The Neverending Story at The Stratford Festival – A Review

From left: Andrew Robinson as Artax the Horse, Qasim Khan as Atreyu, Laura Condlln as Chancellor of the Ivory Tower and Roy Lewis as Cairon in The Neverending Story. Photography by Emily Cooper. Courtesy The Stratford Festival.

Hats off to the Schulich family, whose obviously generous donations fund the production of children’s theatre at the Stratford Festival! In the 2019 season their largesse is bringing us The Neverending Story, adapted by David S. Craig from German writer Michael Ende’s popular book, at the downtown Avon Theatre.

Ende’s tale has its enthusiasts. I am not one of them, but director Jillian Keiley turns an empty, all-black stage into such a colorful swirl of effects that I found myself swept along. The ingenious design is by Bretta Gerecke with pinpoint lighting provided by Leigh Ann Vardy. Brad Cook and James Retter Duncan handled puppetry direction and movement.

The story (which actually does have an ending) tells the tale of Bastian, a nerdy and bullied kid who loves reading. When fleeing the daily onslaught of his tormentors he ducks into an antiquarian bookshop and, on an impulse, steals a very special book. Confronted in the street by a mysterious but unmistakably evil grown-up, he sequesters himself in his school’s attic and starts reading.

Like The Horse and His Boy at the Shaw Festival, the story within The Neverending Story tells of a quest. This one is by the young boy, Atreyu, through the land of Fantastica, which is under siege by a mysterious something or other called The Nothing, to find a cure for the Childlike Empress who is wasting away. I found the convoluted plot and the odd assortment of creatures and villains in Fanastica hard to sort through, kinda like German philosophy. The 900 or so preteens who surrounded me in the theatre had no such problems; they were rapt and obviously deeply engaged. When Bastian announced he was going to skip school, a small voice two rows ahead of me called out, “Oh no, don’t do that!”

Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Bastian is drawn into the action of the story, the characters start speaking to him, and he is the one who saves the Childlike Empress by giving her a new name. Why that works, I have no idea, but Ende’s overarching message about the joy and wonder of reading comes through loud and clear. The characters in the books we read do enter into our world and remain with us forever, so in a very important way their stories never end.

Jake Runekles is terrific as Bastian, as is Qasim Khan as Atreyu. There are impressive turns in small roles by Ijeoma Emesowum as the evil Maya and Mamie Zwettler as the adorable Childlike Empress. Sean Arbuckle distinguishes himself in multiple roles, most hilariously as the puppet master behind the diminutive Urgl and Engywook.

The rest of the cast, which includes actors who have played major roles on the Festival stage, are largely invisible, clad all in black in the fashion of Bunraku puppeteers so their bodies are seldom if ever visible. So many and varied are the effects they produce that it is hard to believe they are created by such a small company.

If you are an adult without a small child in tow you might want to give this show a pass. But if you have any interest in puppeteering specifically or theatre magic in general you just might want to take a peek.

Nathan The Wise at The Stratford Festival – A Review

The set for Nathan The Wise.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play Nathan The Wise (translated and adapted by Edward Kemp), now playing in the Festival’s Studio Theatre, is one of the literary gems of the early Enlightenment. Lessing applied humanist logic, as opposed to blind superstition, to the problem (still with us today) of religious tolerance and the lack thereof. The effect was illuminating and for many of Lessing’s contemporaries devastating. It still packs a wallop.

Set in twelfth century Jerusalem during the Third Crusade and the reign of the relatively tolerant Sultan Saladin, the play centers around the relationships among Saladin, a captured Knight Templar whom he has pardoned because of his uncanny resemblance to the sultan’s dead elder brother, and Nathan, a wealthy Jewish merchant who is respected by the entire city for his moral rectitude and perspicacity, not to mention the kind of wealth that can help a sultan out of a financial crunch.

