Mary Poppins at The Grand Theatre — A review

Mary Poppins program

Megan Watson’s exuberant and imaginative production of Mary Poppins at the Grand Theatre in London will enthrall young children. Adults may wish to quibble.

The musical Mary Poppins is a bit of a Frankenstein monster, cobbled together from the children’s series by P.L. Travers and (mostly) the Walt Disney film of 1964, with unspecified contributions from London impressario Cameron Mackintosh and songs from the Sherman Brothers (the film) and George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (the original London production), with a book by Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame. All these cooks haven’t so much spoiled the broth as made it somewhat lumpy. It’s not until the second act that the heart of the show emerges.

For folks who don’t know (can there be any?), Mary Poppins (Deborah Hay) is an enchanted Edwardian-era nanny who mysteriously appears to assist families that are “upside down.” In this case, it’s the Banks family of Cherry Tree Lane, whose unruly children, Jane (Abi Verhaeghe) and Michael (Hayden Baertsoen), have driven a succession of nannies to despair and new employment. Their parents, George (Ben Carlson) and Winifred (Alexis Gordon) are not so much evil as distracted. George is trying to be the model of a modern major capitalist, while Winifred, an ex-actress we learn, is trying to live up to what she imagines as the ideal of a proper wife, which means abdicating much of her motherly role to the nanny.

While Mary takes the kids in tow and introduces them to Bert (Mark Uhre) a cockney jack-of-all-trades, we visit George at the bank where he works and see him turn down a loan to a German flim-flam artist, while giving one to an earnest young man who wants to open a factory that will benefit his employees (hey, it’s a musical). When the head of the bank learns that the bank’s major competitor has bankrolled the German, George is put on unpaid leave while the board decides his fate. Will the Banks family face disgrace and penury?

Meanwhile, Mary Poppins takes one of her periodic breathers and Winifred, hoping to assuage her husband’s desire for “precision and order,” tracks down and hires George’s former nanny, Miss Andrew (the brilliant Jan Alexandra Smith). When George meets her, he flees in abject terror and Mary Poppins returns to send her packing.

Finally, George is summoned to the bank to learn his fate and, yes, there is a happy ending, one that emphasizes the importance of work-life balance for a healthy family and makes a sort of feminism-lite nod to Winifred’s new-found agency.

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Director Watson has set the piece in a large, plain box (set design by Lorenzo Savoini) that is somewhat reminiscent of Peter Brooks’ legendary set for Midsummer Night’s Dream. What renders it anything but plain are the exuberant projections of Jamie Nesbitt that transform the space into a child’s bedroom, a London park, and most memorably the rooftops of a very polluted London.

What most people will remember from the movie are the songs, and songs mean dance numbers. So the lackluster choreography of Stephen Cota comes as a profound disappointment. The lack of pizzazz is surprising considering that Cota served as associate choreographer to Donna Feore in seven productions at the Stratford Festival. Most tragically, he has failed to mine Mark Uhre’s prodigious talents as what used to be called an “eccentric dancer.” True, he has Uhre fly during the chimney sweeps number, but it’s hardly a substitute for the rubber-limbed panache that made Uhre such a scene stealer in Feore’s production of Guys and Dolls.

What elevates this production to must-see status is the superb cast, most of them veterans of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. Under Watson’s guidance they give performances that delve deeply into their characters’ reality. Ben Carlson as George brings gravitas and genuine feeling to a character that could easily have been a cardboard cutout, and Alexis Gordon, in addition to contributing her silvery singing voice, makes Winifred’s love for her family palpable. Mark Uhre, who narrates the action in the persona of Bert, is charming when he’s not singing and dancing and, when he is, even the simple steps he has been given burst with life. In her brief appearance as the gorgon, Miss Andrew (she also doubles as the Bird Woman), Jan Alexandra Smith makes an indelible impression. Watson has also elicited assured performances from the two kids.

Deborah Hay, of course, is a national treasure. Her Mary Poppins doesn’t break new ground but wisely hews close to the model we all remember from the film, although she adds an endearing touch of melancholy when, her job done, she takes leave of the Banks children. Umbrella held high, she flies with the casual aplomb of a fearless teenager. Flying by Foy gets credit for the aerial work.

Dana Osborne has provided period appropriate costumes, the only false note being the outfit worn by the Banks’ manservant; presumably this choice was made to facilitate the actor’s doubling in a variety of other, silent roles, but it will strike a discordant note for those who have seen any of the gazillion shows about the Edwardians.

The show is mic’d, of course, as even the most intimate of musicals in the most intimate of spaces are these days. My wife, who felt physically assaulted by the volume, opined that sound designer Brian Kenny must have borrowed the sound system from Theatre for the Dead. Those who have not destroyed their hearing with years of rock concerts may want to pack earplugs.

Mary Poppins continues at the Grand Theatre through December 29, 2019.

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London, ON
519-672-8800

Aunt Agnes For Christmas at The Foster Festival — A Review

The Foster Festival in St. Catherines is prospering and, in a first, Norm Foster, the Festival’s eponymous and prolific playwright, has offered up a celebratory piece to mark the holiday season.

Aunt Agnes For Christmas is probably not destined to rank among the best of Foster’s work. It is as airy and insubstantial as spun cotton candy and every bit as sweet, which makes it ideal for a family outing to the theatre, especially if there’s a tween girl in your clan.

