavy, the dark-shadowed self-reflection and self-loathing of Del, and the devil-may-care Carpe diem of Chloe.

Throughout the piece, these vivid and believable characters gave us a whole series of "aha" moments in which we clearly recognized ourselves, or others known to us.  For me the mainspring of the entire piece became the relationship between Granny Wave and her eleven-year-old granddaughter Wavy.

Wavy herself (played by Patsy McVicars) was the source of much of the comedy because of the overflowing energy which she brought to her role -- exemplified by her energetic pushing of her tricycle up and down ramps and around the stage.  That energy reached its highest peak -- carefully prepared -- in the final scenes.  McVicars gave a great sense of joy in life to this precocious child-woman, all knowledge but little experience.

At the other end of the life cycle stood Granny Wave (June Keevil), handing on her accumulated wisdom of a lifetime  to her granddaughter as a gift of love.  The emotional bond between them was palpable in all their scenes together in Act 1, a beautiful stage relationship.  In Act 2, after her stroke, Keevil's performance took on an even more remarkable realism, mingling love, terror, anger, and resignation in equal measures.

Outside their charmed circle stood the middle woman of the three, Wavy's mother and Granny Wave's daughter -- Del.  Abrupt, sarcastic, bitter, filled with self-hate and drugs, Del definitely sucked up the shadow side of both her mother and her daughter.

As Chloe, who assists both Del and Wavy, Johanna McPherson walked with an up-yours posture and strut that telegraphed her stance on life as strongly as her stance on the stage.  Here was another character with truthful emotions leaking out at unexpected moments, and all the more moving for that.

Joanne Bernier was magnificent as Estelle, the flower shop owner who was Granny Wave's lover long ago.  Brusque, organized, all business, she still let her emotions peer out through the cracks (no more than cracks) in her armour.  Her scenes in her flower shop with Wavy were among the most telling of the entire piece, her love and regret and fear and loathing all conspiring to drive her forward while still pulling her back.

Stephanie Haines in the small role of the nurse at the Des Peres home, gave us a great deal of insight into her in a small period of time on stage.

The play rose to a moving, terrible, loving climax as Wavy at last got to see her beloved Granny Wave again.  At first shocked, crying out, "No!  That isn't my Granny!," she then begins to listen more carefully to the remains of that dear voice.  At last she does what has to be done to allow Granny to pass away.  It sounds tragic when put like that, but the feeling I was left with was quite the opposite.  It was living, enhancing, fulfillment.  Even the (apparent) death of Del at the same moment was an equally important part of what needed to happen.

I want to return, in conclusion, to my opening comments about an original script and about programme notes.  There are several respects in which I felt that Shepherd's script, beautiful and powerful as it is, creates undue difficulties for the audience.

The first act in particular keeps the audience scrambling in the dark for a long time, before the relationships among the characters begin to truly appear.  A little mystery in these matters is a good thing, but too much can become merely annoying.  Somebody once said that the ideal course is to stay half-a-step to one step ahead of your audience -- but no more than that.  I felt that for the first half-hour or so the play was several metres too far out in front of us.

The fragmentary way in which we are introduced to the characters and their lives is a valid choice from the author.  The one aspect which took a long time to come clear for me was the relationship between Wavy and Granny Wave.  Without having read the programme notes, I didn't realize that an adult performer was playing an 11-year-old child.  Instead, I believed for quite a while that Wavy was in fact an adult woman with developmental difficulties and that Granny Wave was an imaginary figure in her mind -- largely because, in her story-telling, Granny asks for and/or accepts correction on details from Wavy.

Those long stand-up monologues.  Unconventional, of course, and none the worse for that.  However, I felt that the opening monologue sequences were simply too long.  Before those monologues end, and not knowing what is to come or who any of these people are, it begins to seem more like a public lecture or recitation than an actual play.  The key difference: a lecture or recitation neither invites nor demands audience involvement in what is happening.  Theatre does.  Those lengthy monologues began to seem like Brechtian distancing pushed to the nth degree and beyond.  I know that I was in danger of checking out of the play, and I suspect that some of the negative comments I heard came from people who in fact had checked out because of the length of this portion of the show.

Note that all of these difficulties were in the front end of the work, in what is conventionally called the "exposition".  Once the stories really began to grow and evolve in front of our eyes, the piece remained totally engrossing and grew in emotional and dramatic power.

Gateway Theatre Guild and director Maureen Cassidy have certainly served us well by bringing such an unconventional, vivid, involving play into the Festival.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Political and Artistic Knockout Punch

Shostakovich's fifteen symphonies have become something of a house specialty for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in recent years.  Although some have not yet appeared on the programmes, I'd certainly highlight the word "yet".  After seeing that the 8th and 13th Symphonies were placed less than a month apart this spring, I strongly suspect that Maestro Peter Oundjian is working through a plan to introduce all fifteen to Toronto audiences.  More power to him, say I!

And more power was precisely what we got on Friday with the orchestra's performance of the song-symphony # 13, a work of rare and biting political intent concealed thinly by more historical and satirical preoccupations.

I'll be writing in more detail about this music at a future date to be determined in my rare music blog, Off the Beaten Staff.  In the meantime, though, here are my thoughts about the live performance.

I'll deal first with the work which in more modern showbiz parlance would be called "the opener", although Mozart is certainly very much more than a mere also-ran!  His fifth violin concerto is often referred to as the "Turkish concerto" because one episode in the lengthy rondo finale launches dramatically into the rhythmic sounds colloquially known in central Europe as "Turkish music" at the time the concerto was written.

Soloist Julian Rachlin joined the orchestra under guest conductor Andrey Boreyko for this concerto.  The body of orchestral strings was fairly sizable for Mozart, but not so much as to unbalance the work as a whole.  The orchestral opening, presenting two major themes, was marked by the sharpest dynamic contrasts -- apt, of course, since the score calls for snap changes from forte to piano and back again.  But I felt Boreyko overplayed his hand a bit, snapping from fortissimo to pianissimo and return, a little too Romantic in scale for Mozart although undoubtedly exciting.  

Rachlin's first entry in the sweet, lyrical, and totally unexpected adagio interlude was all one could wish, and from that point on the partnership of solo and orchestra proceeded on much more Mozartian lines.  Rachlin's cadenza again developed a Romantic fervour which seemed at odds with the much more straight-forward playing of the final coda.

The slower second movement and the brisk (but not over-brisk) Rondo finale were both delightful.  The famous (or infamous) A minor "Turkish" episode in the Rondo was given crisply, without undue exaggeration of tempo, but with an air of fierce savagery which created a huge contrast with the main Rondo theme before and after.  This was due not least to the very emphatic col legno (played with the wood of the bow instead of the bow hair) of the cellos and double basses.  The final little trill of the main Rondo theme vanished into the air at the end with a nod and a wink, exactly as it should.

And now for the Shostakovich.  Before going on to discuss the actual performance, I have a bone to pick with the management.  Including the complete text in both Russian and English in the programme booklet was desirable, as always with a vocal work, but putting the original language only in the Cyrillic alphabet made it useless to anyone who doesn't read that script.  The poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko together create an outline portrait of the effects of tyranny in the Soviet Union.

Musicologists disagree as to whether this work is a true symphony or rather a song-cycle accompanied by orchestra.  I can't imagine why.  Friday night's performance had a weight and power that were truly symphonic in scope, as indeed is the score as a whole.  Full credit goes for this to the performers under Boreyko's inspired direction, bass soloist Petr Migunov (making his Toronto Symphony debut) and the choral basses of the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers.  Yes, you did read that correctly -- only bass voices.  The darkness of sound is most certainly no accident -- and it's not just because Russia is replete with good bass singers!  Shostakovich wrote the work during the same time that he prepared new performing editions of several of Mussorgsky's vocal works, and there's no question that Mussorgsky -- particularly the Mussorgsky of Boris Godunov -- sprang to my mind in several passages of this performance.  

The lengthy first movement -- "Babi Yar" -- set the scale through the tension generated by Boreyko in the funereal introduction, with its slow moving chords and gentle tolling of a single bell.  The long monotone "recitations" by soloist and chorus were sung with genuine tension in spite of the quietness of much of the music; the loud eruptions of sound then created a shocking contrast.  As the poet describes the massacre of Babi Yar, he imagines himself in turn in the Old Testament captivity in Egypt, as Alfred Dreyfus unjustly condemned to penal servitude, as a child during a nineteenth century pogrom, and as Anne Frank.  Here above all was the place where a transliterated Russian text could have been really helpful.  What was clear was that the singers and players alike were strongly characterizing the different contrasting sections.  Throughout, Boreyko sustained that tension in a clear line stretching right to the final stroke of the remorseless funeral bell.

Note:  For political reasons, Yevtushenko was forced 
to rewrite parts of "Babi Yar" after the 
symphony's premiere, and the rewritten lines 
were then fitted into the work.  
However, this performance used the work's original text.

The sardonic second-movement scherzo, "Humour", brought relief as the soloist adopted a mocking facial expression which aptly mirrored the words -- a poem about how humour can't be bought or silenced but will always outlast anyone who tries to defeat it, including tsars, kings, and emperors.  Migunov adeptly managed the various abrupt turns and leaps which now appeared in the vocal line.

The third movement sets a poem entitled "At the Store", a portrait of tired women in shawls, clutching handfuls of hard-earned cash, and lining up to purchase whatever is available that day.  Here the orchestra took on an a appropriately grey, almost monochromatic sound, differences in tone colour studiously avoided.  Sympathy for the women was evoked by the more human, melodic sounds now coming from the singers, and above all by the concluding cadence, the one and only spot in the entire symphony where the chorus divides into harmonized parts.

The fourth movement begins with the line "Fears are dying out in Russia", but every bar of the music undermines this apparent certainty with tonal ambiguity, with dramatic contrasts, with sudden explosions of sound and as sudden collapses into monotone quiet and unease.  Here above all Boreyko had the measure of what could easily become a bitty, disconnected mess, and the entire movement built inevitably to the final bars.

The programme note writer referred to the last movement ("A Career") as a "quasi-hopeful" elevation of morality, but the music plainly gives the lie to that idea.  Although it begins with a sunny duet between two flutes (beautifully played), this quickly becomes another one of Shostakovich's ironic, mordant scherzando pieces and Migunov made that abundantly clear in his tone of voice, and his biting enunciation of the text.   The tuba solo here was finely played, and the rude shrieks from the trumpets were all you could ask -- although certainly not "good" playing!

Throughout the symphony, the singing of the choirs was powerful and evocative, a fitting partner for Migunov's expressive solo work.  The near-capacity audience were swept away by the power of the music and the performance, and rightly so.  

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Spring Is In The Air

This is absolutely the latest I have ever been with posting a review!  It's four days shy of a full month since I attended this event!  The only feeble excuse I can make is that the concert was so unusual and memorable that many of the details are still very clear in my mind, even after all that time lapse.

My apologies to the performers and to my faithful, oh-so-patient readers, for this unseemly delay.

What made this concert so unusual was the fact that I had heard none of the music on the programme before.  None!  After I've spent 50-some years of attending classical concerts, this is not at all an easy feat to pull off!

The programme was given on Friday evening, April 15, at Little Trinity Church on King St. East in Toronto, and was entitled NOCTURNE: Music in the Key of Spring.  That proved to be a very apt title for an unusual assemblage of chamber music works.

The first work was a sonata for oboe and piano by Alessandro Besozzi (1702-1793).  I was intrigued when I looked up his biography to find that he was himself a virtuoso oboist as well as a prolific composer.  All the more startling, then, to find that a list of his compositions included relatively few for the oboe but a great many works for one or two violas!  I wonder why?  Anyway, to hear more from Besozzi, you should certainly check in with your favourite neighbourhood violist!

The present sonata was played with style and grace by oboist Jolie Chrisman and pianist Valerie Rivers-Moore.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST ALERT:  Valerie Rivers-Moore is my cousin, 
which is the reason why I travelled into Toronto for this particular concert!

Plainly this was a standard example of Italian Baroque, with no surprising features in the four movements.  It's the sort of music that requires nimble fingers and a light touch from both players, and that we certainly got.  

Next came an unusual instrumental arrangement of the song Litanie auf das Fest Allerseelen by Schubert.  This song was composed in 1816, a little more than 20 years after the death of Besozzi, but here we enter an entirely different musical world.  Chrisman and Rivers-Moore were joined here by violist Barbara Hart.  Exactly as in a sung performance, the sustained melodic line is the key element that must be heard, and the instruments were well-balanced to achieve that end.  A couple of moments of shaky intonation apart, the beauty of Schubert's inspiration was clearly presented.

The first half closed with a sonata for oboe and piano by Julius Röntgen, a Dutch-German composer and teacher who was a great friend of Brahms.  Not surprisingly, then, the music had a somewhat Brahmsian sound -- but that was combined with a more adventurous approach to harmony than the older master ever adopted.  

In the first movement, Allegretto con sentimento, both oboe and piano observed the direction without allowing the sentiment to become overloaded.  The Poco animato e grazioso similarly captured the flowing character of the music with a lilt that carried through the movement.  The Andante sostenuto featured particularly lovely playing from the oboe, and the Moderato finale tied the entire performance together.  The work as a whole came across as music of both substance and great interest thanks to the playing of both artists.  Definitely a work worth hearing again!

After the intermission, Chrisman took on a noteworthy challenge: a Fantasie in A minor for oboe without continuo (unaccompanied) by Telemann.  The obvious comparison is to Bach's sonatas and suites for unaccompanied violin and unaccompanied cello.  Telemann composed whole sets of these works without continuo for the flute, the violin, and for other instruments including the oboe.  

The trick with this music, of course, is for the soloist to ornament the music in such a way as to beguile the ear into thinking it's hearing full chords.  Easy on a string instrument, but less so on a keyed woodwind like the oboe!  Chrisman combined a beautiful singing tone in the opening Grave and the Adagio with rapid and clear articulation in the two faster movements.  An impressive performance of a challenging piece.

Rivers-Moore then took the stage solo for four selections from the Eight Nocturnes of Francis Poulenc.  Poulenc has always been a favourite composer of mine, a man whose music is sometimes quite comical in nature and sometimes very serious.  He was described as "half monk and half naughty choir boy" and I would agree with that, except to add that you can always see the monk watching when the choir boy is being most outrageous, while the monk's own most solemn moments almost always include brief glimpses of the choir boy peeping out from behind the monk's robes.  

That kind of duality could certainly be glimpsed in these piano pieces.  By turns playful and serious, the music swerves from one to the other on the turn of a dime.  Poulenc's art is primarily melodic and diatonic, but occasional chords with "wrong" notes are seldom far absent.

Rivers-Moore captured the playful spirit of the lighter moments with clear articulation and effective under-use of the pedals, while the more lyrical concluding movement ("To Serve as Coda for the Cycle", as Poulenc wrote) showed both depth and wisdom.  The final reminiscence of an earlier theme came in an appropriately veiled, inward kind of sound which was most moving.

The concluding work of the evening was a Trio for Flute, Oboe and Piano by Madeleine Dring (1923-1977), an English composer and actor.  The style of the work came across as poised nicely between modern and traditional, jazzy and classical -- reminiscent at times of Gershwin.  It's believed to have been written in 1968 (most unusually, Dring rarely if ever dated her scores).  

After hearing this catchy work, my great regret was that the concert did not allow us to hear more of the fine playing of flutist Elena Goriacheva.  The blend among the three players was excellent, allowing the contrast between the cooler tones of the flute and the more piquant sound of the oboe to register.  The opening and closing movements, respectively Allegro con brio and Allegro giocoso, both went with a bounce and a swing that brought a smile to my face.  The central Andante semplice provided a gentler contrast.  A rewarding end to a truly intriguing  and varied programme!