Nathan returns from a successful business trip to be informed by Daya, the Christian woman who manages his household, that his daughter, Rachel, has been rescued from a fire by the freed Templar. A romance ensues, posing the first of a number of ethical and moral crises Nathan must face.

The crucial moment in the play occurs when the sultan summons Nathan and challenges him to say which of the three great monotheistic religions is the true one. Nathan responds with an ingenious parable that, in essence, says “Who can tell?” We must all live our lives to the highest standards of the religion that has been bequeathed to us.

The Templar, disquieted by his love for a Jewish girl, learns from Daya that in fact Nathan’s daughter is actually the child of a Christian who entrusted her to Nathan’s care when he faced certain death. When the Templar seeks the advice of the Christian patriarch of Jerusalem, the response is horrific: The Jew must die.

The play’s action moves on to something of a happy ending, one that has echoed down the ages in dramatic literature, even in tales chronicling events in a galaxy far, far away. But behind, and overarching, the plot is the theme of ambivalence in the face of religious dogma and the truth so eloquently expressed by Rodney King in the waning days of the twentieth century – Can’t we all just get along?

Birgit Schreyer Duarte has mounted an intelligent and largely effective production. Teresa Przybylski’s abstract set stands in for ancient Jerusalem while the costumes evoke a more modern Middle East; the omnipresence of armed soldiers reminds us that even in this period of relative tolerance, tensions remain and danger lurks.

My major quibble with the production is the miscasting of the very talented Diane Flacks in the central role of Nathan. Ms. Schreyer Duarte says in her Director’s Notes that “we hope to inspire curiosity about how wisdom relates to our ideas of gender: what do we expect from women versus men as leaders? What do we consider ‘wise’ in women versus in men …?” That’s a subject worth exploring, certainly, as playwright Kate Hennig is doing to great effect in Mother’s Daughter, also playing at the Studio.

But Ms. Franks is asked to play Nathan as a man, complete with a scruffy beard that makes her look more like a Yeshiva boy than a venerable greybeard who has sired and lost seven sons in a Crusader attack that left him penniless; when we meet him in the play, he has rebuilt his business and is once again wealthy. The curiosity inspired in me was how could this part be more effectively cast.

That being said, Ms. Franks delivers an intelligent and persuasive reading of the role that is true to the text and that serves the text, which has nothing to do with gender roles. Once I summoned my willful suspension of disbelief and put aside my reservations I was able to become absorbed in the production and enjoy its considerable virtues.

Ms. Schreyer Duarte is working with a predominantly young cast, many of whom are making their Festival debuts. They all give good account of themselves, even when they are not quite right, mostly too young, for their parts. Perhaps Ms. Schreyer Duarte had her hands tied when it came to casting. But I couldn’t help thinking that this season’s Festival company contains a number of artists of considerable stature who could have made this powerful play, under the direction of this director, one of the Festival’s major achievements of the last several years.

Mother’s Daughter at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Shannon Taylor as Mary and Irene Poole as Catalina. Source: The Stratford Festival

Unless you hold a cum laude degree in English History you will be well advised to arrive at the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre early so you can pore over the program notes for Kate Hennig’s Mother’s Daughter.

Pay special attention to the two-page Tudor Timeline. Those of us laboring under the misapprehension that the royal line of succession went from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I will be surprised to find that between Henry and Queen Bess there was not only another king, Henry’s only son Edward (VI) but two other queens. One of them ruled England for just 9 days.

Mother’s Daughter is the third in a trilogy in which Hennig explores the trials, tribulations, and occasional triumphs of the women in Henry VIII’s extended family. The others, which also premiered at Stratford, are The Last Wife and The Virgin Trial.

Hennig is more interested in “interrogating” (can we declare a theatrical moratorium on that word?) the themes and personalities of the Tudor era than in historical accuracy, another reason for boning up on your history. The costumes are largely contemporary as is the electric set (both by Lorenzo Savoini) and the language is decidedly so. I seriously doubt anyone in the Tudor era used the phrase “crawling up the ass of the patriarchy.”

