Our Class, the provocative docu-drama by Tadeusz Slobodzianek that mixes semi-fictional characters into a real historic event is a striking stand-out in the current Toronto theatre season and speaks well of the partnerships that CanadianStage has formed with a few of the smaller producing companies in Toronto (a similar arrangement next season will see Studio 180 co-produce the Canadian premiere of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s “and then what happened?” follow-up take on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun).
For more than a century Poland had been divided by the European empires of Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. The state of Poland was reconstituted only post-World War I by the Treaty of Versailles. After only twenty years of trying to build a democratic nation state, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty divided Poland again. It is in the midst of all this that the playwright focuses on the small town of Jedwabne and the massacre of 1,600 Jews that occurred there in 1941 as an object lesson of those times as well as our own.
Studio 180 artistic director, Joel Greenberg is back in his element with a docu-drama presentational style that he deployed so effectively in two previous (and very well received) productions, Laramie Project and Stuff Happens. Ironically, the strength of Our Class is reminiscent of the late Polish director, Jerzy Grotowski’s notion of a “poor theatre” - where actors focus on the very root of the theatre itself; effective story telling that can only be successful when it reaches an audience of spectators.
But despite the crisp direction and the clearly articulated content of the play, North American audiences will need a little help in understanding the complex series of events that form the chronological spine of the play. After performance “talk back” sessions, extensive program notes with chronological time-lines and a study guide, provide helpful didactic elements that will assist those who might well walk out of the theatre trying to figure out who was doing what to whom when and most problematically - why?
In a close ensemble piece such as this it is difficult, perhaps even unfair to the work, to call out performances that merit special attention. Some of the writing is so strong that the actor playing the role is bound to be singled out for mention (the malevolent and duplicitous Zygmunt played by Jonathan Goad is a good example) so I’ll refrain from going on any further. However, one must give full credit to the work of the playwright here who has grappled with one of history’s long, dark shadows and successfully pulled it into the light of day.
Anusree Roy continues to solidify her reputation as an always welcome addition to any local theatre’s season of plays. In Brothel #9 (seeded and developed by Factory Theatre) she has written a play that takes place in Calcutta but speaks to the international problem of sex trafficking.
The play centres around the role of Jamuna (played with spot on verity by Roy) as she goes about the depressing day to day tasks of running a small brothel. At the play’s opening, the owner and landlord of the brothel, Birbal (Ash Knight), delivers a young woman to Jamuna who has been newly recruited by the old ruse of a promised job in the big city. In fact, young Rekha (Pamela Sinha) has been sold into sexual slavery by her own brother-in-law. When Rekha discovers her circumstances and calls out to a local police officer named Salaudin (Sanjay Talwar) for help, he promptly strikes a deal with Jamuna for a one time only “feebie” with the virginal Rekha. Pamela Sinha handles the rape scene with great sensitivity by way of both onstage action and off stage vocal reactions. Her gradual accommodation to her circumstances and Jamuna’s second act admission of her own history within the sad walls of this establishment, make for a compelling drama that needless to say does not have a happy Bollywood ending.
Ash Knight as the landlord pimp is relentless in his unfeeling ambition to expand his business while Sanjay Talway, as the corrupt police officer, Salaudin, portrays an authority figure that represents a massive unfeeling bureaucracy offering no hope for the underclass. Although there is some doubling of roles, these four characters carry the play’s theme forward against a real social backdrop that is almost too vast to really comprehend. Roy has painted a small portrait of social reality that helps us to see the broader picture.
Shawn Kerwin (set and costume design) is in her element here by providing a lush palette of color that struggles to peek through the dirt and grime of the brothel. Kerwin is the set designer to go to when the play is firmly in situ. Her understanding of place, ambience and timeframe continually informs her scenography and provides just the right tone. Nigel Shawn Williams directs the actors with dignity and grace, never allowing the material to become salacious or voyeuristic. The show I saw included an ASL (American Sign Language) adapted performance for the Deaf community that utilized three signing actors onstage mirroring their speaking counterparts that Williams blocked in seamlessly.
Occasionally there are production problems which seem like they have come to us by way of a process that just feels incomplete somehow. This is the case with Divisadero (directed by Daniel Brooks) which the program notes indicate was collectively adapted by the company from the novel of the same name by Michael Ondaatje.
