By Alan Bennett
Directed by Morris Panych
CanStage/Bluma Appel Theatre until November 5
27 Front Street East
/ 416-368-3110  OR

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg

Habeas Corpus is an early play by Alan Bennett that sets its sights on the frivolous hedonism of Britain in the late 1960ís. Evoking an era that came under sharper attack by writers such as Joe Orton, this farce hardly gets started before it evaporates. An enthusiastic cast does its collective best to generate the heat that any good farce must kindle, but a massive set and a general lack of directorial focus makes this production a few laughs short of a romp.

The comings and goings in a doctorís surgery set the scene that is reminiscent of such typical West End fare as Run For Your Wife. Is Bennett lacerating the genre or is he using it to his own critical advantage? Itís hard to tell in this production, though why else would so skilled a writer borrow such a tired template? The issue, then, is why CanStage has selected the play as its season opener. The creative team, especially Morris Panych (director) and Ken MacDonald (set and costume designer), fail to help answer the question as the evening trundles along without textual or visual definition.

Among the large cast only Fiona Reid is absolutely in the world of the material. In spite of being dressed in hideous clothing (and everyone on stage is saddled with costumes that punctuate the eraís vacuity and the charactersí overall tastelessness) she attacks every thought and nuance that Bennett has provided. What a shame that CanStage didnít select a play such as What the Butler Saw – Reid could handle her way through that treacherous world with a ferocity that such material rarely receives.

The rest of the company is fairly heavy-weight – Sheila McCarthy, Joseph Ziegler  and David Storch among them – but the variety of acting styles suggests that the director has been too generous in allowing everyone to define his or her own approach. Storch is a frenzy of vocal and physical gyrations while Ziegler, for all his warmth and easy charm, stays outside the action and never pays the price that farce demands of those who cheat and strive to betray. Melody A. Johnson and Cyrus Lane twist themselves into pretzel-like shapes as the nerdy he and she, but the humour they aim for is almost always too much of an effort.

The Bluma Appel Theatre is a silent accomplice here, too. The stage is too large for most plays and CanStage seems to prefer filling the space to using what a specific play really requires. I imagine that Habeas Corpus could be more engaging at a venue like Berkeley Street, where all characters can come and go without having to run a marathon to reach the wings. But the Bluma is there and CanStage is using it, as they must. Curiously, MacDonald and Panych solved this problem of space with The Overcoat. But that was an abstract piece where movement and dance demanded the expansive terrain. The world of farce, with or without doors, is not served by such excess.

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