Aunt Agnes (Nora McLellan), let’s not mince words, is a witch who arrives at the Trimble house on December 23rd and convinces Sally and George Trimble (Cosette Derome and Kelly Wong, who are married in real life) that she is a long-lost or rather totally unknown aunt on George’s side of the family. Rounding out this seemingly happy family are 14-year-old Melissa (Kate Peters) and the nearly silent 8-year-old Brian (Hayden Neufeld) who, in one of Foster’s odder conceits, fashions himself after Frank Sinatra and later Elvis, complete with period-appropriate costumes.

Agnes pretty quickly tips her supernatural hand to Melissa, but her parents are completely won over and decide that Agnes can be trusted to mind the kids while Sally, the mayor of the small town of Whitehaven, heads to the office and George heads to the RV dealership where he works expecting to collect a juicy Christmas bonus.

Melissa pegs Agnes as “a Mary Poppins from the dark side,” but her real mission is to do good things for the Trimble family, especially the precocious Melissa who sees no future for herself in this provincial backwater and dreams of the day she can escape. Agnes conjures up breakfasts and dinners for which Melissa gets the credit. All the while she teaches the kid new life lessons. Agnes can’t do everything though; she’s of little help when George gets a pink slip instead of his expected bonus. Through it all, however, Melissa learns the importance of family and by play’s end has resolved to build her future in little Whitehaven. Aunt Agnes really is a Mary Poppins figure.

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The humor is vintage Foster, gentle and character-driven and he and director Patricia Vanstone are well served by the cast, all with roots in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Shaw veteran  Nora McLellan has precisely the right tone for Agnes, often saying one thing to the family and something else entirely to the audience. When she compliments George on his facility with English accents, he proudly explains that he has had years of experience with the local amateur theater troupe. McLellan wrings every delicious drop of irony from the response, “And it shows!”

Kelly Wong, who was admirably sinister in Rope last season at Shaw, veers to the nearly opposite end of the performing spectrum as the insanely, one might almost say inanely, cheerful and optimistic George. It’s tough to make this kind of character remotely believable, but Wong pulls it off with aplomb.

Cosette Derome has a delicious moment as a clueless parent, when she explains Brian’s silence.

Sally: He doesn’t say much. He only speaks when he has something important to say.
Brian: Mom?
Sally: Not now, dear.

As good as the adults are, I was most impressed by Kate Peters’ preternaturally poised and professional performance as Melissa. She spends most of the play on stage with McLellan, the consummate old pro, and more than holds her own. This kid has a future.

Aunt Agnes For Christmas continues through December 22, 2019.

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St. Catherines, ON L2R 3M2
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Tootsie on Broadway – A Review

Tootsie, currently playing at Broadway’s Marquis Theatre, is a musical comedy that’s strong on the comedy and surprisingly weak on the musical side of the equation.

Based on the 1982 film starring Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie tells the tale of Michael Dorsey (Santino Fontana), a forty-ish actor who, secure in his superior artistic instincts, has rendered himself unemployable by trying to re-direct everything he gets cast in. He shares hardscrabble digs and restaurant employment with Jeff (Andy Grotelueschen), an aspiring playwright who has yet to write a play. When his long-suffering agent (Michael McGrath) tells him he’s washed up, he decides to don drag and audition for a part his neurotic sometime girlfriend Sandy (Sarah Stiles) is up for.

Here the show’s creators (David Yazbek, music and lyrics, and Robert Horn, book) wisely part ways with the film and send Michael off to audition as Dorothy Michaels not for a soap opera but for a tacky musical, Juliet’s Curse, helmed by the sociopathic Ron Carlisle (Reg Rogers) with whom Michael has some unpleasant history. Surprise, surprise (and cue the willing suspension of disbelief) he wins the part, largely through the intercession of the uber-rich producer Rita Marshall (Julie Halston) and becomes an overnight sensation, so much so that he is the toast of Broadway before the show (now renamed Juliet’s Nurse) even opens.

This Tootsie does a number of things right. The book cleverly updates the story to fit neatly into today’s #MeToo sensibilities without being overly strident. Ron Carlisle is appropriately loathsome, but he does seem to know that “no” means “no”. Julie Nichols (Lilli Cooper), the leading lady of Juliet’s Nurse, is a thoroughly independent woman who is completely in charge of where lines are to be drawn, and Julie Halston provides an amusing portrait of a slightly ditzy woman who is not afraid to throw her weight around. All this helps keep the fun of the show front and center; only at the end of the show is a message with a capital “M” trumpeted: “Being a woman is no job for a man.” It gets a big round of applause.

The creators don’t fall into the trap of giving the show a totally happy ending, with Michael finding redemption and forgiveness and riding off into the sunset with his true love. On the other hand, they don’t consign him to eternal Al Franken-like non-personhood, which given his transgressions would be a completely reasonable choice.

Perhaps the best part of the show is Robert Horn’s book, which is packed with genuine laughs, and the cast delivers them well. Fontana and Grotelueschen deserve special mention in this regard, although their slick delivery sometimes sounds like they are performing for four cameras and a live studio audience. Yazbek deserves honorable mention for some of his lyrics, especially in the annoyingly strident pattern song “What’s Gonna Happen” sung by the neurotic Sandy and reprised too often.

Otherwise, Yazbek’s music is forgettable. Of course, this isn’t the first successful musical to have a less than stellar score, so perhaps that can be forgiven. What’s unforgiveable on Broadway, however, is Denis Jones’ pedestrian choreography. The first big number is lackluster, but when I realized that it was supposedly part of a lackluster musical under Ron Carlisle’s direction I thought it would improve. I was wrong. Jones’ choreography too often devolves into hopping in place or wandering about aimlessly.

Thankfully, the cast, under Scott Ellis’ direction, is terrific and works full out even when some of the characters are one-note. As Max Van Horn, the dumb as dirt hunk who has the male lead in Juliet’s Nurse, John Behlmann has the show’s best number, “This Thing,” in which he expresses his totally improbable love for the much older Dorothy and knocks it out of the ballpark.

Santino Fontana tackles the impossible role of Michael/Dorothy and comes out a winner. For me, he lacked the intensity of Dustin Hoffman in the movie or the matinee idol charm of the likes of Kevin Kline that might have made his performance the stuff of Broadway legend. On the other hand, he won the Tony, so what do I know?

In sum, Tootsie makes for an enjoyable enough evening in the theatre thanks to a stellar cast and some truly funny laugh lines, but devotees of the Broadway musical will be underwhelmed. The show wouldn’t seem to have what it takes to become a classic; nonetheless, I suspect that it will be revived from time to time whenever some “name” actor thinks he’s Man enough (you should excuse the expression) to take on Dorothy.

Tootsie continues at the Marquis Theatre through january 5, 2020.

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Bed and Breakfast at The Blyth Festival – A Review

Bed and Breakfast by Mark Crawford, a plea for tolerance wrapped in a deceptively simple (and quite funny) comedy, is packing them in at the Blyth Festival prior to a whirlwind tour of British Columbia.

Brett (Crawford himself) and Drew (Paul Dunn), two Torontonians in a committed relationship that has yet to blossom into marriage, are struggling to move from their small condo into a house. The real estate market conspires against them, however, adding to the stress of their unsatisfactory jobs as a designer (Brett) and an assistant manager in a hotel (Drew). Then Brett’s favorite aunt Maggie dies in the small touristy lakeside town where Brett spent his summers while growing up and bequeaths her large house to Brett. At the same time Drew loses out on an expected promotion. So the two decide to leave Toronto, fix the place up, and flip it to finance their Toronto dream home. When they realize how much they loathed their Toronto jobs, they decide to transform the house into a B&B.

That premise might suggest the play is about the humorous adventures of rehab with colorful local workmen and the foibles of oddball B&B guests — a sort of A Year in Provence meets Fawlty Towers. There’s all that, of course, but the play turns into much more. Brett and Drew are at first apprehensive about being the only gay people in town, but matters take an ominous turn when they experience some homophobic slurs and major anti-gay vandalism during the Christmas season. As it happens, the majority of the townspeople are quite supportive and Brett and Drew are not the only gay people in town. As the play progresses, we learn that while Brett and Drew may be “out,” there are a lot of things hidden away in both their family closets.

The “mystery” at the heart of the play may not be entirely new — indeed, it’s a plot device that goes back to Shakespeare and the ancients — but Crawford handles it beautifully as both playwright and actor and when the truth was revealed a tear came to my eye. The play also offers a subtle commentary on generational changes within the gay community. Brett and Drew seem to pride themselves on being “just-like-you-but-gay;” some of their Toronto friends seem to revel in their more flamboyant, old-school gayness; while the younger generation, on the other hand, seems to reject easy labels in favor of a more fluid definition of sexuality.

Bed and Breakfast has twenty-two characters, all of them performed by two actors. Crawford positions the play as a story being told to us by Brett and Drew, which makes that concept work quite well and seem considerably less arch. A great part of the enjoyment of the piece is watching Crawford and Dunn switch effortlessly from character to character, often with a little jump and a spin. I especially enjoyed Crawford’s renditions of both Alison, a lesbian who runs the town’s hippest coffee shop, and Dustin, a shy teenager who loves to bake and is gay but doesn’t know it. Dunn’s portrait of Brett’s teenage nephew, who answers every question with “I dunno,” is equally deft.

One thing that makes the conceit work so well is Ashlie Corcoran’s deft direction. Crawford and Dunn mime all the props and wear clothes in a muted palette of greys, which they change unobtrusively and only occasionally. Designer Dana Osborne, in addition to doing the costumes, has provided a malleable set, also in muted tones, that borders on the abstract but becomes quite believable as bedrooms and store counters. John Gzowski’s uncannily pinpoint sound design and Rebecca Picherack’s equally spot-on lighting add immeasurably to the illusion. All of this focuses the audience’s attention on the acting, which is quite wonderful.

As I noted, Bed and Breakfast is, on one level, a plea for tolerance. It seems to ask the question, “Can gay people be accepted as members of the community in small towns that are, sort of by definition, far less tolerant than big cities like Toronto?” Well, Blyth is a small rural town and if the standing ovation accorded the show by the mostly middle-aged and elderly audience with whom I saw the play is anything to go by, the answer would seem to be a resounding “Yes!” Even so, Bed and Breakfast, under all the laughter, has a message well worth hearing. I fear it will be quite some time before audiences come away from this play thinking, “How dated!”

Bed and Breakfast runs through September 28, 2019.

Blyth Festival
423 Queen Street
Blyth, ON N0M 1H0
(877) 862-5984
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Victory at The Shaw Festival – A Review

Howard Barker is the bad boy of British theatre. He revels in filth, flatulence, four-letter words, and fornication displayed on stage with all the verisimilitude that the law allows in plays set for the most part in past eras and other countries — for the “distancing effect” he says.

“A good play puts the audience through a certain ordeal,” he once told The Guardian. “I’m not interested in entertainment.”

Victory, his 1983 historical drama being offered up by the Shaw Festival in the intimate confines of the Studio Theatre, makes good on that promise — or is it a threat?

Set during the restoration of the English monarchy in the 1660s, the play follows the trials of Mary Bradshaw (Martha Burns), widow of John Bradshaw, one of those who had signed the death warrant for Charles I. Bradshaw was dead when Charles II returned in triumph to England, but he was nonetheless charged with treason, exhumed, hung, drawn, and quartered. His widow attempts to gather the decaying pieces of his body, which have been put on public display around London, so she can bury them. It doesn’t go well.

Along the way, she meets King Charles II (Tom McCamus), his mistresses Nell Gwynn (Deborah Hay) and Devonshire (Sara Topham), and Ball, a randy cavalier (Tom Rooney) whose mission of avenging the overthrow and execution of Charles I seemed to involve raping every Cromwellian woman he could lay his hands on.

There’s not much of a plot. Plot was not one of Barker’s major concerns. Given the politics of the era, one might expect some sort of political message. But “I have contempt for messages in the theatre,” Barker once proclaimed. Bradshaw’s widow is the only character who evolves significantly during the course of the play and given the human quirk of pareidolia, which causes us to see images in clouds and other random patterns, I decided the “message” was that the secret to survival in times of upheaval is to accommodate yourself as best you can to the new dispensation. At play’s end Bradshaw’s widow is married to the cavalier who raped her, caring for his child, and still carrying a burlap sack filled with the bits of her dead husband.

Otherwise the play seems rather random, a succession of short scenes that seek to epater les bourgeois. At one point, I was reminded of the New Yorker humor piece about new warning signs in the theatre — “Warning: This play contains nudity. However it doesn’t involve the actor you would prefer to see naked.” Barker succeeds fairly well in shocking us, so well in fact that a fair number of the bourgeois in the audience epater-ed themselves right out of the theatre at intermission.

I’m not sure whether this was Barker’s idea or an inspiration of the director, but for the final scene of the first act the entire audience was forced to leave the theatre and either descend a long flight of stairs or cram into a tiny elevator to reach a windowless room with too few chairs to accommodate everyone. It was a pointless exercise, which given the advanced age of many of the audience members was also rather cruel.

For all its insistence on repelling its audience, Victory is now “an acknowledged masterpiece” and I have that on no less authority than the playwright himself, who tells us that in a program note. Well, maybe.

If I’ve been a little hard on Mr. Barker it’s only because his pompous self-regard makes it irresistible to snipe. To give him his due, the play is never boring even if it is never truly involving. A fair amount of credit must be given to director Tim Carroll, who has wisely decided to stage the play on a completely bare stage, which brings a refreshing feeling of space to the Studio’s small theatre-in-the-round playing area. Rachel Forbes’ terrific costumes along with the occasional chair or table and Kevin Lamotte’s sensitive lighting are all the scenery needed.

Carroll has also elicited excellent performances from his principal actors. Tom McCamus seems to be specializing in deranged English monarchs and he does it very well. Sara Topham manages to maintain her dignity even when she is waving a semen-besmirched hand in search of a napkin. When Deborah Hay doubles as a doddering old courtier she makes one forget the inanity of much of the random gender swapping that goes on these days. Finally, Martha Burns brings a deep sense of humanity and realism to widow Bradshaw, no matter how improbable the path the text requires her to tread.

In a program note, Tim Carroll says, “Discovering Howard Barker blew my mind wide open.” Fair enough, but why is Shaw doing this play? I think theatre people are drawn to this sort of “transgressive” material in much the same way that comedians gather from time to time to drink copious amounts of alcohol and compete to see who can tell the filthiest jokes. There’s something liberating in breaking down barriers of propriety and taste. Maybe the exercise gives actors access to darker realms of the imagination and helps them go on to create more compelling characters in other plays. There’s definitely a place for this kind of exploration. But at Shaw?

Perhaps there’s an unlit basement room with not enough chairs to accommodate the audience somewhere in Toronto.

Victory continues in repertory at the Shaw Festival’s Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre through October 12, 2019.

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(905) 468-2172

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Cyrano De Bergerac at The Shaw Festival – A Review

Let’s start with the good news. The central story of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 Cyrano de Bergerac is alive and well in the capable hands of Tom Rooney as Cyrano, Deborah Hay as Roxanne, Jeff Irving as Christian, and Patrick Galligan as De Guiche. Moreover, playwright Kate Hennig, whose Tudor trilogy wrapped up this season at the Stratford Festival, has written a sleek prose adaptation that serves the story well.

Set during the tumultuous years of the seventeenth-century Thirty Years War, Rostand’s sprawling verse epic (the original had some 40 speaking parts and 60 named characters) tells the tale of the eponymous hero, an unequalled swordsman from Gascony possessed of an immense talent as a poet and an equally immense nose. He is enamored of his cousin Roxane, but because of his prominent proboscis he is ashamed to profess his love. Enter Christian, a hunky new guardsman also in love with Roxane, a feeling that is reciprocated. Unfortunately for Christian, Roxane wants more from a man than a pretty face, muscles, and flowing hair. She wants poetry and this is an area in which the tongue-tied Christian is sadly lacking. Complicating matters is the fact that Count De Guiche wants to marry Roxane off to Viscount Valvert.

When Cyrano realizes the depths of Roxane’s feelings for Christian he quashes his own feelings, becoming Christian’s ghost writer, both in love letters and in a famous scene speaking from the shadows beneath her balcony. Cyrano arranges a secret marriage between Roxane and Christian. De Guiche, his plans thwarted, sends Christian and Cyrano to besiege Arras. Christian is killed in battle and Roxane enters a nunnery where the faithful Cyrano visits her weekly, never revealing his love. It is only in the play’s final moments, when Cyrano is dying, that Roxane accidentally discovers the truth.

Tom Rooney, one of Canada’s greatest actors, turns in yet another masterful performance as Cyrano. He makes Cyrano’s bravado, heroism, and pain all equally believable and touching. Deborah Hay, who has an uncanny ability to portray characters much younger than her chronological age, plays Roxane as a bit of an air head, but she does it so well that I, for one, was completely won over. Jeff Irving is ideally cast as Christian and Patrick Galligan’s De Guiche is much more than the cardboard villain we usually see. Chris Abraham, who is establishing himself as one of Canada’s most reliable directors, makes the most of the Royal George Theatre’s rather cramped spaces, using Julie Fox’s clever sets and costumes and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting to maximum effect.

The “bad” news is that this is not your father’s Cyrano. For one thing, the poetry is gone along with the cast of thousands . . . well, dozens. Hennig has also that the play is to be performed by a cast of fourteen, observing strict gender parity protocol. Since the play calls for many more parts than fourteen, this results in an awful lot of doubling, not to mention gender bending, mostly female to male. I only noticed one brief scene in which a man played a woman.

The only actress who fares well in all this is Tanja Jacobs as Cyrano’s comrade in arms, Le Bret. She is fortunate in having to portray only one character throughout the play. That means she has the luxury of a well-made wig that gives her a believable receding hairline. Abundant facial hair and a portly costume that obscures her femininity add to the effect. Had she been able to lower her vocal range a bit more the illusion would have been complete. Hers is a first-rate performance.

The other actresses aren’t so lucky. They are forced to switch, often very quickly, from male to female to male to nun. This means unconvincing wigs and, from time to time, ridiculous black moustaches that can be stuck on and removed quickly. Some actresses present versions of “masculinity” that verge on parody, while others seem to have decided just to remain women wearing silly moustaches.

I wonder if in future productions Hennig will allow directors to expand the number of actors and use more gender-appropriate casting or if the current configuration is cast in stone.

Fortunately none of this interferes with the main story. Most of the core scenes involving the principles are quite intimate. If you can ignore the absurdities inherent in the gender-equity approach, you will find Hennig’s Cyrano a quite satisfying retelling of this timeless tale of unrequited love.

Cyrano de Bergerac continues in repertory at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre through October 20, 2019.

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Man and Superman at The Shaw Festival – A Review

The Shaw Festival has entrusted the staging of George Bernard Shaw’s monumental Man and Superman on the expansive Festival Theatre stage to the relative tyro director Kimberley Rampersad, whose only previous directorial credit at Shaw was the one-act O’Flaherty, VC last season. It was a risk and I am pleased to report that by and large it paid off.

Man and Superman is a sprawling monster of play. Presented here with the often-omitted dream sequence, Don Juan in Hell, it clocks in at some six-and-a-half hours, including a 70-minute lunch break. It is one part light drawing room comedy of manners, one part philosophical discourse, one part political harangue, and 100% Shaw. As such, it is a challenge for director, cast, and audience, even when whittled down to size by an ardent editor.

The play revolves around the trials, tribulations, and tirades of Jack Tanner (Gray Powell), a self-proclaimed “revolutionist” but every inch the idly rich English gentleman, who rails against the antediluvian mores of the age, which insist that he must marry. He’s having none of it. His ward Ann Whitefield (Sara Topham), however, wants it all. Add to the mix Violet Robinson (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster), who has committed the unpardonable sin. No, she’s not pregnant out of wedlock. It’s far worse. She’s secretly married to one who must remain nameless. Toss in Henry Straker (Sanjay Talwar), the cockney auto mechanic who chauffeurs Tanner’s newfangled motor car (it’s 1905, remember) and knows his Beaumarchais from his Voltaire; Hector Malone (Jeff Irving), a visiting American chap who has his own speedy motor car and who has taken a fancy to Violet; and crusty old Roebuck Ramsden (David Adams) to whom Tanner’s bohemian pretenses are anathema and you have plenty of room for comedic complications.

When the group takes off on a sort of road rally to the Mediterranean, they are waylaid by a bunch of anarchists and social democrats in Spain’s Sierra Nevada under the leadership of one Mendoza (Martha Burns), a former waiter at the Savoy Hotel in London. Between bouts of political disputation they rob travelers. Mendoza and Tanner hit it off. “I am a brigand. I steal from the rich,” says she. “I am a gentleman. I steal from the poor,” replies Tanner.

It is during this sojourn that the famous dream sequence occurs, when Tanner beds down for the night. Shaw was canny enough to make sure it could easily be excised without ruining the play that surrounds it and, truth be told, when performed it is a bit like Dicken’s undigested piece of beef, so different is it in tone and content. In the morning, the group winds up in Granada, where Hector’s father (Tom McCamus) appears and all is set to rights.

While the bones of the main plot seem lifted from Wilde the dialog is vintage Shaw, most of it devoted to Shaw’s ideas about the parlous relationship between men and women. For Shaw, women represent “the Life Force” whose role in the grand scheme of things is to perpetuate the race, which they do by entrapping men into marriage all the while allowing men, the poor saps, to believe that they are the pursuers not the prey. It is a point of view that, I dare say, many men in the audience will find familiar. Women, on the other hand . . . well, far be it from me to speak for what used to be called the gentler sex.

Shaw assigns most of the heavy didactic lifting to his logorrheic protagonist (and stand-in), Jack Tanner. And my but he do go on! Tanner is apparently the longest role in the English-speaking theatre and it is to Gray Powell’s credit that he pulls it off with aplomb. Shaw is wise enough to sprinkle the play with snide references to Tanner’s prolixity. At one point, his chauffeur, Straker, says, “If my motorcar went as fast as your mouth . . .” It’s a ploy that nips one of the most obvious complaints about the play in the bud.

In the Don Juan sequence (it has been established, but not really explained, that Tanner is a descendant of the Spanish rake) Shaw shifts from comedy of manners to metaphysical disquisition in which he, through Tanner, expounds on his theory, borrowed from Nietzsche, that human evolution is inexorably producing the “superman,” with women choosing just the right mates to bring this apotheosis to fruition. He borrows from Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni to stage a debate among Don Juan, Doña Ana, Satan, and Il Commendatore (Doña Ana’s father, killed in a duel by Don Juan, whose funereal statue comes to life in the opera).

Traditionally, these parts are played by the actors who portray Tanner, Ann Whitefield, Roebuck Ramsden, and Mendoza respectively, and therein lies one of the hiccups in this production — casting Martha Burns as Mendoza. Mendoza tells of a passionate, but unrequited, love affair with a woman who happens to be Straker’s sister. Introducing a lesbian love affair in a play that is all about the essence of heterosexual politics makes little sense. On the other hand, given the nefarious role played by women in the eternal battle of the sexes (Shaw’s view, not mine!) depicting Satan as a woman seems apt, and Burns is terrific in the role. Plus, it should be noted that, as Shaw presents it, Hell is where the cool kinds hang out; Heaven is unspeakably dull.

Rampersad made some other odd choices. She begins the play rather pointlessly by bringing all the characters on stage in a sort of line up where they present their cards to Ramsden’s butler. Then when the first scene begins, it is sung for a minute or so in recitative, an apparent nod to the operatic inspiration of the Don Juan sequence and an unfortunate example of a director calling attention to herself. After that, thank God, she settles down to business.

A major theatrical event like this deserves a sumptuous physical production. I have fond memories of the Shaw’s 1977 production, which featured a magnificent Rolls Royce (along with Ian Richardson and Carole Shelley). Camellia Koo’s set, however, looks chintzy, a series of flat walls depicting a vast library, which slowly deconstructs as the play progresses. I struggled to fathom the symbolism ­— the sheer volume of Tanner’s dialog? ­— and ultimately failed. Perhaps this was exactly what the director wanted; or perhaps, given that there are only 17 performances, it was felt that they couldn’t afford a lavish set; or perhaps the incredible set for The Ladykillers used up the last loonie in the set budget. Whatever the reason, it was a missed opportunity. Koo redeems herself with some smashing costumes, and Kevin Lamotte’s lighting is effective, too.

But ultimately, the production’s many virtues far outweigh any minor carps. The play places tremendous demands on the cast and they all rise to the challenge. Shaw’s speechifying can be deadly in the wrong hands, but Gray Powell, as noted, tackles a veritable mountain of dialog and makes it fresh and compelling and a joy to listen to. A fair amount of the credit for that belongs to the director. Sara Topham is delightful as “the Life Force.” The moment when she has finally conquered Tanner and falls into his arms is positively delicious. Few actors can depict the ecstasies of pure love better than Ms. Topham. Kyle Blair is nigh-on perfect as Octavius Robinson, the hopelessly dopey romantic smitten with Ann. Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster and Jeff Irving work well as the secondary love interests, and Tom McCamus, as the elder Malone, illustrates the benefit of casting a major actor in a minor role.

Given the infrequent productions of the full monty version of Man and Superman, I was surprised and more than a little upset to note that there were a fair number of empty seats at the performance I saw. Let’s hope that changes in the few remaining performances.

Man and Superman continues in repertory at the Festival Theatre through October 5, 2019

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The Crucible at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Powered by three amazing star performances, Arthur Miller’s searing drama, The Crucible, is receiving a towering production in the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre under the direction of actor Jonathan Goad.

The Crucible is set during the Salem, Massachusetts, witch trials of the late seventeenth century and the plot hews closely to the historical facts. But no one who saw the original production in 1953 could fail to see the parallels between the play and the contemporary witch hunt being pursued by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington, DC. Just in case, Miller included narration (absent from the Stratford version) that connected the dots for them. It was the dawn of the Cold War and with Russia having joined the nuclear club, the “Red Scare” was in full bloom.

American intellectuals, especially writers, were being hauled before the HUAC to confess their past leftist leanings and “name names” of others they knew to have been once members of the Communist Party. Those named and those who refused to cooperate had their careers destroyed. It is said that Miller began work on The Crucible after his good friend, the film director, Elia Kazan, told him that he would indeed name names in his appearance before the committee. A few years after The Crucible opened, Miller’s life imitated his art. He was called before the committee, refused to name names, and was convicted of contempt, fined, and blacklisted.

In the play, John Proctor, a hardscrabble farmer, is caught up in the hysteria surrounding witchcraft in Salem. The Reverend Parris, a dour Harvard-trained churchman, sees a group of girls dancing in the woods with the Barbadian slave Tituba. The girls claim they were merely dancing, not engaging in any satanic behavior. In fact, at the instigation of their ringleader, Abigail Williams, a former servant in the Proctor household, they were attempting to put a curse on Proctor’s wife Elizabeth. It seems that Abigail and Proctor had had a brief affair, of which Proctor quickly repented. Elizabeth Proctor knew of the affair and banished Abigail from the house. Abigail believes Proctor still has feelings for her and hopes to win him back.

Rev. Parris summons Rev. Hale, a young churchman wise in the ways of the occult, to investigate and things quickly spiral out of control. As accusations of witchcraft mount, Deputy Governor Danforth, a fire-breathing religious extremist, arrives to rid Massachusetts, which was essentially a theocratic state, of this evil. Miller paints a vivid and terrifying picture of a society gone mad and in Danforth he has created a villain of mythic proportions.

Goad’s direction of a uniformly superb cast creates a level of tension and terror that becomes almost unbearable as the play progresses inexorably to its tragic end. Tim Campbell is the very model of the rock-hard frontiersman who may not be particularly devout but who has an unerring sense of right and wrong. His struggle to stay true to himself while protecting his wife is heart-rending. As his wife, Shannon Taylor provides a portrait of a love that survives the greatest possible strain.

However, it is Wayne Best’s terrifying portrait of Danforth that provides the thematic center of the play and offers the clearest warning of the dangers of religious fanaticism. Best has done yeoman’s service for the Festival for many seasons, typically taking on secondary roles. It is gratifying to see him in a role that showcases his manifest talents so brilliantly. His Danforth may be the single best performance of the Stratford season.

Solid support comes from Rylan Wilkie as Hale, who comes to realize that there is no substance to the many charges of witchcraft and pleads to stem the bloodletting. Scott Wentworth is equally good in showing how Rev. Parris unravels as the witch madness comes ever closer to home, leaving him bankrupt and subject to death threats.

Like Shakespeare, Miller had an ability to create small roles that allow good actors to create fully rounded characters and make a mark on the audience. Ijeoma Emesowum as Tituba, John Dolan as Giles Corey, and Maria Vacratsis as Rebecca Nurse make the most of the opportunity given them. And a word must be said of the director’s nine-year-old daughter, Aviva Goad, who is quite scary as Rev. Parris’ daughter Betty, who may or may not be bewitched.

The performances are so strong that it’s easy to overlook the physical production, but Michael Gianfrancesco (sets and costumes) and Bonnie Beecher (lights) have provided a stripped down and functional environment that brings the acting front and center.

The Crucible is Miller’s most-produced play. I’ve seen a few of those productions but never one as powerful and emotionally shattering at this one.

The Crucible continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 25, 2019. If there’s any justice in this world, it will be extended.

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The Front Page at The Stratford Festival – A Review

In 1928, The Front Page was a huge Broadway hit for the legendary writing team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Set in the Press Room of a Chicago courthouse, it tells the story of how rapacious newspaper editor Walter Burns tries to retain the services of his star reporter, Hildy Johnson, who perversely has decided to get married and go to New York to work in advertising. All this against the background of the unfolding story of the pending execution of the hapless Earl Williams, accused of the murder of a black cop on the eve of an election in which the corrupt Chicago political machine desperately needs the black vote. Hildy’s plans are sabotaged when Williams mysteriously escapes and the Chicago police department goes nuts trying to find him. Needless to say, it’s a comedy.

The play is a sprawling ensemble piece (the current production boasts a cast of 23).  That may be why it is seldom revived, but it makes it an ideal choice for the Festival Theatre’s thrust stage. In addition to the colorful assortment of hack reporters, including one given to fastidiousness and poetry, there is the corrupt mayor and the incompetent buffoon of a sheriff; the condemned man, Earl Williams, and Mollie Malone, the shopworn prostitute who has befriended him; Hildy’s betrothed and her starchy mother; and a Runyonesque criminal whom Burns uses to do the dirty work.

Most people today are familiar with the story thanks to the rollicking 1940 film adaptation, His Girl Friday (on which Hecht collaborated). The film starred Cary Grant as Burns and Rosalind Russell as a gender-swapped Hildy. The current Stratford Festival production is an adaptation by Michael Healey of the original stage play in which the genders are switched once again. This time around, Hildy Johnson reverts to his male persona, while Walter Burns becomes Penelope “Cookie” Burns, Walter’s widow.

Healey has also brought the racial dynamics into the foreground. According to the program notes, the character of Alderman Willoughby, a black politician, that was eliminated before the original play opened, has been “reconstructed” in the present version. It works well as Abernathy turns up the pressure on the mayor by threatening another race riot if Earl Williams isn’t executed on schedule. There is also a black reporter in the Press Room who maintains his dignity amidst the casual racism of his peers (and, yes, the n-word is spoken).

Those who tremble when they hear that a great classic play has been “updated” or “adapted” (I am one of them) can relax. The sturdy bones of the story are intact and Healy proves himself to be a comic writer with whom Hecht and MacArthur would have been happy to get drunk. The plot remains a magnificent Rube Goldberg device that, once set in motion, careens wildly and improbably to its conclusion.

The play has been given a perfect period feel by set designer Lorenzo Savoini and costume designer Dana Osborne. Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and John Gzowski’s sound design are appropriately unobtrusive.

Of course, material like this can fall flat unless it is carried off by an impeccable cast and that is where this production, under the astute eye of actor-turned-director Graham Abbey, excels. (Abbey, not so incidentally, is delivering a star turn as Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor this season.)

Although Hildy Johnson is considered the co-lead in the play, and Stratford veteran Ben Carlson is rock solid in the role, Hildy is pretty much the straight man in the play, the fixed center around which the comedy swirls. The real star part belongs to Cookie Burns and Maev Beaty is nothing short of incandescent in the role. Hers is easily the funniest performance at Stratford this season, and she has some stiff competition. Her flat Chicago accent is as impeccable as her comic timing. Her takes and asides are mini master classes in the art of comedy. In fact, the only thing wrong with Beaty’s performance is that it doesn’t begin until the second act.