The tell tale signs of this started at the play’s rise when Maggie Huculak (playing the role of Anna, the play’s central character) crossed to centre stage and approached a standing microphone. In very precise and somewhat slow articulation she began a recitation of the first line in the novel that seemed to indicate either one of two things: the words were so sacred and important she didn’t want anyone to miss a single syllable, or that this was just the beginning of a long, under rehearsed evening in which the actors were still struggling to remember lines.
Adaptations are, by their very nature, reductive exercises. There is no way that everything from this novel about three siblings (unconnected by blood) growing up in the Northern California of the 1970s can get into the play script (or the movie script for that matter). But when a company of players is looking at a relatively short rehearsal period in the best of times, it is probably wise to bite the bullet early and come in on the first day of rehearsal with a complete script that you feel honestly represents the story, ideas and overall creative vision of the author. I don’t know for sure if the problem in Divisadero was too many cooks, but this might have been the case. Anyway, the performance felt more like a workshop (albeit with memorized script) than a fully realized play.
Having said all this, there were some very affecting moments provided by Huculak and her cast mates Liane Balaban, Justin John Rutledge and Tom McCamus. McCamus, in particular, as a wannabe card shark, explaining to us in an extended monologue the finer points of winning at Texas Hold ‘Em, had all the earmarks of an actor who got to the table early in the rehearsal process so that by the time opening night arrived he was ready to cut the deck and deal.
Eternal Hydra by Anton Piatigorsky was first produced at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2002 as part of their 50th anniversary season. The script was commissioned and workshopped by the Festival to inaugurate the opening of their Studio Theatre, a space that is dedicated to the production of new work by contemporary playwrights. At that time, when I reviewed the play for Aisle Say, I found it intellectually engaging and, at just one act, about the right length to put forward the playwright’s thesis which has to do with whether or not an author living in Paris between the World Wars plagiarized and/or appropriated the work of a woman that he may or may not have been sleeping with. The fact that the famous Irish author, Gordias Carbuncle (purposely constructed to put us in mind of James Joyce), could be sleeping with a woman who is also African American adds a clever, although somewhat contrived, racial twist to the story that heightens the charge of voice appropriation.
Since its inaugural production, the play itself has become a bit of a hydra having grown a second act. What was a neat, concise problem play that left its audience pondering where artistic integrity did or did not begin and end has now become a somewhat prescriptive play with remedy neatly provided by the final curtain. Although this diminished it somewhat for me, the play still provides great roles for some very fine actors who were ably directed by Chris Abraham.
David Ferry, as the willful author Gordias Carbuncle and Liisa Repo-Martell as Vivian Ezra, the professor of literature who “discovers” Carbuncle’s final manuscript, have great rapport and attraction for one another all the more remarkable in that the relationship is played out entirely as a figment of Ezra’s overly active imagination.
Cara Rickets skillfully portrays the up and coming African American writer named Pauline Newberry who has written a biography about Selma Thomas, the (fictitious) African American poet who is alleged to have had an affair with Carbuncle. Both have sought out Carbuncle’s old New York publishing firm (Sam Malkin plays the now second generation publisher with cynical wisdom ) to pitch their manuscripts. So the stage is certainly set for interesting conflict and debate but by the second act the playwright shifts the scene to post-Civil War Louisiana in order to give Selma Thomas her due. What started out as a play about writers and writing, dissolves into a new set of characters which attempts to add additional layers on to the original argument.
By the end, I was starting to suffer from hyper plot construction (which is the opposite of writer’s block) and was thinking it might be best to just leave both manuscripts in the drawer for awhile.
Canadianstage, under the directorship of Matthew Jocelyn, continues to seek out partnerships that broaden the mandate of the organization that seeks to live up to its name. In co-producing Michel Tremblay’s Saint Carmen of the Main with the National Arts Centre of Ottawa, Jocelyn has chosen to resurrect a play that is touted as a classic but may really be an artifact that is now deracinated of time and place. The production is directed by the NAC’s Peter Hinton.
Much has been made of the new translation by Linda Gaboriau that has replaced the earlier version by John Van Burek who, along with Bill Glassco, brought Tremblay to the attention of English speaking Canadians in the mid-70s at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Van Burek’s sense of poetic lyricism coupled with a deeper understanding of Quebec’s politics during this tumultuous period really made the play what it was. That is now pretty much all gone.
The irony here is that the huge investment the playwright makes in the Greek chorus-like cast (13 chorus members in a cast of 19 actors), is now largely redundant with much less power and strength in their pronouncements (whether textual or sub-textual).