In this play the focus is on Queen Mary (a commanding Shannon Taylor) who reigned for about four years before dying childless, whereupon Elizabeth ascended to the throne. This is “Bloody Mary,” not to be confused with the better remembered Mary Queen of Scots. There’s that pesky history again.

A constant presence in Mary’s troubled life is the shade of her mother Catalina – better known to posterity as Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. Henry, eager for a male heir, arranged to have that marriage annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn, who shortly gave birth to Elizabeth. The annulment precipitated Henry’s break with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. Are we following so far?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Catalina (an impressive Irene Poole) has some “issues” with the way she was treated and in the interest of perpetuating her own bloodline she relentlessly presses Mary to consolidate her power in the time-honored way of monarchs everywhere – by killing everyone who might challenge her right to the throne, starting with her cousin Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin) and her half-sister Elizabeth (Jessica B. Hill), while she searches for a suitable husband with whom to produce an heir.

But Mary vacillates, at first thinking that clemency will win over her enemies. A complicating factor is that Mary clings to the old religion, while Jane and Elizabeth have embraced Protestantism. She pleads with Jane to convert to no avail.

In Hennig’s version, Mary emerges as a less than resolute ruler. She hems and haws and continues to take an inordinate amount of guff from her counselor Simon (a quietly forceful Gordon Patrick White) long after her father would have said “Off with his head!”

Eventually, she gets with the program, doubles down on reinstating Catholicism, and starts reprisals against her enemies (there’s a reason she’s known to history as “Bloody Mary”). Jane Grey is beheaded and Elizabeth seems to be on shaky ground. There are heated arguments between Mary and Elizabeth and among Mary and the shades of her mother and Anne Boleyn (Ms. Hill again). The double casting is a bit confusing at first, but Hennig is making the point that both Mary and Elizabeth are their mother’s daughter.

Although her death is not depicted in the play, Mary eventually succumbed to an unknown illness, which in this production looks an awful lot like a virulent form of stomach cancer, before her marriage to Philip of Spain (also not depicted) can produce issue.

Hennig’s play is a heady brew of themes – religious absolutism versus religious tolerance, compassion versus ruthlessness, sisterly love versus the imperatives of power, the struggle of these women to impose their own vision of what the monarchy should be while navigating a culture that devalues them.

I suspect many will find it talky and hard to follow and truth be told Hennig doesn’t make it easy. What will be crystal clear however are the powerful performances director Alan Dilworth has elicited from his cast. Poole, Rankin, Hill, and White are all excellent, and with this production Shannon Taylor, who is onstage for the play’s entire two hours, takes her place as one of the Festival’s great leading ladies.

Perhaps someday we will be able to see all three plays within a short period of time, perhaps in repertory, staged with a unified visual aesthetic, with the same actresses appearing in the roles that repeat. That would be a theatrical event worth traveling for. Now that Hennig has become the associate artistic director of the Shaw Festival, perhaps this is an honor they will accord her.

Little Shop of Horrors at the Stratford Festival – A Review

Gabi Epstein as Audrey and André Morin as Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors. Photography by Chris Young.

Let’s cut to the chase — Donna Feore is a genius.

The director/choreographer, who is known for her pyrotechnic and acrobatic dance numbers and spot-on visual flair, has taken on Little Shop of Horrors, something of a chamber rock musical, if you will, that was originally created in 1982 for the smaller stages and budgets of Off-Off-Broadway and now holds forth on the Stratford Festival’s Avon stage. But if her canvas is small the effects she achieves are monumental.

Little Shop tells the tale of Seymour Krelborn (Andre Morin), a painfully shy orphan raised in Dickensian fashion by Mr. Mushnik (Steve Ross) in a florist shop on Skid Row. Seymour pines for Audrey, the shop’s other employee, although she has eyes only for Orin Scrivello (Dan Chameroy), a sadistic dentist who beats her regularly, like a gong.

One day, Seymour comes into possession of an extraterrestrial plant, a sort of Venus flytrap that he soon discovers has a taste for human blood. The plant, which Seymour dubs Audrey II, thrives on a diet of Seymour’s blood, squeezed out of cuts that multiply as fast as the plant grows. The plant first attracts customers, then fame and fortune for Seymour and the shop, but it’s growing appetite forces Seymour to make some unpleasant moral choices.

So in addition to being a fun homage to the clichés of drive-in B-movie sci-fi and 50s-style doo-wop and R&B, Little Shop is a morality tale that asks the ever-pertinent question “What price fame?”

It’s fitting then that the show uses a sort of Greek chorus to frame the story and comment on the action. Vanessa Sears, Starr Domingue, and Camille Eanga-Selenge are nothing short of brilliant as Ronette, Crystal, and Chiffon, whose names pay homage to three famous black girl groups of the 50s and 60s.

The opening number, the show’s title song, stops just short of being a literal show stopper. Not only are these three women gorgeous, with voices to match, but Feore has created for them a version of the synchronized movement of those bygone girl groups that is rhapsodic. It’s as if she has taken a simple ditty and transformed it into a symphony. If that number doesn’t hook you, there’s something wrong with you.

And Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) are just getting started. It’s not surprising that this show made their reputation or that Disney snapped them up to create a string of successful scores for its animated classics.

It can be argued that the real star of Little Shop of Horrors is Audrey II and the effects wizards at the Festival have created something (several somethings actually since Audrey II keeps growing) that is simply dazzling. It’s altogether fitting that that the four puppeteers and the voice (Matthew G. Brown) that bring Audrey II to life are prominently featured in the curtain calls.

The human performers are no slouches either. Gabi Epstein, making a smashing Festival debut, has a voice that lifts the roof off the Avon, and her squeaky, little-girl New York accent is dead on. Andre Morin keeps adding to his range as an actor with his poignant and ultimately heroic Seymour, and Steve Ross adds yet another jewel to his crown as one of the Festival’s indispensable company members.

Dan Chameroy is one of those protean performers who make going to see live theatre worthwhile. His smarmy, leather-clad dentist is hysterical, but he is every bit as impressive when he plays, in rapid succession, all of the agents, impresarios, fame merchants, and hangers-on who want to hitch their wagons to Seymour’s rising star.

Everything about Little Shop is nigh on perfect. The fever dream of a deteriorating New York created by Michael Gianfrancesco (sets), Dana Osborne (costumes), Michael Walton (lights), and especially Jamie Nesbitt (projections) brought me back to the mean streets I trod in the 70s.

Finally, a tip of the hat to performers who would go unsung in a lesser production. It’s a testament to either the dedication of Stratford’s actors or Donna Feore’s ability to get great performers to appear in small roles that she has enlisted Marcus Nance and Blythe Wilson to play a wino and a bag lady. They prove the point that there are no small roles.

It’s unlikely that Little Shop will match the record set by last season’s Rocky Horror Show, but expect this one to be extended well into the Fall.

The Shaw Festival 2019, Part I

shaw festival 2019
The first four plays to open in Shaw’s 2019 season

The first four plays of The Shaw Festival’s 2019 season have opened and they’re a mixed bag. Here they are in descending order of my personal preference.

Rope

At the risk of the proverbial apples to oranges comparisons, perhaps the best of the bunch is Rope, a 1929 British melodrama by Patrick Hamilton, which is remembered today largely because of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film adaptation. Produced with admirable fidelity to the period, it is perfectly at home in the cozy Royal George theatre.

Rope is an almost unbelievably dated and creaky vehicle, one of many that once filled stages in the English-speaking world, but a game cast under the taut direction of director Jani Lauzon avoids all the pitfalls and delivers an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

The scene is a Mayfair flat occupied by two Oxford undergraduates who have just murdered the son of one of their professors and stashed his corpse in a chest in their living room. Now they are about to host a dinner party whose guests include their victim’s father.

