The Writer At FirstOntario PAC – A Review

Norm Foster, Canada’s most prolific and most produced playwright, is known primarily for light comedies that often have a tinge of sadness running just beneath the surface, as was the case with Jonas and Barry In The Home, which I saw last year.

The Writer, his latest play now having its world premiere at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catherines, reverses that formula. It’s a nicely observed character study of a father-son relationship with occasional flashes of humor. It also contains a clever plot twist that makes it something of a mystery play.

Donald Wellner (Guy Bannerman) is living in a barely furnished bachelor flat. His wife has turned him out and his daughter has turned her back on him because it has come to light that he has been paying the rent of an English actress for 33 years, seemingly prima facie evidence of an illicit affair. His son Blake arrives to check up on his father and try to understand the mystery behind the breakup. It’s a tough knot to unravel.

The senior Wellner, we learn, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, A Kind Heart, which has made him very wealthy, despite the fact that he has never had another play produced in the 35 years since its premiere. When the play was running in the West End, he became close to a beautiful actress in the cast, but he insists that nothing untoward happened, just a deep and abiding friendship. Why then has he been paying her rent all these years? “It’s complicated” is the best he can manage.

It soon becomes apparent that a marital blowup is not Donald’s only problem. He is becoming forgetful. In fact, he is slowly, inexorably declining into dementia. Dead center stage, serving as a metaphor for the creative void in Donald’s life since the success of A Kind Heart, is a manual typewriter with a single piece of paper on which he is writing his latest play. He never gets past page 10.

In eight scenes, over the course of eight years, Foster masterfully details the ravages and cruel ironies of the disease. As he becomes increasingly disoriented, for example, Donald’s Scrabble skills remain razor sharp while his memory of what happened this morning has vanished.

His son Blake (Jamie Williams) is a model of the devoted child who perseveres with kindness in the face of his father’s casual micro-aggressions. Blake is a travel writer, a successful one apparently, but his father can never bring himself to admit that his son is a writer at all. Blake is single and therefore must be gay, despite his claims to the contrary.

Throughout the play the question of the English actress and the “complicated” relationship resurfaces. In the final scenes, as dementia chips away at Donald’s normal reticence, the truth comes out and helps explain Donald’s 35 years of non-productivity. Foster’s dialog is lean and muscular, devoid of ornament. This can give the illusion that he is merely sketching in his characters, but the economy works wonders in propelling the piece to its conclusion.

Bannerman, a 30-year veteran of the Shaw Festival, is quite brilliant in delineating the small steps that take Donald from gruff old man to a blank state. Williams is equally impressive as his long-suffering son. Director Patricia Vanstone has done a lovely job of orchestrating these performances into a moving duet. The Writer is Foster’s sixtieth play and he makes it seem like he’s just hitting his stride. Peter Hartwell, who also did costumes, has contributed an elegantly simple set that moves from bachelor pad to nursing home seamlessly. Chris Malkowski has lit it with discretion.

This production is part of The Foster Festival, now in its fourth season, and devoted exclusively to the work of Canada’s greatest comic playwright. The Writer has closed but the Festival continues with Hilda’s Yard (July 10 – 26, 2019), and Beside Myself, a musical (July 31 – August 17, 2019).

The Festival’s home, at least for now, is an ultra-modern performance space, one of several in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre. The seats are super-comfortable and the sightlines excellent. I hope the Festival continues to prosper. It would be wonderful if it blossomed into a multi-venue event that would showcase not just Foster’s work but that of other Canadian playwrights. From what I’ve been able to sample, there seems to be a treasure trove of impressive Canadian work going back decades.

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. Flacks 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. Flacks 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.

“Jerusalem” on Broadway, a Review

Jerusalem is irremediably English and not in the comfortably familiar Upstairs Downstairs sense of the term.

Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s ambitious and hallucinatory new play at the Music Box, may seem an odd choice for a major New York production. The play is, after all, irremediably English and not in the comfortably familiar Upstairs Downstairs sense of the term.

Butterworth’s bestiary of rural louts and loonies with their sometimes impenetrable Wiltshire accents (the play has reportedly been “revised” to make it more accessible to us Yanks) are types seldom seen on these shores. The play seems to reflect an anomie that has been percolating in Britain for the last twenty or thirty years and of which most Americans are blissfully ignorant. (If nothing else this production will serve to remind many Americans of how well our media protects us from any real familiarity with what’s happening in the zeitgeist of other countries.) Then there are the frequent references to timeless British pastoral traditions steeped in half forgotten folklore, fairies, Druid giants, Stonehenge, ley lines, and ancient gods (Yggdrasil anyone?). In short, hardly a recipe for middlebrow Broadway success.

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‘Death of a Salesman’ at the Odyssey, A Review

Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman enjoys iconic status in the American theatrical canon and justly so. However, in an odd way, its success has worked against it. Revivals tend to attract mega-stars to the role of Willie Loman and the productions built around them tend to strive for operatic grandeur. The result is often less than successful, as perfectly illustrated by recent productions starring Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy. The Willies we get in these bloated, star-driven vehicles are intriguingly idiosyncratic (Hoffman) or downright bathetic (Dennehy), but the play inevitably suffers.

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“Take Me Out” On Broadway, A Review

This production has closed.

The first thing anyone’s likely to mention about “Take Me Out,” Richard Greenberg’s new play about a gay major leaguer coming out of the locker — I mean, closet – is the nudity. It’s true. It’s there. There’s lots of it. And, yes, these are some of the best looking male bodies to grace a Broadway stage in a good long while.

But “Take Me Out” covers a lot more territory than the average “physical culture” magazine and the pleasures it offers are not merely voyeuristic.

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