What makes the play and this production a total joy are the performances of the featured players. As Mollie Malone, Sarah Dodd is heartbreaking, while Johnathan Sousa brings an original take to the small role of the condemned man. Mike Shara hams it up shamelessly (and perfectly) as the bumbling sheriff while Juan Chioran is majestically slimy as the dressed-to-the-nines mayor. Michael Blake is impeccable as the flashy crook Diamond Louis; he is an actor who seems to be able to change voices as easily as he changes costumes. Amelia Sargisson and Rosemary Dunsmore are perfect as, respectively, Hildy’s fiancée and her mother. Of the gang of reporters, Michael Spencer-Davis is first among equals as the prissy Bensinger.

The Front Page is a solid hit for the Festival, one which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

The Front Page  will play in repertory at the Festival Theatre through October 25, 2109.

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Birds of a Kind at the Stratford Festival – A Review

This season, the Stratford Festival’s Studio Theatre is home to two plays set in the Holy Land, both of them dealing with issues if identity and religious tolerance. They also share most of the same actors, so seeing them both makes for an instructive exercise. Nathan the Wise was written in the eighteenth century and set during the Crusades, while Birds of a Kind is a 2017 play set in the troubled present. Nathan is the better play, but Birds is by far the better production.

Wajdi Mouawad’s Birds of a Kind (translated from the French by Linda Gaboriau) is the result of a commission from Stratford’s artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, who also directs this production. The play is inspired by Natalie Zemon Davis’ book Trickster Travels about al-Hasan ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan, a sixteenth century Moroccan diplomat captured by Christian pirates who, impressed by his obvious erudition, presented him to Pope Leo X as a sort of trophy. He converted to Christianity and became known as Leo Africanus. He went on to write a number of scholarly works including what would become the standard work on Africa until the age of modern exploration. Eventually, he returned to the Maghreb and was lost to history.

Mouawad’s play is not about al-Wazzan himself (although he appears as a dream character). Taking its inspiration from a tale told by al-Wazzan about a bird who is able to live both with its own kind and in the sea with the fishes, moving between the two realms at will, the play asks whether people who exist across a seemingly unbridgeable ethnic, religious, and political divide can coexist. Is it possible to move from one of these worlds to the other as easily as birds fly over walls built out of fear and hatred? Or to exist in both? The answer would seem to be no.

Eitan is a young man studying genetics in New York. His parents, Norah and David, live in Berlin. Norah, is a German Jew; David was born in Israel, came to Berlin as a teen, and now considers himself German. His grandfather, Etgar, is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Israel where he married Leah (whose origins are unclear). Wahida is a Moroccan student writing her PhD thesis on al-Wazzan. Eitan and Wahida meet cute in the library at Columbia University and fall in love. Eitan’s parents, David and Norah, are less than enthused by this development (Wahida’s parents are both dead). Eitan’s grandfather Etgar, now estranged from his wife Leah, feels that love is love and is more supportive. After an explosive confrontation at a seder dinner, Eitan is convinced he can’t be related to people like this and, in one of the play’s least plausible devices, spirits away the silverware to do a little DNA analysis.

The tests show that while Eitan is indeed David and Norah’s son, Etgar is not David’s father. With Wahida in tow, Eitan travels to Israel to confront his grandmother and unravel the mystery. Thanks to a terrorist bombing that sends Eitan, comatose, to the hospital, the entire family is reunited in Jerusalem. Wahida, meanwhile, is confronted with the unpleasant reality of being a Muslim in an uneasy Israel. Eventually, the mystery is solved with devastating consequences.

Mouawad has created a gallery of wonderfully vivid characters, each with their own distinct voice, and director Cimolino has elicited terrific performances from all of them. As noted, most of the cast members also appear in Nathan the Wise, but to much less effect. What a difference a great director can make!

Much of the play is given to passionate speechifying by the main characters and while the writing is very good indeed, almost poetic in places, the play is often in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own earnestness. One of Mouawad’s more successful conceits is to have characters speak in Hebrew, German, and Arabic at times; it might seem a bit arch, but thanks to projected subtitles it works beautifully.

Birds of a Kind may prove to be one of the more controversial productions Stratford has ever mounted. Mouawad does not paint a particularly flattering portrait of modern day Israel. One character goes into an extended anti-Arab rant that is chilling in its resemblance to both Nazi rhetoric and the bloviations of present-day “nationalists.” While the politics of the play, such as they are, reflect the consensus of what is loosely considered “the left” in the West, I can see that doctrinaire Zionists, who feel that any criticism of Israel is tantamount to antisemitism, might take offense. Time will tell.

What is less in dispute is the quality of the physical production that Cimolino has given the play. It is the best I can remember seeing in The Studio, a space that imposes definite restrictions on designers. Francesca Callow’s ingenious set, which cleverly includes a perfect place on which to project the translations of the play’s many languages, solves all the problems the space creates, and the simple device that opens the play is magical. Michael Walton’s lighting, Adam Harendorf’s sound design, and Jamie Nesbitt’s projections work together to create one stunning effect after another.

I hesitate to single out individual actors because they are all so good, but I was especially impressed by Sarah Orenstein’s fiery Norah, Alon Nashman’s tortured David, and Jakob Ehman’s effusive Eitan. I hope the Festival will find leading roles for Orenstein in future seasons and that both Nashman and Ehman will be invited back.

Birds of a Kind is not easy theatre — it runs just over three hours for starters — but it will reward the thoughtful theatregoer, especially if seen together with Nathan the Wise. If only Stratford had a good Middle Eastern restaurant where we could gather over meze and mint tea to discuss it all.

Birds of a Kind continues in repertory at the Stratford Festival through October 13, 2019.

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