Nevertheless, one of Canada’s finest playwrights certainly knows his way up and down the haunts of Montreal’s Boulevard Saint Laurent (aka The Main) and has created some memorable characters a number of whom are in evidence in this production. The incomparable Diane D’Aquila does a lovely turn as Harelip, Carmen’s loyal backstage assistant whose unrequited love is heartbreaking to behold while Gloria (played by the great Jackie Richardson) is the one time mentor of Carmen now turned her chief rival on the strip.
By reducing the social and political dimensions of Carmen, Laara Sadiq is given the unenviable task of trying to gain sympathy for the main character who just seems to be over reaching when she (continually) asserts that she will someday find success as a singer of her own songs. In this regard she resembles Hosanna in Tremblay’s 1973 play of the same name, who also yearns to be something more - in this case a movie star. But this is where the similarity ends. Hosanna is a more modest play with only two characters but carries within it a heart and soul that far surpasses Saint Carmen of the Main. If anyone would like to challenge this thesis, I suggest they check out the upcoming remounting of Hosanna at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this summer.
As Barrymore (starring Christopher Plummer reprising his Tony award winning performance) comes to a close after a successful run at the Elgin Theatre and Billy Elliot opens for an extended run at the Canon Theatre, I can’t help contemplating these two very different takes on a life in the performing arts.
John Barrymore’s stage career peaked in 1920 with his portrayal of Richard III on Broadway. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, he followed this success with Hamlet that played for 101 performances on B’way in 1922 and led Barrymore to remount the play in London three years later. His later years were filled with difficulty. By the late 1930s his faculties were greatly diminished, probably as a result of the grain alcohol he drank during the Prohibition years. As his mental acuity faded he became unable to memorize lines and was reduced to having everything written out on cue cards when he appeared in front of an audience. Barrymore died in Los Angeles in 1942 at the age of sixty.
William Luce has written a play about John Barrymore that is really more of a vehicle than it is a drama. Don’t get me wrong, I missed the New York run of the show and was delighted when the Toronto remount was announced which (as I write) is being filmed for an even wider audience. In this version, John Barrymore is portrayed as a loveable drunk who reminded me a bit of the comic character created by the late Foster Brooks in his nightclub act. I say this because it is not easy to sustain the character of a drunk on stage for a prolonged period of time without the joke beginning to wear thin. The device works well for Plummer and even allows him to work a bit blue (for the blue haired crowd that is) with the occasional ribald limerick or juicy bit of Hollywood gossip thrown in as an aside for good measure.
Plummer’s comic timing is impeccable, his bearing appropriately regal/tipsy and his interaction with his unseen assistant, Frank (played by John Plumpis) sympathetic and endearing. Placed in this context the script is successful; a triumphant star turn for a great star.
Billy Elliot, on the other hand, is the story of a rising star - someone who is not yet who he will become. I am a big fan of the movie version of Billy Elliot and was initially skeptical when I heard about plans to make it into a musical. I need not have worried, the creative team behind this production has created a powerful piece of theatre that lifts the spirit like a grand jete.
Stephen Daldry (who I have admired ever since seeing his class conscious version of An Inspector Calls in 1994) coupled with the brilliant choreography of Peter Darling, has invented new ways to push the story forward with sequences involving parallel action and overlapping scenes that is unique and original.
But I think it was the moving but modest score by Elton John with book and lyrics by Lee Hall that finally won me over to the show. Always motivating but not intrusive - the libretto and score just seems to let the story do what it needs to do and be what it is. True, the humor is of the broader music hall variety that is closer to Benny Hill than the poignant understatement of the film and the final moments of the show don’t capture the same frisson inducing flash forward moment that ended the movie but then I guess that’s why film was invented.
Also, let it be noted here that the Swan Lake sequence in the second act (where Billy dances with an older version of himself) features a simple flying harness provided and choreographed by the firm of Flying by Foy proving that you can produce flying sequences that effectively serve the purpose of the show without breaking bones or jeopardizing the safety of actors.
The Toronto production has four Billys who will dance the show during its run here. On opening night I saw young Cesar Corrales dance the role. A rising star indeed.
NOTE: Aisle Say readers who would like to peruse a broader overview of Canadian
theatre should check out the new website maintained by the Canadian Theatre
Critics Association which can be found at the following URL: