Thursday, 25 August 2016

Stratford Festival 2016 # 6: Dead, and Yet Alive

In case you were wondering, no, the Stratford Festival has not hopped onto the zombie apocalypse bandwagon with any of its shows this year.  Nor are they staging Dracula.

But there are more ways to be dead and yet alive than just those two.  All around you, every day, are people who go through the motions but have long since ceased to live in any truly meaningful sense of the term.

And that is one of the key themes of my last Stratford show of the season (so far), Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman.

I would be the last one to dispute that the plays of Ibsen, like those of Chekhov, are very much an acquired taste.  Even among those who admire and perform Ibsen's work, John Gabriel Borkman is not nearly as well known as, say, Hedda Gabler, The Wild Duck, or A Doll's House.  It's the author's penultimate work, and in it the dramatic realism of earlier plays is pared away in favour of a conflict which is almost entirely internal.  

The play also makes use of elliptical, almost telegraphic language as the characters argue over their situation.  Only gradually, towards the end of the play, does the full story of that situation become plain to the audience -- a technique more often encountered in murder mysteries.

Why, then, do I speak of people being dead and yet alive in this play?  I suppose, as much as any aspect, it's because three of the quartet of principal characters are marking time on an endless treadmill where nothing ever changes and nothing is ever accomplished.  As well, one of them is dying of an unnamed disease while another is told that he is dead, and lying on the ground.

There are four members of the same family circle in Borkman, and their intertwined destinies form the subject matter of the play.  Of the four, only the young man, Erhart Borkman, has a life waiting for him to live it.  His father, John Gabriel Borkman, has returned home after serving a lengthy prison sentence for embezzlement from the bank of which he was the director.  Because of his criminal record, he has no future.  Borkman's wife, Gunhild (Rentheim) Borkman, provided the funds which fueled Borkman's rise in life to his present position -- and she has refused to see him or speak to him since his return.  Gunhild's twin sister, Ella, loved Borkman when they were young and he claimed to love her, but abandoned her for Gunhild when it became apparent that Gunhild would inherit their father's wealth -- and Ella as a consequence has never married.  These three older characters are all trapped in a circle of love-hate relationships with each other, and each of them becomes enmeshed in the battle for the love -- for the soul -- of Erhart.  Each, seems to feel that triumph in this struggle would be a vindication of self as well as a final kiss-off to the other two.

I first saw this play performed almost 40 years ago, at the Shaw Festival in 1978, and was amazed that such unlikely and unlikable people could hold such a powerful and continuing grip on my imagination.  Unlike some plays which depend on one or two key characters, each of the four people I've described has to be depicted by a strong actor with considerable skill and subtlety if the whole play isn't to simply lie down and die on the stage.  I'm sorry I can't remember the names of any of the actors in the Shaw production, but they must have been a powerhouse cast indeed to have such a huge impact on me.

Stratford's production uses a new translation by Paul Walsh, commissioned by the Festival, and developed with the assistance of (among others) all three of the principal actors.  It is being presented on the long, narrow arena stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre -- always a calculated risk with a play written for performance in a standard proscenium theatre.  With a near-ideal cast and very skilled direction from Carey Perloff, the play succeeds magnificently.

Christina Poddubiuk's set consists of heavy furniture and huge piles of paper documents.  It evokes a world of social obligations conflicting with the driven will to succeed.  Her costumes delineate the lives of the characters.  A stern Victorian dress in dull grey-black for Gunhild contrasts nicely with a more glistening black finish on Ella's dress.  Borkman wears a long, below-the-knee black overcoat which clearly telegraphs the cold upstairs Great Hall in which he has lived for the eight years since his release from prison.  Erhart appears in a dapper, fashionable black suit with a top hat, a clear signal that he intends to live in the world.  Notice the preponderance of black -- the colour of death.

Mrs. Wilton, the fashionable lady of doubtful social propriety who finally provides Erhart with his escape route, wears a shorter, fancier, leg-displaying dress in a reddish-brown tone -- the design even more than the colour signifying her equivocal position in the community.

The play takes place in a single evening and night in winter, and the wintry coldness of outside mirrors the winter in the hearts of the characters.  That chill is evoked by a narrow, continuous line of cold, white-blue strip lighting running around the entire perimeter of the stage floor.