Why? Oh, the usual Nietzschean enthusiasm that infects privileged college students. (See also Crime and Punishment, and Leopold and Loeb.) In 1929, the material was no doubt considered ever so transgressive, before the term was invented. Then it was put across with large slatherings of melodramatic excess as evidenced by the photographs from the original production in the Shaw program.

Lauzon allows none of that and the performances, while heightened just enough to let us know that we should not take all this too, too seriously, never lapse into caricature.

Kelly Wong and Travis Seetoo are excellent as the perps, but the show belongs to Michael Therriault as one of the boys’ former teachers, whose whimsical façade masks a keen analytical mind. Therriault is a gifted performer who frequently suffers the misfortune of being miscast at Shaw. It’s nice to see him in a role that he can fully inhabit.

The Horse and His Boy

Like the Stratford Festival, Shaw likes to include at least one show each season that will appeal to children. These aren’t throwaway productions either, but often lavish extravaganzas that have no doubt been responsible for creating more than a few life-long theatre-going habits.

At Shaw, under artistic director Tim Carroll’s leadership, this mission to “hook’em while they’re young” has recently taken the form of adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels. This season’s The Horse and His Boy (following last year’s The Magician’s Nephew) is the latest installment and it’s an utter delight.

C.S. Lewis is famous as a Christian apologist and the Narnia tales preach the Christian message in the guise of children’s fantasy. I confess that I found the mythology of this adaptation a little fuzzy to follow, but then I find Christian mythology itself rather befuddling. What requires no explication are the themes and tropes that have characterized this sort of story since Homer first started improvising. And here they are well served by all concerned.

Anna Chatterton, whose play “Within The Glass” is destined to become a modern Canadian classic, has provided a sprightly adaptation with the by now de rigueur nods to current feminist orthodoxy. Christine Brubaker’s brisk direction keeps the action moving and uses every inch of Jennifer Goodman’s imaginative sets and costumes and the Festival Theatre’s large stage. It also helps that the juvenile leads, Madelyn Kriese and Matt Nethersole are altogether delightful.

In drama schools, young actors often have exercises in which they pretend to be wild animals; most of them are all too eager to put such childish things behind them as they seek their fortunes on the wicked stage. So it’s a pleasure to see talented performers, some of them well into middle age, unselfconsciously return to their roots.

Brigadoon

The big, blowout musical of the season is getting a lavish production on the Festival stage thanks to Pam Johnson’s set, Kevin Lamotte’s lighting, and Corwin Ferguson’s ingenious projections. If you have fond memories of Brigadoon and its music, you won’t be disappointed.

Matt Nethersole as Charlie and Travis Seetoo as Harry Beaton reveal themselves to be accomplished dancers and Alexis Gordon, late of the Stratford Festival, brings her lyrical soprano voice to the role of Fiona.

The two Americans who stumble on this highland Shangri-la are both excellent. George Krissa as Tommy Albright will be unrecognizable to those who saw him as Rocky in last season’s Rocky Horror Show at Stratford, and Mike Nadajewski, another Stratford stalwart, is terrific as his sidekick; he’s rapidly becoming Canada’s answer to Alan Alda.

Lest you think that you will be seeing a faithful revival of the 1947 original, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. It seems that no company can touch a “classic” these days without mucking about with it in some way. Here the changes (the “revised book” is credited to Brian Hill) make no big difference. Mr. Lundie becomes Mistress Lundie; no one will complain about that except perhaps for the male company member who will grumble over his beer, “I shoulda been playing that part!” More consequentially, to my way of thinking, the witches who served the fairy-tale nature of the story so well have been replaced by genocidal British troops.

As I say, no lasting harm is caused by these changes but still, shouldn’t a preeminent “classical” repertory company have more reverence for the original text?

Getting Married

If you are looking for a good reason for mucking about with the original text of a classic, you’ll find it in George Bernard Shaw’s Getting Married, which graces the Royal George. For starters you could cut out half an hour.

The play is (rightly) considered minor Shaw and is seldom produced, although this is the Shaw Festival’s fifth try. What is that old saying about doing the same thing over and over expecting different results? Now that the “original mandate” has been thrown out the window there seems to be little cause for reviving plays best forgotten.

The play is a potpourri of pithy points on the subject of marriage and divorce and is about as effective as that last bit of alliteration. Shaw seems to have started with a laundry list of ideas and then couldn’t bring himself to throw any of them out.

Tanja Jacobs’ rudderless direction doesn’t help. Seasoned Shavian performers are left hanging as the arguments run into and over each other and the tone shifts bewilderingly. Mrs. Collins’ scene in Act II, although nicely played by the always alluring Marla McLean, seemed like something from another play.

The production did such a poor job of holding my attention that I found myself pondering the use of regional accents at Shaw. Most of the Shaw plays I can remember seeing here (there may be exceptions) use standard Canadian accents, as does The Horse and His Boy, but Rope employs plummy Oxbridge accents and Brigadoon uses various simulations of Scottish brogues. I wonder how these decisions get made.

All in all, this first round of plays provided a rewarding weekend of cramming in four shows. The Grill on King once again fed us well and the bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel provides just the right atmosphere for those long post-theatre discussions.

The Shaw Festival
Tickets from $33 to $190
(800) 511-7429
www.shawfest.com

Grill on King
233 King Street, just off Queen.
(905) 468-7222
www.grillonking.ca

Prince of Wales Hotel
6 Picton St, corner of King
(905) 468-3246
www.vintage-hotels.com/princeofwales/

Glory at Drayton Entertainment — A Review

glory
(Source: Drayton Etertainment)

As an American visitor to Canada and an inveterate theatergoer, I take great pleasure in seeing plays and visiting theaters that few visitors manage to discover. In the process, I often see plays that don’t seem to have any real equivalents south of the border. (No, not that border!)

A case in point is Glory, a joyous depiction of the early days of women’s hockey in Canada by Tracey Power, who also doubles as choreographer. I caught the show, presented by Drayton Entertainment, in its waning days at the Hamilton Family Theatre in Cambridge, Ontario, about an hour’s drive from Stratford.

The play, which began its life at the Western Canada Theatre in Alberta, tells the true story of the Preston Rivulettes, a team of plucky young women who refused to believe that “women don’t play hockey” and who went on to regional and then national acclaim in the 1930s.

Power based her play on the lives of actual Rivulettes and their coach using their real names (the pronunciation of the surnames of the Schmuck sisters and coach Fach provides one of the show’s many laugh lines).

The basic story is predictable enough, verging on cliché – initial skepticism on the part of their reluctant coach, predictable struggles against tough odds, tension among teammates. But Power stirs in themes of Canadian anti-Semitism in the lead up to World War II. There’s a lesbian crush that is so understated that I suspect many audience members never notice, but it’s beautifully done and I found it most touching.

Yes, it can get a bit preachy at times, but Power, along with her engaging cast, brings such freshness to the tale that only the most determinedly critical will find fault.

James MacDonald (who directed a splendid Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival in 2009) works wonders with his cast of five and Power more than earns her choreographer credit with the imaginative way in which she sketches in the agonies and ecstasies of fast-paced hockey games.

It’s hard to single out actors here so I’ll just list them: Kate Dion-Richard, Katie Ryerson, Advah Soudack, Andrew Wheeler, and Morgan Yamada.

Although Glory has closed in Cambridge, it can still be seen at other Drayton Entertainment venues. It will be at the Huron Country Playhouse II in Grand Bend, Ontario, from June 12 to June 22; at the King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene, Ontario, from June 26 to July 6; and at the Drayton Festival Theatre in Drayton, Ontario, from July 10 to July 20.

Drayton Entertainment
(855) 372-9866
www.draytonentertainment.com

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.]