The Penelopiad – A Review

Spriet Stage Grand Theatre

The Spriet Stage at London’s Grand Theatre (Source: Tourism London)

Blame The Handmaid’s Tale.

With the popularity of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale of a toxic patriarchy there is a temptation to view all her work as feminist screed. Never mind that Atwood herself rejects that label, the zeitgeist will not be denied.

It is to director Megan Follows’ credit that she only occasionally succumbs to that temptation in her earnest and uneven production of Ms. Atwood’s The Penelopiad at the Grand Theatre in London, Ontario.

The Penelopiad, which began life as a novella, retells the final events of Homer’s Odyssey. Narrated conversationally by Penelope from her eternal home in Hades it uses her twelve maids as a sort of Greek chorus to comment on the tale using a variety of poetic and prose forms. It’s easy to see why someone thought this Canadian best-seller lent itself to the stage. The theatrical version, produced under the aegis of the Canadian National Theatre, and featuring an all-female cast, premiered in 2007 and was revived in a critically acclaimed production, starring Ms. Follows as Penelope, in 2012.

The current incarnation, which breaks with tradition by casting a man as Odysseus, employs a great deal of theatrical imagination yet remains stubbornly bound to the page, perhaps not surprising since the text is lifted directly from the novella.

In crafting her version, Ms. Atwood was puzzled by the killing of Penelope’s maids in the original myth. Telemachus, told by his loyal nursemaid Eurycleia that they had dishonored the house by consorting with the suitors, unceremoniously strings them up to avenge the family honor. That may have been par for the course in ancient Greece but it seems a bit excessive to modern eyes. After all, weren’t the maids victims of those nasty suitors?

In creating her own alternative myth (to borrow a turn of phrase from Kellyanne Conway), Ms. Atwood is too great an artist to fall back on an evil-patriarchy-oppressed-women cliche. While not as flawed as Odysseus – in the flaw department Odysseus is a hard act to follow – Penelope is no feminist poster child. For starters, she is gnawed by jealousy over Helen’s much greater beauty and the incessant male attention it brings her. So much for sisterhood. Far from rebelling against her inferior position in the Ithacan hierarchy, she is by her own account a loyal and devoted wife who manages the household as best she can given the restraints imposed upon her. The only other major female character is no paragon of virtue either; the slave Eurycleia pointedly usurps Penelope’s role as mother to raise and pamper Telemachus and she is instrumental in getting him to hang the maids.

Most interestingly, ms. Atwood invents a backstory for the maids’ involvement with the suitors. Penelope enlists them as a sort of KGB-style dirty tricks brigade, encouraging them to consort with the suitors and badmouth her to them so as to gather valuable intelligence. In this she mirrors Odysseus’ reputation as a cunning trickster and she’s quite pleased with herself. For their parts, the maids seem to relish their role, at least initially. Of course, as we know, it all comes a cropper. When Penelope wakes from a drugged sleep (courtesy of the duplicitous Eurycleia) to discover her maids have been hanged she is devastated. Penelope is her own Greek tragedy, a heroine whose hubris, though well-intentioned, brings on unforeseen and hideous consequences.

The production works best visually and some of the stage pictures are stunning. Set designer Charlotte Dean and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher have created an evocative vision of Hades, looking something like a sub-basement of a destroyed high rise, a drab and somber place with no torture but no creature comforts either. Jamie Nesbitt’s projections add eerie touches and Deanna H. Choi’s incidental music is evocative. Dana Osborne’s costumes have their moments but she was unable to solve the problem of having Penelope’s maids take on a kaleidoscopic array of other roles.

Penelope’s tale is told quite well, as you would expect with the protean Seana McKenna in the role, but seldom truly dramatized. As Penelope tells us her story, Ms. Follows uses her game cast to illustrate and occasionally act out events. The results vary widely. Some scenes and moments are quite arresting: the rape of the maids by the suitors and their ensuing hanging, Penelope’s never-ending grey wedding dress that becomes both a shroud and a tablecloth, the industrial platform that becomes the wedding bed.
Too often, though, the choices are banal or just plain silly: Odysseus going off to Troy in a football helmet, Telemachus toting a skateboard. Some choices are odd. Why is Helen depicted as an Odissi dancer (aside from the fact that the actress does it very well)? I was reminded of the Kama Sutra sculptures from the Khajuraho Temples of India.

Most problematical are the musical numbers that feature the maids’ commentary. Atwood wrote them in a variety of verse forms that Ms. Choi’s music and Philippa Domville’s choreography attempt to bring to life. Unfortunately, the effect is to transport us to the high school musical rather than ancient Greece. These interludes are often crowd pleasers but they obscure rather than illuminate the effect they had on the page.

There are some standouts in the cast. Ellora Patnaik makes an arresting Helen and Praneet Akilla is a sprightly Odysseus although he is too often called upon to play the fool. And Tess Benger is wonderfully effective as a spoiled teenage boy as Telemachus, however you might quibble with that choice.

This is something of a farewell performance for Ms. McKenna, who has announced a one-year sabbatical in which she will travel the world. She commands the stage but I couldn’t help feeling that Ms. Follows failed to challenge her star to find more in the character. Perhaps there are no greater depths to be plumbed; Ms. Atwood’s Penelope is resolutely non-heroic. Still, for Seana McKenna it seemed a bit like she was phoning it in.

A Restaurant Tip

Garlic’s of London is just a few steps from the Grand Theatre and has been my go-to choice for pre-theater dinner. The garlic-accented menu is terrific, with the garlic fettuccine a standout. There is a sensible wine list with more than the usual number of wines by the glass; I have learned to trust the server’s suggestion.

481 Richmond Street
London, ON
519-432-4092

A Parking Tip

By all means avoid the Precise ParkLink lot on Dufferin Avenue. Their insane automated payment system, which many people find impossible to decipher, means it can take more than 45 minutes to get out of the lot.

The Penelopiad
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission
through February 9, 2019
Tickets $30 – $86
The Grand Theatre
471 Richmond Street
London, ON
519-672-8800

The Drowsy Chaperone: A Review

St Jacobs Playhouse

The Drowsy Chaperone plays at The St Jacobs Country Playhouse


St Jacobs, Ontario, is known for its Farmers Market and its antiques, but it also boasts a small gem of a theater. The current show at the St Jacobs Country Playhouse (through April 15, 2018) is The Drowsy Chaperone and it’s a winner.

With a book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar (of Slings and Arrows fame) and music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, The Drowsy Chaperone started on Toronto’s fringe theater scene and went on to become an international hit. It’s easy to see why.

Essentially, it’s a parody of 1920s musicals but if the creators had left it at that it would no doubt have sunk like a stone. Instead they use an ingenious framing device — a lonely schlub alone in his drab apartment invites us to listen to his favorite old time musical. This allows us to enjoy the highlights without the chaff. And what highlights they are.

The Drowsy Chaperone, the show within the show, tells the sort of frothy tale that P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton used to churn out for the Broadway musical stage: A famous stage star is about to throw it all away to marry the rich scion of an oil empire, but her producer, under threat from mobsters who are heavily invested in his next show, can’t let that happen. Added to the mix is the tipsy chaperone of the title, tasked with preventing the betrothed from seeing each other on the day of the wedding. She fails, of course, as does the producer and hilarity ensues.

All of this is great fun thanks in no small part to the energetic choreography of Robin Calvert and the spot-on costumes of Rachel Berchtold. But it is the cast that really shines.

The aforementioned schlub (we later discover he’s suffered through a debilitating divorce), known simply as Man in Chair in the playbill, is embodied by Mike Nadajewski. A regular at the Stratford Festival where he usually plays minor supporting roles, Nadajewski here gets a shot at a star turn and he makes the most of it.

The women in the musical within the musical take pride of place. They’re all terrific — Jayme Armstrong as the megastar, Gabrielle Jones as the chaperone with a belt that is anything but drowsy, Jennifer Thiessen as the dizzyingly ditzy girlfriend of the producer, and Glynis Ranney as the doyenne in whose mansion the action unfolds.

This production may not be a match for the original, which I did not see, but until a time machine comes along it will more than suffice. The price is right, the theater is a super comfortable gem with nary a bad seat in the house, the company is congenial, so what’s holding you back?