Now, to the performers.  I was intrigued to realize that the casting of the two principal women exactly reversed the casting of the same two performers three seasons ago in Schiller's Mary Stuart.  Once again we have a raging, uncertain, ice queen facing off against a woman who, although wounded by life, is still capable of compassion.  Seana McKenna, who played Elizabeth in Mary Stuart, now appears as Ella, while Lucy Peacock (who depicted Mary, Queen of Scots) now takes the stage as the cold, angry Gunhild.  It leads me on to speculate how either of those plays might have appeared if the casting of those roles within each one were to be reversed!

To take the cast from the short roles up to the leads, begin with Deidre Gillard-Rowlings as Gunhild's maid.  Servant roles are notoriously underdeveloped as characters, but Gillard-Rowlings made a strong impact with her characteristic assumption of fear.  Every time she had to enter the room, she looked and sounded frightened, and in the last act this fear rose to outright terror when she found herself face to face with John Gabriel Borkman himself -- whom, it is to be surmised, she has not seen for over a decade even though he has been living in the house.

In her brief appearance, Natalie Francis effectively created the youth and naivete of Frida, the young girl who wishes to become a musician.

The simple-minded clerk, Vilhelm Foldal (Frida's father), was played to such great effect by Joseph Ziegler that he totally vanished into the character.  This is not as easy as it sounds, and is a skill shared by only the strongest of actors.  It's obvious that Vilhelm provides what little comic relief there is in the play, but I always find it uncomfortable laughing at him -- and I feel sure that this was Ibsen's intention.

Antoine Yared projects the youthful energy and determination of Erhart, combining it with an unspoken desire for his mother, father, and aunt to support his wish to go out and live his own life.  But only Ella does so in the end, and his reluctance to leave her alone is also clearly projected.

Sarah Afful's Fanny Wilton can only be described as sensual.  Ibsen's text, elliptical though it is at this point, makes it clear that her relationship with Erhart is primarily sexual, and her sensuality of appearance, walk and voice is a necessary counterweight to all the cold, hard, loveless energy in the Borkman home.

And this brings us to the big three: McKenna as Ella, Peacock as Gunhild, and Scott Wentworth as Borkman.  At this point, words nearly fail me.  It's hard to imagine any way that any of these three powerful actors could  improve on either the depiction of their characters, or the interplay among the three of them.  This was theatrical teamwork of the highest order.

Each one, too, had amazing individual moments.  For Lucy Peacock it was the moment when she identified the remorseless footsteps over her head as those of "the Bank Director -- yes, him."  Her tone made it clear as day that she could not, would not utter her husband's name.

For Seana McKenna as Ella Rentheim it was the moment she first announced that she was dying of her chronic illness.  Cancer?  We aren't told, and it really doesn't matter to the play.  What does matter is how clearly she played the duality of a woman who says that love has been killed in her yet still plainly feels love towards her nephew.

Scott Wentworth as Borkman had one telling moment in the second scene in which he ducked away from Ella's questions about why he didn't use her wealth along with that of all the other investors in the bank.  And in the final scene, his ascent of the piled-up furniture mirrored his monumental speech about his determination to start over and ascend finally to the heights he was denied before.

I find it hard to imagine any cast of actors who could create a stronger team in these three strange, barbed, unfulfilled characters.

There were a couple of staging issues that I felt hampered the play slightly.  Having Gunhild fly into a rage is a perfectly natural outcome of the script.  Having her express her rage by shoving wheeled furniture around the stage at top speed made no sense to me at all.  It was so far outside her character, where shoving the papers off the desk was not (and she did that too).

The penultimate scene is the three-way war among Gunhild, Ella, and John Gabriel Borkman over the future of Erhart.  It's a powerful scene, not least because of the watching figure of Fanny Wilton, already quite aware that she has won and the other three have all lost.  But it's also the weakest scene in the script, a scene in which the same arguments and ideas are repeated over and over.  Here, I felt that the careful orchestration which director Carey Perloff and her company brought to other parts of the show deserted them.  The scene needs to build in intensity, not just in volume.  As staged, it didn't really grow at all, just played through at one level -- a high-powered level, but definitely not varying at all as it progressed.  All the actors need to keep raising the stakes as each round of the debate rolls along.

