Sunday, 19 March 2017

Tough to Love

by Damien Atkins
Directed by Randi Mraud
Presented by Sault Theatre Workshop
at the QUONTA Drama Region Festival

This staging of Lucy brought the Festival to an end with a shattering impact.  The audience sat frozen at the end, not willing to break the silence, which is a good sign that the play has struck home.  (The polar opposite would be a frantic stampede for the exits the instance the lights went down!)

On one level the play is about autism.  On another level it forces us to confront how we as a society and as individuals treat those who are "different" among us (a theme also explored in Albertine in Five Times which I saw in Guelph a few nights earlier).

The set was an intriguing one.  Although shaped like a conventional box set, it was formed of rectangular frames.  Alternating frames were filled with off-white wall panels or left empty against the black curtains surrounding the stage, a checkerboard of rectangles.

A few pieces of furniture served to establish the home environment of Vivian, an anthropologist who is seldom at home.  The set was located between the ends of the proscenium and the action was mostly confined there.  The general area lighting was effective.  A single special spotlight down right on the semi-circular thrust provided an extra acting area for the character Lucy (more on her shortly).  
That special was a bit of an irritant, as there was always a break in the action while Lucy came down to the spot or went back up -- the same when she was coming from or heading to backstage.  I'd be interested to see it tried with a couple of special light positions right within the main acting area.

As a side note, none of the travelling companies have a stage space 
remotely like the William Dawson Theatre's unusual combination of full 
proscenium stage with a semi-circular Stratford-like thrust platform 
out front.  Transferring a play into this theatre is always an interesting 
exercise in second-guessing how much use to make of that 
large forestage space.

Michael Cuthbertson's sound design was divided into two areas.  Pre-show music was effective and unremarkable.  The sound effects heard by Lucy were like another performer in the play, the intensity well-graded from the early quieter stages up to the shattering uproar which overran (by intention) the final scene of Act One.  

Partly as a result of the writing, and partly due to directorial choices, the company onstage also divided into two distinct groups.  The division came out of the style of approaching the roles.  In one group we had the two people outside the family: Julia, the research assistant, played by Wendy-Lynn Levoskin, and Morris, the therapist, played by Michael Hagerman.  Both were very convincing in their physical approach to the roles, but both had a rather conventional approach to their text.  More work would help to bring their spoken work into better balance with their movement and actions.

Mark Daniher as Gavin, Vivian's estranged husband, took us into the group where voice and action were in perfect harness with each other.  His first scene, at the outset of the play, serves to set up the scenario, but it also establishes him as a thoughtful, caring father to Lucy.  His breakdown into tears was completely natural and unforced, not appearing in the least "stagey".  In his other scene, at the end, he was notable for the sheer power of voice which he brought to the argument.  More on that argument a bit later.

Vivian, the anthropologist, played with fire, passion, and boundless energy by Catharina Warren, was the most disquieting figure in the play.  Warren's performance, with jets of flame practically shooting out of her eyes, left me wondering if Vivian was herself autistic, obsessive-compulsive, or suffering from a more severe mental illness.  I'm still not sure.  Yes, the script takes her there, but Warren's thoughtful presentation of face, voice, gesture, and action, completed the work of upsetting all conventional expectations about the character.

And finally, as Lucy herself, Calista Jones totally persuaded me that she was autistic.  In the text she appears as two different people: interaction with the other characters is laced with minimal, fragmentary sentences, repetitions of the words spoken by others, and a whole repertoire of grunts, barks, handslaps on the floor, rocking, spinning on her feet, humming, vocalizing, and finally screaming.  Then, in the moments in that special spot, we come face to face with the interior life of Lucy.  The boundless mental energy and intelligence pours out in rapid, eager monologues, the face is lit with a brilliant smile which can as suddenly dissipate into sadness or frowning, and then the eyes light again as she pursues another train of thought.  A virtuoso performance of a challenging and complex character.

There are a number of "turning points" in this carefully and thoughtfully planned performance, and all except one worked beautifully.  Unfortunately, the one exception came in the final climactic confrontation which built until all five performers were shouting (or screaming) at top volume.  Then, instantly, Vivian folded.  She stopped dead, sat down, and began to sob.  What happened?  I think Gavin had shouted something that got through to her, but because of the general uproar I didn't catch what it was.  

The short final scene after that confrontation was gentle, clear, and shot through with questions.  As staged, it left open a number of possible interpretations of what had passed during the preceding scene, and what had happened during the subsequent lapse of time.  It was like the reflective coda to a massive, noisy symphony, but one which ended on an unresolved chord.  

This play was powerful and disquieting in equal measures.  The discussions among audience members after the play were full of interesting observations, and varying interpretations of what exactly had passed.  That, to me, is as reliable a sign as any of a great theatre experience shared.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

The Power of Imagination

Boiler Room Suite
by Rex Deverell
Directed by Andrea Emmerton and Walter Maskel
Presented by Gore Bay Theatre
at the QUONTA Drama Region Festival

It would be easy to dismiss Boiler Room Suite as just a depiction of the lives of street people, and I'm sure there are many who wouldn't bother coming to a staging of this play on that account.  Like Pete in the play, there are people who have fixed ideas about street life and that's that.  

They'd be making a huge mistake.  More so than many plays, Boiler Room Suite is about whatever each member of the audience sees and hears and thinks about while watching it.  By turns funny and touching, it's a script that invites that kind of personal reflection and interaction with the performance, and woe betide the director who tries to impose a strict interpretation on the piece.

That's because it's a play about dreamers, and for dreamers -- and that means everyone.  It's often been compared to Waiting for Godot, but for me that comparison is elusive.  The two main characters in Boiler Room Suite share a very rich inner life of vivid Technicolor dreams, imagining themselves as a wide assortment of different people.  For me, the reference points that spring to mind are Walter Mitty and Snoopy.

The scenario is simple enough.  Aggie invites Sprugg into her hideaway in the boiler room of the old Provincial Hotel to share a bottle, and as they drink they engage in a series of games, acting out their imaginary world with the aid of props and costumes from her assorted trove of street loot.  Pete, the janitor, comes in laughing and tries to force them out.  Although it seems at first that he will succeed in destroying their dreams, in the end it is Aggie and Sprugg who convince Pete to join them in an appreciation of the humanity that lies hidden in our imaginations.

The set was full of detailed chaos -- perhaps too full.  There were bottles and cans, heaps of worn clothing, and much more.  The one detail that grated on me was the heaps of crumpled up newspaper sheets.  They looked as if someone had just unpacked a box full of Christmas presents ten minutes earlier -- too much clutter, when a good deal less would have gotten the message across loud and clear.  The painting on the furnace was convincingly mottled with age and heat.  The floor was covered with enough dust to create a clear sense of the boiler room's age and state of disuse.

Lighting was effectively understated.  When the power in the hotel kept blinking off in the first scenes, there was still enough light to allow us to see the characters.  Sound effects were well-judged too, although the sound for the old furnace would have been more convincing if it were a much lower-pitched rumble.  At first hearing (at the beginning of the show) I thought it was a motorcycle starting up outside until the interior of the furnace lit up.  That moment was accompanied by a bright splash of flickering orange light on the back cyclorama, which worked really well.  Were those lights omitted when the furnace came on again during the action of the play, or were they too faint to be seen from my particular seat?

The costumes looked right for the characters, and the diversity of the costume pieces which were used as acting props for the role play scenes was a visual delight.

The directors chose to remove the intermission and present the play as a single act.  In some plays this works well, but with this script I felt this was both unnecessary and confusing.  There's a considerable passage of time between the first and second acts of the script, and the point at which it happens is clearly a complete, definite break in the action.  Because of the continuous performance, it took much of the second act before the audience could clearly grasp just how much time had passed since the first act.

Shannon McMullan as Aggie and John Hawke as Sprugg made a magnificent team.  The play is written like a beautifully-scored piece of music, a duet in which first one and then the other take the lead before they join together in their storytelling.  As soon as one began to sink into depression the other rose into a more upbeat mood.  Their sustained energy was very telling.  Of these two, Hawke made great use of a wider range of tones and colours in his voice, while McMullan shaped her performance with a wonderful assortment of facial expressions.  The musical metaphor is doubly apt because the language of the fantasy sequences often develops a kind of poetic or musical rhythm which both actors shaped carefully.  Both did great work in defining the physicality of their own characters, as well as the various people they portrayed in their role-plays.  Together they created imaginative worlds and characters for us to laugh with and delight in.

The dynamics of the play shifted completely when Pete, the janitor (John Robertson) appeared towards the end of the first act.  His one keynote of scorn for the street people was a startling contrast to the vivid fantasies of Aggie and Sprugg.  Equally startling was the obvious fear which they suddenly projected as they realized he intended to put them out.  

There were two moments that were, for me, very moving.  The first came when Aggie sank down onto her bed in despair, having lost all energy for the role playing games.  The second was when Pete climbed up the ladder and listened as Scrugg gradually opened him to the realities of other people's lives.  This was followed by the final scene where Pete shared his lunchbox contents, a touching reversal of his first appearance.

Boiler Room Suite is an imaginative, thought-provoking play on many levels, and Gore Bay Theatre's production served it very well indeed.

Friday, 17 March 2017

The Power to Endure

The Melville Boys
by Norm Foster
Directed by Murray Tilson
Presented by Take Two Theatre, Timmins
at the QUONTA Drama Region Festival

Queen Victoria was watching the final race of the first America's Cup yacht competition from the deck of her royal yacht.  She asked her captain, "Who is first?"

"The American yacht, Your Majesty."

"And who is second?"

He looked again through his telescope.  "There is no second, Your Majesty."

That story could well sum up the position of Norm Foster on the list of "Canada's Most Produced Playwrights."  I'm sure the fact drives many, many other fine Canadian writers to distraction but the fact remains, for all that.

Some people will argue about quantity over quality.  They may have a point (there are some of Foster's plays which I find tedious).  No such charge, however, can be fairly levelled against The Melville Boys.  This was Foster's second play.  It was first professionally staged in 1984 and continues to be produced, year in and year out, all across the country -- and beyond.

What gives The Melville Boys such enduring power and punch?  It begins and ends as a very funny play indeed, but in the middle -- when it turns deadly serious -- the script socks you right in the gut, bringing you forcibly face to face with timeless human problems and questions you would rather not face.  This continues to be, for me, the exemplar of Norm Foster's particular gift: the ability to set you rolling with laughter and then slip under your guard with some serious and tough issues and force you to attend to those as well.

The 2017 QUONTA Drama Region Festival opened with this ever-popular play, which by now can fairly be called a Canadian classic.

The set, designed by Amy Standeven, created simple but effective acting areas on the semi-circular thrust stage.  My first thought, even before the show began, was that it looked too neat and precise to be a long-time family cottage at the lake.  The two old lanterns on a shelf above the kitchen stove were just right, and if everything else had been in tune with those -- and with about three times as much assorted "stuff" as we saw -- the room definitely would have looked the part.  There was a clever half-a-screen-door leading out to the path down to the water, but it was not consistently used -- some actors on some occasions opened and closed it but at other times just brushed past without moving the door at all.

The keynote of all the performances was the energy which all the actors brought to the stage.  No chance that this show would ever lie down and die on us!  The play, for those not in the know, shows two brothers going for a fishing weekend at the old family cottage, and meeting two sisters.  Sounds like a prescription for fun, yes?  But there's a shadow on the weekend -- the older brother, Lee Melville, is dying of cancer and can't get his irresponsible younger brother, Owen, to face up to that fact.  Perhaps inevitably, the visitors find out and in the end they are the ones who crack open Owen's stubborn resistance.  That paves the way for the blockbuster final scene which, done properly, will reduce the audience to quivering shreds (yes, that was me who let out at audible gulp at the climactic moment of the scene).

Costumes were uncredited, but they worked well for me.  The only questionable choice was Lee's bright red sweatshirt.  That's a colour that should only be used on stage if you want everyone's eyes to focus right there.  If you don't, then the bright red will "pull focus" every time the actor moves, taking the audience's eyes away from where they might better be looking.  Fortunately, this company was strong enough across the board that the shirt didn't cause major problems in that way.

Paul Charette set the character of Lee Melville in the right places.  The exasperation at Owen's shenanigans was believably older-brother in tone.  His awkwardness in dealing with Mary, one of the visiting sisters, was great fun -- he developed a kind of aw-shucks look and speaking voice which were very appealing.  As the play went on, and the stakes were raised, his speeches poured out faster and faster, and he began tripping over his words.  At some moments this worked well, but at others it became a problem.

Nate Elliott was the devil-may-care, thoughtless, self-centred younger brother Owen to the life.  I liked the way that, in the first scene, he gave absolutely no special emphasis to such lines as, "You have a lot of work to do here."  Right away, we got the picture of how he always shirked any work he possibly could avoid and shoved it all off onto Lee.  That picture kept getting clearer throughout.  In the final confrontation with Lee, his voice shot right to the final pitch of tension very quickly, and then stayed there -- but a little more building and shading would have served the scene even better.

Michelle Goulet took the role of Loretta, the wannabe-TV star, and pushed it right to the limit.  While her commercial for Harry's Used Cars was totally hilarious, it was also perilously close to over-the-top.  Thankfully, she didn't go right off the deep end.  In the second act, she showed a great deal of humanity and empathy in handling Owen when his stress over his brother led him to propose to her after one wild night in the bedroom.

The best of the empathy in this play came from Mary, portrayed by Dominika Prabucki.  That is the way the script is written, and she created a diverse, many-sided character.  Her finest moment came in the scene where Lee blurts out that he's dying and then goes on to describe how his wife, Arlene, will carry on with her life and remarry.  While he was doing that, Prabucki's face slowly morphed from anger to bewilderment and then on to shock -- all plainly visible.  A few moments later she was stuffing her face with the turnip cake and talking through mouthfuls of food, while still remaining completely audible and understandable every inch of the way.

This play depends heavily on truthful acting -- it is a very naturalistic piece.  I felt that in the second act, all four found their truthful moments without any hint of caricature or formula.  All this helped the climax of the piece to reach in and hammer us exactly as it needs to do.

Director Murray Tilson composed nicely assorted stage pictures, making use of all parts of the playing area.  The show flowed strongly right from the get-go, the energy of the company well-harnessed to catch and hold the audience's attention.  There were some moments in the show when I felt a little more breathing space and use of silence (in small doses) would help to vary the tempo.

What we got was a true high-energy performance which remained breezy and enjoyable in the comedic moments, and didn't shirk the higher-stakes dramatic scenes towards the end.  All in all, a truly entertaining evening of theatre.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Another Kind of Time Travel

Albertine in Five Times  (Albertine en cinq temps)
by Michel Tremblay
Translation by Linda Gaboriau
Directed by Robin Bennett
Presented by Cambridge Community Players
at the WODL Festival

Originally premiered in 1984 in Montreal and in 1985 in Toronto, Albertine in Five Times can fairly be called a classic of the Canadian theatre -- most certainly of the French-language theatre in Quebec but even in other provinces and on the English language stages, this is a play to reckon with.

I think one of the things that makes Albertine such a powerful work is the way it speaks to so many different layers of human experience; the roles of women, the bitter realities of French-Canadian society, and the issues of how we remember things and why are all at the core of the play.  To me, personally, it speaks loudest of all about the way we in our societies deal with the person who is "different", who sits "outside" social norms, who doesn't really "fit in."  At that level, I feel almost anyone can relate to Albertine, or to her sister Madeleine, or even (and more painfully still) to Albertine's unseen children, Therese and Marcel.

Time conventions are torn to quivering shreds in this theatrical world.  There are five Albertines on the stage.  Albertine at 70 has just arrived at a nursing home where she expects to live out her remaining years.  She is surrounded by the Albertines of age 30, 40, 50, and 60, and by her sister Madeleine -- portrayed in her 30s.  The five Albertines talk to each other, and argue with each other and Madeleine, and she speaks to more than one of them.  This production also upped the stakes by having them interact into each other's spaces, at carefully chosen moments, while they also sometimes met in neutral ground on the more open parts of the stage.

I've seen the play staged three times now, and it's always a moving experience for me, but this performance mounted by Cambridge Community Players beat all others by a wide margin in ripping open the raw emotions boiling away in the script, and then reconciling them all -- in some degree -- by the end of the evening.

As is expected by the playwright, the piece was performed in a bare box of black curtains and floor, with black risers arranged in a semi-circle.  Smaller boxes, in different colours, served as seats and (in one place) as a table.

Lighting worked very effectively throughout the piece -- subtle, but clear at all times.  The moon spot at the very end was a bit too overt for my liking, as well as a bit too concentrated in one area, but the company nonetheless made good use of it by coming together in that small area downstage left, standing side by side, and raising their hands in unison.  Since the actors stay on stage throughout the piece, there is only one costume to each character, but these were very well chosen and designed for contrasts of colour, texture, and style.

This is a classic example of a play that is primarily an actors' play -- certainly it offers more limited scope for set design, dressing, or lighting work than many shows.  So let's get right to the actors.  Caitlin Popek as Albertine at 30 projected a haunting sense of vulnerability.  Even as she projected, in bitter, harsh words, the rage which led her to beat her daughter, she continually crossed her arms tightly in front of her lest she be left exposed to -- to whatever it was she feared so deeply.  Voice clipped and tight and precise, like her hair and dress, she radiated white-hot emotion held under a lid as much as possible.

Albertine at 40: Michelle Hartai.  The voice had accelerated until the exact words were sometimes hard to catch, but it wasn't difficult to guess their import.  The flood gates opened, this Albertine was letting the rage gush out in floods and torrents.  The face twisting from side to side, feet locked together whenever she stood, the character had now become a monstrous outgrowth of her 30-year-old self.

The keynote of Joanne Priebe's Albertine at 50 was her air of desperation.  After putting her children aside, she went to work in a cafe and was striving to make herself and her life happy.  But always, as she talked of how happy she was and how much her customers loved her BLT sandwiches, there was the edge of desperation in the voice, the tension tightly held in the body, the unspoken sense that she feared her illusion would collapse around her at any moment.