A Restaurant Tip

There may be fancier places nearby, but I was perfectly happy at The Crazy Canuck, a family run vest-pocket eatery across the street from the Playhouse. Great burgers and house-smoked meats are on offer along with a few vegetarian offerings, two-person pizzas and, of course, poutine in a variety of exotic permutations. The locally brewed IPA is the quaff of choice.
845 Weber Street
Waterloo, ON
519-747-2729

The Drowsy Chaperone
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes without intermission
Through April 15, 2018
St Jacobs Country Playhouse
40 Benjamin Street East
Waterloo, ON
519-747-7788

Swans on the March: 28th Stratford Swan Parade

Stratford Swan Parade

Stratford’s swans strut their stuff en route to their summer digs.

Despite snow flurries, a patina of ice on portions of the Avon River, and threats of cancellation, the sun came out and the 28th annual Stratford Swan Parade came off without a hitch, much to the delight of some 1,000 spectators from as far away as India, China, and Mexico.

Many people think of Stratford’s swans as a sort of logo for the Stratford Festival, which was founded in 1953. Indeed, many swans desport themselves on the bank just below the Festival Theatre during the summer. But there were swans on the Avon many years before the Festival arrived.

In fact, this year’s parade marked 100 years of swans on the Avon. Stratford’s first pair of mute swans arrived in 1918, the gift of one J.C. Garden, who may have been inspired by Ben Jonson’s nickname for that great Stratfordian, William Shakespeare — Sweet Swan of Avon. The idea caught on and the population grew, helped along by Queen Elizabeth the Second who in 1967 gave Canada six swans, two of which found a home in Stratford. As a nod to the herd’s royal connection, two of today’s swans (a mating pair appropriately enough) are named Kate and William. (And, yes, “herd” is the proper term for a group of swans.)

Mute swans are not native to the area, so Stratford’s birds are “pinioned” to prevent all but the shortest flights and are cared for by the city during the colder months of the year. They reside comfortably in heated winter quarters with a pool. Come the warmth of Spring (or what passes for it in Canada) they are returned to the freedom of the river.

Originally, the city simply opened the doors and shooed the swans 2,000 feet down Lakeside Drive to the river, but the sight of some twenty swans waddling along is kind of irresistible and as word spread the crowds grew. In 1990, the city made its annual swan release a full-fledged event.

Stratford Swan Parade Pipers

The Stratford Police Pipes and Drums add a dramatic touch to the Stratford Swan Parade

Today, the event is marked by a competition among Stratford businesses for the most imaginatively decorated topiary swan, plenty of activities for children, and puppet shows. The grand finale occurs when Stratford’s swans are ceremoniously piped to their summer home by the Stratford Police Pipes and Drums, resplendent in their kilts. It’s all over in about ten minutes, but people linger along the banks of the Avon to watch as pairs fan out to scout nesting sites or exult in the short flights their pinioned wings allow.

“Lear” at Harbourfront Center in Toronto – A Review

Seana McKenna and Jim Mezon in Lear

Director Graham Abbey and his Groundling Theatre Company continue their gender bending ways with Lear, starring Seana McKenna, which drops the King from Shakespeare’s title and presents the tragic monarch as a woman. The results are mixed.

Once again, Abbey proves himself a masterful interpreter of Shakespeare. The minimalist sets and period-agnostic costumes, both by Peter Hartwell, work beautifully and Abbey bends the rather awkward space at the Harbourfront Center to his will.

Shakespeare’s text is the main attraction here and the company renders it with crystal clarity, while Abbey highlights elements that sometimes get muddled in other productions. The parallels between Lear’s relationship with her daughters and Gloucester’s with his sons are particularly poignant. The ways in which these aged parents misread and mismanage their relationships with their children hold lessons for us all.

Goneril and Regan rise to truly gothic heights of cruelty. (I couldn’t help wondering if the actresses found it easier to hate their mothers.) In contrast, Edgar’s tenderness for the father who has so ill-used him is especially heartbreaking.

As usual, Abbey has attracted some of Canada’s best actors. Jim Mezon, a stalwart of the Shaw Festival, is terrific as Gloucester and what a treat to see him matched with the doyenne of the Stratford Festival! The scene in which the now-blinded Gloucester meets the mad Lear on the heath is perhaps the most effective I’ve ever seen.

Kevin Hanchard, new to me but familiar to Canadian audiences from his TV work, is a masterful Kent. Antoine Yared, who starred as Romeo last season in Stratford, is a touching Edgar, and Deborah Hay (Goneril) and Diana Donnelly (Regan) are both sharper than a serpent’s tooth.

Less successful is improv great Colin Mochrie, making his Shakespearean debut, who delivers the Fool’s lines as if he were playing a comedian who knows his jokes aren’t very funny. Alex McCooeye gives an intelligent reading as Edmund but lacks the sexual chemistry the role calls for. He is also sabotaged by his extreme height; when Goneril says “decline your head” so they can kiss it gets a laugh. Mercedes Morris’ Cordelia is sweet but rather wan.

Of course, the main attraction here and the one that has drawn the most press is Seana McKenna, one of Canada’s greatest actors, assaying one of Shakespeare’s greatest roles, one traditionally played by a man.

Much has been made of the way in which the gender swap adds deeper meaning to the text. “I gave you all!” we are told has more resonance when spoken by the mother who gave birth. Well, maybe. There are still lines like “you have that in your countenance
which I would fain call master” and constant references to Lear’s “kingdom” that remind you that Shakespeare had something else in mind.

To my way of thinking, Lear should bring some hint of his incipient madness on stage in the very first scene. When McKenna enters in her stylishly mannish outfit in Act One she evokes nothing so much as a high-powered banker at the top of her game. It’s hard to believe that this buttoned down queen would surround herself with scores of rowdy, drunken knights, let alone descend into madness in a scene or two.

John Geilgud quipped that the secret to playing Lear is finding a light Cordelia. Indeed, one thing that made Colm Feore’s Lear at Stratford a few seasons back so shattering was the way he not only carried Cordelia on stage but sank to the ground with her in his arms. Unfortunately, McKenna must resort to dragging her corpse on a sheet, and up two steps to boot.

All these nits being picked, McKenna plays the part beautifully and thanks to Abbey’s strong hand on the helm you quickly forget all about gender and attend to the play. There are tears to be wrung in McKenna’s performance and she comes by each drop honestly.

So does this production prove that more women should be playing more lead male roles in Shakespeare? My guess is that there will be as many answers to that question as there are genders. But if this Lear proves anything it’s that a great actor is a great actor is a great actor. Ms. McKenna reciting the Toronto phone book would be worth the price of admission.

[This production has closed.]

L’Appart by David Lebovitz: A Book Review

L'Appart by David LebovitzHave you ever dreamed of living in Paris? Of having your own little pied a terre in the City of Light? Perhaps even moving there and settling down?

If that’s you, I have some good news and bad news about L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making Paris My Home, the latest book from expat pastry chef and food blogger David Lebovitz. The subtitle says it all.

Let’s deal with the bad news first. Unless you have limitless patience to go along with your limitless bank account, you probably don’t want to follow in Lebovitz’s plaster-begrimed footsteps. As he tells it, renovating an apartment in Paris is a never-ending nightmare. Just buying the place to begin with is no picnic either.

[Read more…]

Four Christmas Carols

 

christmas carol

The drop curtain for “A Christmas Carol: The Family Musical with a Scrooge Loose”

How do two Americans keep themselves occupied when visiting Canada during the deepening cold of early December? Why take in four very different versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol of course. The initial plan was to see just one, but…well, you know how these things go.

First up was our original choice, a decorous and heartfelt reading of Dickens’ text at the Stratford Festival, presented as a benefit for the nascent Stratford-Perth Rotary Hospice. Using a version of the novella abridged by Dickens himself for just such recitals, six readers took turns telling the timeless tale of misery and redemption on the Festival Theater’s poinsettia-bedecked stage. The “staves” of Dickens’ story were punctuated with musical interludes ranging from madrigals to pop-folk.

[Read more…]

A Day in Le Havre

havre-bistrot-copy

I have my issues with port calls when cruising.

For starters, there’s the sheer size of today’s vessels. Often there are two or more visiting on any given day, each of them disgorging the population of a small town into often-small towns.

Then there are those pricey shore excursions, which in my opinion seldom give value for the dollar. Several hours on a bus, followed by an often hurried tour of some famous sites, followed all too often by a leisurely pause for shopping, followed by another few hours on the return to the ship is not my idea of a well-spent day. [Read more…]

Eugene Boudin at MuMa

Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

If you’ve never heard of Eugene Boudin (1824-1898), you’re forgiven. Even Boudin, at the end of his life, recognized rather poignantly that he was destined to be a footnote in the history of modern art.

Yet Boudin does not deserve to be forgotten. Not only was he a source of influence and inspiration for the Impressionists, many of whom he knew and encouraged, but he was a delightful artist in his own right.

Boudin was born in Honfleur, France, and grew up in nearby Le Havre. Although he traveled to paint in Paris and Italy during his career, he returned to the area of his birth frequently; the maritime scenes of Normandy were a lifelong inspiration.

Now the Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art (MuMa) in Le Havre has mounted the first retrospective of Boudin’s works since 1906 and by far the largest, comprising as it does well over 300 works.

The curators have wisely arranged the exhibition chronologically, which allows them to illustrate their notion of Boudin as a “Craftsman of Light.” (The French title is L’Atelier de la Lumiere.)

By Eugene Bodin (Copyright, musee d'art moderne Andre Malraux.)

By Eugene Bodin (Copyright, musee d’art moderne Andre Malraux.)

A well-conceived guide to the exhibition (available in English as well as French) allows the visitor to follow his development. He began as a largely self-taught artist, but attracted the interest of established painters who encouraged him. The town of Le Havre gave him a scholarship to learn his craft by copying Old Masters in the Louvre; as part of his tuition he had to send the city one completed copy a year.

When he married, he spent time with his in-laws in Finnesterre in Brittany where he was fascinated by the austere landscape and sombre Breton interiors. There he produced a series of dark and evocative canvases.

But his first love was the seashore of his native Normandy, whose beaches, harbors, and sailing vessels provided a lifetime of subjects and inspiration. And of course light was a never-ending source of fascination for Boudin. Inspired by the Barbizon School he developed a penchant for painting outdoors, en plein aire in the French phrase, and became one of the pioneers of the method.

Later in his career he created study after study, quick, impressionistic sketches in paint, often used by artists as a sort of rough draft for finished works to be completed later in the studio. But Boudin seldom took the subsequent steps, a tendency for which he expressed some regret as artists were “supposed” to produce finished works.

And yet, by working his way, he anticipated the more informal “impressionistic” style that became Impressionism. His studies of clouds in particular are in essence proto-abstracts and quite lovely.

Boudin exhibit at Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

Boudin exhibit at Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art

It may not be worth taking a detour to catch this exhibition unless you have a special interest in this little corner of the history of modern art, but if your travels take you to Le Havre it would be a shame to miss it. L’Atelier de La Lumiere offers a rare chance to survey an artist’s entire career (and Boudin was nothing if not prolific) and gain a deeper understanding of the wellsprings of one of the major artistic movements of the late nineteenth century.

boudin-poster copyL’Atelier de La Lumiere runs through September 26, 2016.
Andre Malraux Museum of Modern Art
Musee d’Art Moderne André Malraux (MuMa)
Boulevard Clemenceau (on the seafront)
Le Havre

 

 

 

‘Angels in America’ at KC Rep – A Review

Angels in America

“Angels in America” (Photo KCRep)

What’s playing in Kansas City…

Tony Kushner’s two-part Angels in America is receiving a sturdy revival at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s downtown Copaken Stage.

This sprawling two-part epic, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, is at turns surreal, whimsical, hallucinatory, bitchily funny, poetic, brutally blunt, and ultimately quite moving.  [Read more…]

Kenya: Big Cats in the Wild

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

Undeterred by a tourist vehicle, the cheetah strides very close to her visitors.

ON THE MAASAI MARA, Kenya — I have two cats at home, which probably makes me just that much more likely to enjoy game viewing that includes some of the big cats. I was lucky enough to do that recently, when I joined a press trip, sponsored by the Kenya Tourism Board.

Jeeps and driver/guides for our group’s game viewing were provided by the Sanctuary Olonana tented camp, where we were hosted one night, and Great Plains Conservation, which owns two camps where we were guests, Mara Plains and Mara Toto.

Our group watched the big cats several times on the Maasai Mara National Reserve or, at times, while in nearby privately held conservancies.

Lions

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

Isn’t he the true Lion King?

We saw the lions first. With one exception, though, that was not where the action was. Generally, the cats were doing what cats do very well — sleep, stretch and yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

Lions know how to enjoy a good yawn.

In the one exception, a lion pair was doing what comes naturally to make those cute little cubs. And, we were probably indecently amused.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

The family that naps together stays together. These young lions are seen on the Maasai Mara.

As it turned out, out observations of leopards and cheetahs were more gripping — although, in no case, did we see a kill. Fine by me.

One of our guides could not resist referring to gazelles as cheetah chips. He also called the wildebeest lion sausage.

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