That weakness, though, was redeemed in the final scene on the mountainside, a scene which can easily become pointless and boring.  As performed here, and especially with the intensity of those final speeches from Scott Wentworth's Borkman, this indeed became the climactic moment of the show.

There's a tendency with Ibsen to want to slow down, take big beats, and spread the material out over a long time span.  This production avoided the temptation, making all the more telling the few great pauses that did occur.  The final moment of reconciliation offered and accepted stretched the pause of reluctance and final acquiescence to the limit, and scored a powerful final tableau to end the play.

It's unlikely that John Gabriel Borkman will ever be a popular play, but it is unquestionably a powerful and challenging one -- a play whose performance should be dared only by the best of the best among actors and directors.  In spite of a couple of weaknesses I've noted, Stratford's production certainly didn't disappoint in that respect.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Stratford Festival 2016 # 5: In Sickness is Health

I really wanted to call this blog entry "Laughter, the Best Medicine" but that catchy title was long years since nailed down by the Reader's Digest!

Nonetheless, it certainly applies at more than one level to the current Stratford production of Molière's classic farce Le Malade Imaginaire, in an English adaptation by Richard Bean entitled The Hypochondriac.  This new version does not beat around the bush, but uses much blunter, earthier language than most preceding translations.

Stratford's association with the works of Molière is a lengthy one, stretching back all the way to the days of the tent, and this particular play was first performed at Stratford in 1958.  The 2016 season marks the play's fourth Stratford staging.

Le Malade Imaginaire was actually written, like most of Molière's plays, as a comedie-ballet, with music by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.  This production hews to that tradition by incorporating several dance numbers at different points in the story, dances which used choreography that is highly suggestive of the period era of Louis XIV.

Like the author's other famous plays, this one contains a rich assortment of characters young and old, but, as always, it stands or falls by the performance of the central male role -- the one Molière himself always played in his own lifetime.  In this case, of course, it is the hypochondriac Argan.  Not the least ironic feature of this, his final play, was that Molière suffered a coughing fit and hemorrhage while performing in this role, and died a few hours later.

Antoni Cimolino's lively production adopts loosely the conceit that we are watching the fourth performance of the play at the Theatre du Palais-Royal, with King Louis XIV in attendance.  The show opens while the Festival Theatre audience is still being seated, with the cast rehearsing bits and pieces in their underclothes, a routine which incorporates bits of dancing and snatches of music from the onstage orchestra (on the upper level).  Then chandeliers are lowered, candles lighted, and the chandeliers hoisted back into place.  A fanfare announces the arrival of the King (Sanjay Talwar), and he strides down the centre aisle to be seated directly in front of the stage.  The houselights go down, and the play proper begins.

This may sound a bit kitschy, but this adaptation does retain the several panegyrics to the King which were part and parcel of the original plays -- and thus the production allows the actors to address His Majesty directly, as they probably did in 1673.  It also allows the King to come onto the stage and join the actors in one of the dances, another well-known Louis XIV habit.

Despite its imposing name, the Theatre du Palais-Royal was actually a rather rundown and dilapidated old hall in Paris, in which the play had to be performed on an improvised platform built by the company.  Teresa Przybylski's designs, both for costumes and for set, accurately capture the feeling of a production being staged on a financial wing and a prayer.

The script pokes outrageous fun at the various doctors who appear, so the doctors appropriately are given the most outrageous wigs and make-up treatments.  None of the big medical wigs go higher, or farther over the top, than those worn by Peter Hutt as Monsieur Diafoirerhoea and Ian Lake as his son, Thomas Diafoirerhoea (a doctor in training).

The same could easily be said of their performances, but that's what the script demands!  Lake in particular pushes his character's florid speeches of greeting beyond the bounds of sense or reason, with his rapid fire delivery and assumed village-idiot voice.

Luke Humphrey gives a fine performance as Cleante, the young man who loves Argan's daughter, Angelique.  (It was a favourite name of Molière's; several of his plays include characters named Cleante or -- in one case -- Cleonte).  Particularly amusing is the singing-lesson scene which Humphrey and Shannon Taylor (as Angelique) make into a textbook example of how not to overplay a ludicrous farcical situation.

One of the stock roles in many of Molière's plays is the wise relative, usually a brother, who sees through the scams being inflicted on the hapless hero.  Although these roles can be a little colourless at times, Ben Carlson takes advantage of the script to be blunt to the point of rude, and makes a very good thing indeed out of the role of Beralde.

Trish Lindström has some amusing moments as Beline, Argan's too-young wife, and is particularly funny in her emphatic behaviour when she finds her husband apparently dead.

Molière was unusual for his time, or for any time before the twentieth century, in placing so much emphasis on his servant characters.  There are a number of them in each play, but it's always the servant of the duped hero who receives what amounts to principal-role treatment from the author.  Not only that, but the servant -- in this case called Toinette -- becomes one of the principal engines of the comedy throughout the piece.

Brigit Wilson gives a memorable comical performance, with strong voice, expressions and gestures all allied to keep the audience fully in tune with her often less-than-polite thoughts about the other characters.  Both physically and vocally, this is a strong-willed Toinette who thoroughly knows her own mind and doesn't hesitate to speak it.  Wilson, in fact, took the role of Toinette exactly where it needs to go -- making this servant into the complete comic counterweight of Argan, her employer.

And so we come to the centrepiece of the whole show:  Argan, the hypochondriac, served up with panache, zest, and sheer goofiness by Stephen Ouimette.  Ouimette is one of Stratford's best-known and best-loved veterans, and I suspect it was his presence on the stage more than anything else that drew in a virtually sold-out house on a weeknight.  And I say that, fully recognizing that this was the show's official opening performance.

Ouimette certainly didn't disappoint his audience.  From comic business with a huge, floppy bedgown to sonorous defences of the doctors who are robbing him blind, he rang all the changes without apparently ever missing an opportunity to add in another nuance.  If the Argan isn't right, this entire play can easily lie down and die.  Ouimette went considerably farther than just getting it right, and deserved every bit of the tumultuous ovation which greeted him at the curtain calls.

The real strength of this production stems from the numerous bits of amusing comic business -- right from the moment, before the actual play, when a couple of company members destroy an obnoxiously loud cellphone on the stage.  This is probably the best integrated "turn-off-your-phones" announcement I've ever seen, simply because there was no announcement -- just a fun piece of comic schtick which was made part of the play.  Every other little comic flourish was similarly integrated into and put at the service of the total performance.

The incorporation of dance sequences, as in the original production of 1673, and the use of a small onstage balcony band of woodwind players to accompany the dances, was an inspired way of taking the audience into another time and another convention of theatre.  Similarly, the arrival of the King on stage to join in one of the dances became itself part of the performance.  Kudos, by the way, to another long-time Stratford veteran, composer Berthold Carriere, for his lovely pastiche of pseudo-Baroque dance music.  Even when the show turned dark -- when Stephen Ouimette as Molière playing Argan collapsed after the closing scene -- comedy intruded with Ben Carlson's impeccably timed "Is there a doctor in the house?" -- right after we'd spent two and a half hours watching some of the most incompetent doctors in the history of theatre parade their ignorance across the stage.

I'd love to know how many of these and numerous other little comic riffs were imagined ahead of time and how many were developed during the rehearsal process.  One thing's for sure, it takes a director of the quality of Antoni Cimolino to integrate all these and other diverse elements strongly together into a unified whole, where in lesser hands it could easily disintegrate into unrelated comic sketch material.

The audience loved the show, laughing heartily throughout, and I totally agreed with them.  This Hypochondriac is a real winner.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Winter at the Height of Summer

Last November, the National Ballet of Canada gave the North American premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's stunning full-length story ballet, The Winter's Tale (after Shakespeare's late play).  My reaction was amazement at the sheer power and poetry of the work (read my review of it here:  Poetry in Motion)

As sometimes happen when the powers-that-be are in a testing mood, I was able to fit only one performance into my schedule before leaving for an out-of-town trip.  Otherwise, I would assuredly have gone back to see this ballet again, with a different cast.

Yesterday, the chance finally came.  The National Ballet has been giving a short five-show run of The Winter's Tale as part of the summer Lincoln Center Festival, and I was able to rush from Parry Sound to New York in time to catch the final performance on Sunday afternoon.

I'd been told ahead of time to expect different audience reactions, being assured that a sophisticated New York audience might not be so easy to excite or please.  Well, that turned out to be untrue!

There's one telling moment of the show, at the beginning of Act 2.  Through a scrim you can faintly glimpse the roots of a tree with two men lying one on either side, and one playing a pan flute.  In front of the scrim, two of the leading characters resume their concluding pose from Act 1 and slowly make their way off stage.  The scrim then rises, revealing the full spectacular glory of the tree -- and the New York audience first gave an audible gasp and then burst into loud applause and cheers.  Likewise the curtain calls at the end of the show.

As for my reactions, I remembered much from 8 months ago, but had also forgotten a good deal.  Even though I could remember what would happen, I even surprised myself with my edge-of-the-seat tension throughout the hour-long, dramatic first act.  While I had accurately remembered the character of King Leontes' "jealousy" solo, I had forgotten that it was actually very long, and split into three distinct segments.  I was then surprised to find how short Act 2 was -- in my memory it loomed larger.  

Best of all for me was that I achieved my objective of seeing the piece danced by a different cast.

Conflict of Interest Alert:  The usual, my nephew Robert Stephen.

In the principal role of King Leontes, McGee Maddox gave a powerful, expressive performance filled first with rage and then with remorse.  His face became very contorted during those jealousy solos, and this was plainly apparent even in the very back rows.  Even more moving was the look of wonder on his face and in his posture as he recognizes, first, the son of his old friend Polixenes, and then his own long-lost daughter.

Heather Ogden gave an equally expressive performance as his queen, Hermione.  It was heartbreaking to see how the love in her face struggled with her equal terror as her husband turned on her in fury.  In the final scene, as a statue that comes to life, Ogden gave the distinct impression of "unfreezing" from stone, thereby creating just the sense of mystical wonderment which the ending of this fable ideally demands.

Brendan Saye gave a strong performance as King Polixenes, reaching a suitable climax of anger at his son in Act 2.

Francesco Gabriele Frola gave a truly memorable performance as Florizel, son of Polixenes, dancing with great energy among the peasants in front of that spectacular tree, and in his beautiful lyrical pas de deux with Perdita, the lost daughter of Leontes.  

Perdita herself was danced by Elena Lobsanova.  On her own, she was light, playful, and young-at-heart without immaturity.  When Frola partnered her, she became as ardent as he, and their love duets were among the highlights of the evening.

As the Clown and Shepherdess, Robert Stephen and Tina Pereira danced with vigour and energy, setting the tone high for the corps de ballet whose dances make up so much of Act 2.  That entire country scene in front of the wonderful, magical (?) tree induced nonstop smiles from me as much as the first act induced tension.  I can't even remember feeling that joyful when seeing the piece last year in Toronto.

My favourite role in the entire ballet remains that of Paulina, the mistress of Hermione's household.  In the original play, she acts as Leontes' conscience, and in a series of forceful scenes argues him into submission to his own guilt -- perfect cue for a powerhouse actor.  Here, she turns on Leontes, beats on him repeatedly with her fists until he collapses, and then leads him like a lifeless sock puppet through the next several scenes.  Her leading of Leontes is almost ritualistic in feeling, as is the final scene in which all the characters are reconciled with her help.  Plainly, this calls for a powerhouse dancer, and Tanya Howard was magnificent.  Her physical energy in the first act is subsumed into emotional energy in the succeeding scenes, and her almost priestly appearance and stance at the unveiling of the statue of Hermione set the seal on a breathtaking moment.

As for that unveiling, in Toronto it was all too plain that a living woman stood on that pedestal.  This time, whether by changes in make-up, lighting, or whatever other means, the figure of Hermione looked sufficiently statue-like that suspending rational disbelief was easy.

And there was one more prize moment which didn't register before, but brought tears to my eyes this time.  At the very end, after dancing his wondrous-fair duet of reconciliation and love restored with Hermione, Leontes goes up to the pedestal and touches the stone figure of his dead son still standing there, plainly hoping that it too will come to life.  Tears started in my eyes at his great longing -- and at the gentleness with which he was turned away when it became plain that this would have been one miracle too many, and was the one that he could not have.

It was definitely worth the cost and time to get down to New York and see The Winter's Tale again -- as well as to see the New York audience plainly captivated by this remarkable ballet as much as I was and am.