As Albertine at 60, Cathy Moore sat upstage for much of the play, popping tranquilizers and tossing in tart comments ("Who gives a damn about the family?").  When her turn finally came to let it fly, she walked right into Albertine at 50's space, leaned menacingly over her and shook the pill bottle like a death rattle as she warned her younger self to hold onto her illusions while she could.  To her fell one of the most wrenching stories of all: the tale of how her world collapsed around her as she had to go to identify her daughter Therese's swollen, disfigured dead body.  Moore's hunched shoulders and frozen, snarling face made her the most dislocated and terrifying of the different incarnations of Albertine.

And finally, Albertine at 70.  Kathy Burgess beautifully captured the melding of opposites as she moved towards old age, the sense of reconciliation with her past, and the still tart tongue which shot out when one of her younger selves provoked her.  It was a moving and subtle realization of a character that has to embody all four of her younger selves in order to work.

By no means an also-ran was Kristine Fortner as Madeleine.  She portrayed Albertine's sister as a woman who imagines herself content with her life, but still shows hints of discontent simmering away below the surface.  This lent a slight hint of stuck-on airs to her declarations of how good her life could be.  Fortner also made clear the bewilderment, and consequent anger, of trying to deal with a sister who was so "different" and so difficult to be near.

Director Robin Bennett shaped this difficult and challenging play into a series of mounting curves of tension, orchestrating a rising set of climaxes as intense as any symphony.  The play moved with great intention through all the rhythmic changes from the start right to the finish.  Seldom can such an intense 90 minutes in the theatre have passed so quickly.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Time Travellers

Ten Times Two:  The Eternal Courtship by David Belke
Presented by Theatre Tillsonburg
Directed by Janice Lundy
At the WODL Festival

And with a flash of strobe lights and a bang from a smoke box, your intrepid blogger vanishes from the National Ballet audience and instantly materializes in the Guelph Little Theatre's auditorium for the opening night of the Western Ontario Drama League Festival!

If only.

In planning its Festival for the Canada 150 celebration year, WODL toyed with the idea of requiring all Canadian plays as entries, but finally put that thought aside.  No worries.  The competing companies themselves chose all Canadian plays for their Festival entries, and some of them have even mounted all-Canadian seasons for this year!

This Festival has an unusually intriguing line-up of plays -- but I will only see the first two.  After that I am flying north to Timmins (with another flash and a bang) to see the three plays of the northern Ontario QUONTA Drama Region Festival, also all Canadian scripts.  Quite the week for Canadian theatre!

So: WODL's Festival opened with Theatre Tillsonburg's production of a delightful light romantic comedy, Ten Times Two by David Belke.

Rant For The Day:  

I get very tired of hearing people, who certainly are old enough to know better, dismissing comedy theatre as being somehow less difficult or of less value or less importance than heavier dramas or tragedies.  If you don't like going to comedies or staging comedies or acting in comedies, that's fine.  But you don't have to (by implication) put down the writers or performers or designers or directors of comedies just because of your personal taste in theatre!  


Ten Times Two is a perfect piece to demonstrate just how much skill it takes to write, perform, and stage an apparently lightweight piece for three actors and do it well.

Start with David Belke's script.  It strikes me as a masterly piece of writing, making excellent use of the possibilities inherent in the situation presented, and applying a quirky and ingenious imagination to those possibilities.  Belke excels at summing up a whole situation in a few words, or turning it onto its head just as swiftly.  In an audience full of theatre people, I heard a great many variations afterwards on "I have to read this script" or "I'd love to direct this one."  I think I'm far from alone in seeing excellence in this material.  And why not?  Writing an outstanding comedy is about as easy as making an outstanding souffle.  I've never managed to do either one.

Ten Times Two is based on a unique but entertaining premise.  The main male character, Ephraim, is a kind of evil Flying Dutchman figure, condemned to live on earth until eternity.  In 1400, he wanders into a small tavern in England, meets a barmaid named Constance (the name speaks volumes) and falls for her -- hard.  The Host of the tavern, an equivocal but certainly not human figure, offers to wager with him for his future release from life, that he can't win the honest love of Constance.  He fails, but the Host suggests a future rendezvous in 75 years, by which time she will have reincarnated.

And so she does.  But the first, and nastiest challenge, which author  has flung at the company is that she reincarnates at 75-year intervals as a grand total of ten completely different characters.  That's ten different characters, in ten different historic periods (costume department, stand by!) with different social circumstances (language and movement coaches!), appropriate accessories (props!) -- well, you get the idea.  But Ephraim, too, has to keep fitting into each historic period as he doesn't age, so multiple costumes for him are required as well.  And the theatre had better have quick-change spaces, because the poor actors have only seconds to make the switch during the brief breaks between their scenes.  In some ways, the set and lighting designers have the easiest job of the lot!

So let's start there.  Paul Bechard and Jeff Tripp have provided a simple stone fireplace, a sturdy table and two chairs, an all-purpose bar/serving counter and a free-standing doorframe without any door.  The lack of the door troubled me less than the lack of any suggestion of an actual wall around the door.  In this safety-conscious age, a working fire is a total no-go, but I'd have liked a better light source than a few feeble white holiday lights between the logs.  Aside from those two points, the set was simple but effective and instantly looked like the medieval tavern which it was.  Another nice point was the substitution of different clocks on the mantel in later scenes of the play.

Lighting, too, was simple and effective.  The sizable acting areas were well lit.  The glaring yellow special to represent the "Boss" summoning the Host to report was placed well downstage right, and could readily be seen on the floor and furniture.

The sound levels were great -- important because a gentle old song like Greensleeves doesn't carry out into the auditorium as well as a modern rock recording.  Speaking of which, kudos to Sean Goble, lighting and sound designer, for finding or creating (I don't know which) a spectacular Jazz-Age-styled track of a dance band riffing on Greensleeves!  This was played right before the 1925 scene.

The all-important costumes designed by Jane Brown were magnificent, nothing less.  Constance and all her later reincarnations were each dressed in clothes appropriate to period and social station -- with a varying palette of colours adding variety to the otherwise rather bare stage.  Ephraim's assorted costumes as clearly delineated the varying careers and personae which he chose for himself at different periods of his wearisome long life.  

Now, consider the challenge for Judy Cormier, the actor playing the role of Constance et al.  She has to imagine a total of ten different people, their lives, their circumstances, some degree of back story for each one, work out appropriate accents for the different people she portrays and appropriate physicality for each one.  A daunting challenge, to say the very least.

Cormier did fine work in each of her ten character portraits.  The physicality of the pig girl was as memorable as the practical Scots woman, for different reasons.  Her timing in the marriage contract negotiations was as spot-on as her one and only line as a nun -- a 20-second comic vignette that also demonstrates author Belke's topnotch writing skills.  Her 1925 flapper girl was her farthest-out-there moment, certainly her brashest.  Towards the end, it became a bit harder to distinguish each woman from all the ones we'd seen before but that's an inherent challenge of the script.  In some ways, her finest moments were the ones in a few of the scenes where she begins to recognize or remember something about the man talking to her.  All in all, a fine performance in a truly challenging role.

Jason Leighfield as Ephraim partnered very effectively.  His own character arc is much more subtle, as he has to slowly abandon his macho "you can't resist me" approach and try other ways of winning her over.  As time goes by, Leighfield took on a whole range of small vocal inflections and physical changes which helped to delineate the emotional shifts taking place in him.  His best scene was also the one with the flapper, in which he showed clearly that he was beginning to understand truly where life was taking him.

The Host has perhaps the hardest task of all.  By text as well as by stage direction, he is mainly an observer.  For much of the play he has to remain in each scene, watching and reacting without pushing himself forward or mugging for laughs.  This is a giant-size challenge.  Mark Smith did a fine job of staying in the moment with nothing much to do.  Little bits of stage business with food and drink were helpful, but his own concentration carried the payoff.

His other side comes out when he's summoned to report by his "Boss".  Smith instantly took on a whole different facial and physical appearance whenever the yellow light came on -- a worried expression where he otherwise exuded confidence, and shoulders slumping slightly into a more hunched position.  First-rate attention to the physical character here.  Plainly, too, he had imagined and could hear the unscripted words of the voice addressing him all too clearly.

Director Janice Lundy led her company in giving this breezy script a well-paced interpretation.  I felt that the team did all it could to get us through the unavoidable scene breaks just as quickly as possible.  The "surprise" moments in the script were sprung on the audience with impeccable timing.  Stage space was ample and used very effectively, even if some scenes got a little too anchored to the table and chairs.  The yellow light sequences in a couple of cases led to a short delay as the Host was too far upstage and had to move more than a couple of steps to get down right to the light.

Like any good comedy (or souffle), this script presents all kinds of challenges that are not, and should not be, readily apparent at the time one is enjoying the experience.  In that respect, Theatre Tillsonburg gave Ten Times Two a truly excellent performance.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Nobody Nose What to Expect

This weekend the National Ballet of Canada premieres its newest full-length story ballet, Pinocchio.

And now you know what is meant by the pun in the title of this post!

But there is method in my madness, because settling into my seat for a premiere of a new work is always a voyage into the unknown.  And as I face the prospect of trying to review a new work, I always worry about how much of it will escape me on first viewing.  That's due to the simple fact that I watch, listen, absorb, but don't try to take any written notes.

So I've decided again to solve the problem by taking in two performances, the matinees on Saturday (the actual first performance) and Sunday -- which neatly bracket the "official" opening performance on Saturday night.  This normally would mean that I would get to see two different casts in the lead roles.  After I was seated for the Saturday show, I found out that the only difference in the casting was the presence of two different dancers in the title role.  The powers-that-be have cast the entire run of 12 performances with only two casts, except that the role of Pinocchio is shared by three dancers.  

Note:  before we go any further, this is not the cutesy Disney "Pinocchio".  Nor is it the preachy, moralistic original novel by Carlo Collodi.  His first version of the story even ended with Pinocchio being gruesomely hanged for his misdeeds, rather like the German folk figure of Till Eulenspiegel!

This new Pinocchio is the product of a very gifted creative team, headed up by choreographer Will Tuckett.  He and his colleagues have achieved a remarkable feat.  This production has enough action, stagecraft, and broadly-based humour to hold onto active younger minds, at the same time as it invites deeper thought and speculation from the older members of the audience.  In short, a balletic entertainment for everyone, perhaps more so than any other production in the National Ballet's current repertoire.

Another first-place finish: there has never been a ballet in the National's repertoire, ever, which had so much flying going on!  It's not just showy; it's all done to illustrate clearly some important aspect of the story and in that sense it's very effective at heightening (pardon the pun) the emotional impact of certain key scenes.

The most critical departure from the traditions of the ballet is the incorporation of spoken text to advance the story and explain some of the motivations of the characters.  Traditionally this narrative function is done by means of elaborate and (sometimes unclear) mime sequences.  In all my years of ballet-going I can only recall one other production which incorporated the spoken word to any extent.

I want to start right there, with the spoken text by Alasdair Middleton.  It's all in rhyming couplets, my least favourite form of poetry.  Most of the time it works well, but there are a couple of spots where it becomes too obvious -- both as to the next rhyme and in explaining what is already clear from the stage picture.  For smaller children, a definite plus; for adults, it could seem rather lame.

No such criticism attaches to Paul Englishby's original music for this ballet.  It's stronger than most modern ballet scores known to me, with themes and motifs that definitely stand up to extended development in longer scenes.  The orchestration is also vivid, clear, and varied enough to give the fine National Ballet Orchestra a much higher-quality playing experience than they sometimes are offered.

 The other aspect of this Pinocchio which may not wear well is the overt Canadianism of some of the scenes.  The show does get a little silly at times with this although the silliness is good for a few laughs on first viewing.   Beavers don't trot around the country dressed as middle-class tourists, and the Mounties certainly don't go onto active police duty wearing the scarlet full-dress tunic.  On the flip side, the fluid ballet of lumberjacks in the first scene is one of the great delights of the entire work, and the use of a Maritime fishing village for the seashore scenes lends a welcome touch of homespun comfort to those sequences.   I found some of this a little less effective on second viewing.

On the other hand, there are several character roles in the piece which offer scope for the National's gifted team of character artists to shine.  The Schoolmistress appears twice, once in each act, and is aptly named because she is far too old-fashioned and rigid in her approach to really be called a Teacher!  Rebekah Rimsay did fine work, not only in forcibly marching her class around the stage but also in clearly speaking the lines of her text.  I felt a little sorry for her (but only a little) when her charges rebelled and ran away in Act II.

The bar scene gave Stephanie Hutchison a great little cameo as a rough-spoken barmaid.  Bright red dress and classic white apron flashing, hips leaping from side to side as she walked, feet planted well apart on the ground as she stood by a table, she was a clunky caricature of a bar server.  I always get a good laugh from watching a graceful dancer like Hutchison do something so graceless.  Her speaking voice was of a piece with her character's physicality.  The briefer appearances of the Mountie and the Beavers (all uncredited) were other good examples.

The Ringmaster of the Funland amusement park/circus was a creepy clown figure, again involving a mixture of character work and some dance steps.  Evan McKie certainly conveyed the sinister side of the character in both facial expression and physical carriage.

The Blue Fairy's Five Shadows play a very important role in the show.  They carry most of the action forward, through movement and dance certainly (mostly slow and elegant) but also, and even more, by speaking most of the lines of text.  Guillaume Cote, Harrison James, Antonella Martinelli, Sonia Rodriguez, and Xiao Nan Yu all did beautifully here -- the deliberate pacing of their speeches made sure that all of the text carried clearly out to the house, while the grace of their dancing sequences emphasized their connection to the magical side of the story.

On to the roles which are predominantly danced.

This ballet doesn't offer as much scope to the corps de ballet as some works, but there are a few great chorus sequences all the same; the lumberjack ballet already mentioned, and the underwater ballet in Act II are prime examples.  Another is the class of school children, which appears twice and has a notable moment in Act II where the children go to Funland and get changed into donkeys -- cleverly simulated by using aluminum crutches as front legs.  My own favourite is the final scene in the fishing village, with the graceful folk dance inspired by the traditional reel.

The largest of the character roles, and one that involves a fair amount of dancing as well, was the role of Geppetto, Pinocchio's adoptive father.  Jonathan Renna aptly captured the emotional states of this character throughout the piece, and especially in his unhappy solos over the disappearance of Pinocchio.  Also very special was his handling of the heartfelt moment when Pinocchio kneels to him and begs forgiveness.

The major villains of the piece are a Fox and a Cat.  Both were dressed in human clothes with head-dresses conveying their animal nature.  The best word to describe the choreography for these two is "sinuous"; somehow I got the impression that both of them had elastic bands replacing their spinal columns.  Jillian Vanstone's Cat was wickedly good at this, as she prowled about the stage, but Felix Paquet's Fox certainly didn't get left behind, his energy nicely counterpointing her finesse.  These two managed to be both comical and dangerous at the same time, giving the audience plenty of laughs and a few shivers too.

The most classical part of the entire show is the role of the Blue Fairy, Pinocchio's guardian, protector, and teacher.  Her sparkling blue wings and flaring blue tutu proclaim her to be of another world from everyone else, while her curly red 1950s wig adds an unexpected but effective touch of contrasting colour, and makes her seem a little less remote or ethereal.

Her part calls for a great deal of air time: she is frequently lifted by one or two of the Shadows, and has a number of leaps on her own account.  Hannah Fischer certainly showed us all the contrasting sides of the Fairy's character, and her dancing throughout was graceful as well as imbued with meaning.  This was especially true of her pas de deux with Pinocchio -- certainly not romantic, but suggestive of a teaching moment, of role modelling perhaps.  More than either, Fischer in this beautiful duet radiated an almost maternal care and concern for her young charge.

Which brings us finally to the title role.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST ALERT:  My nephew, Robert Stephen, was one of the two dancers I saw in this part -- no surprise there!

The choreographer and company have decided to divide performances of the title role among three dancers, and all three share a certain boyishness of appearance that will serve them well in this particular part.  It's by far the largest role in this ballet, and requires exceptional attention by the dancer to kinds of physical detail not often found in the world of ballet.

The first performance I saw was given by Jack Bertinshaw.  His Pinocchio graduated visibly and fairly quickly from the angular motions of the first scene to a more natural style of dancing, which then continued to develop further as the show moved along.  He had great stage presence at all times, and showed clearly not only Pinocchio's longing to become better but also his weakness in allowing himself to be tempted aside by various attractions.  The longing became even more pronounced during the underwater scene in the final moments of Act I.  His desperate reaching out to Geppetto was a true emotional peak in his performance.  He also moved very effectively into the more classical idiom of the pas de deux with the Blue Fairy.  I certainly look forward to seeing him take on other substantial roles!

Robert Stephen's approach was a little more graduated.  He held onto the angular aspect of Pinocchio's movement longer, making the transition a little less immediate, and so less obvious.  This worked especially well for him in his interactions with others, such as the school children, the Fox and Cat, or the giant puppets and their controlling silver ribbons (an extraordinarily complex scene to rehearse, I'm sure).  His highlights included the Funland scene where he moved most believably and energetically after being turned into a donkey.  Also, that brief moment of admitting his fault and begging Geppetto to forgive him resonated with emotional truth.

Both dancers were hilarious in the opening scene where Geppetto tries to figure out how to teach Pinocchio to move and walk.  It's actually quite a challenge to convey much emotion when part of your face is penumbraed by your proboscis, but both Bertinshaw and Stephen developed a wonderful expression of puzzlement which greatly added to the physical fun during this comic scene.  Both of them also rang all the right emotional changes during the final transformation scene where Pinocchio finally becomes a human boy.

By now, you're wondering, "Is he ever going to say anything about the Nose?"  Well, yes.  There is a nose, and it does grow right before your eyes -- when it works.  In the two shows I saw, it worked once and didn't work the other time -- it's unfortunate, but things like this happen in all types of live theatre.  Here's hoping they can get it fixed so it works properly every time.

Pinocchio continues at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto until March 24.  It's funny, it's touching, it's definitely family-appropriate, and it's a great fusion of dance, acting, stagecraft, and wonderful music.  This show is a do-not-miss!