Following is a round up for Aisle Say readers of recent and currently running productions in the Toronto region including trips to the Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake (which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer) and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (which will celebrate its 60th anniversary next season). If some themes begin to emerge in places it’s more by serendipity than design. The Soulpepper Theatre has very effectively begun to exploit their talented repertory company in ways that allow for popular plays to be remounted and inserted into the season as box office demand may warrant. Their summer season is now just beginning with A Glass Menagerie, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Billy Bishop Goes to War. In August they will add into the mix, Exit the King, White Biting Dog and The Price. Recently, i saw two one-person shows, The Aleph and Fronteras Americanas in rep at Soulpepper featuring two of Canada’s finest actors (Diego Matamoros and Guillermo Verdecchia respectively) in roles that they created and which speak to their own life experiences as Latin Americans (both are from Argentina) who immigrated to Canada. A summer of Lerner and Loewe pops up with the Shaw Festival’s production of My Fair Lady and Camelot playing down the road at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the latter having a special connection with the city of Toronto which was the first out of town try-out for the musical in 1960. The storied affair put Alan Jay Lerner in a local hospital with bleeding ulcers followed by director Moss Hart a few days later with a heart attack. But let’s start things off on a healthy track with a review of The Railway Children.
The British author Edith Nesbit’s (1858-1924) gentle socialist novel for young people has been lovingly adapted for the stage by Mike Kenny who originally staged the production in association with the National Railway Museum of York, England. Having worked in the museum and gallery field for a number of years, i’m aware of the movement to use theatre as a means to animate exhibitions in situ. Some historic sites (Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts comes to mind as does Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia) use a form of performance called “first person interpretation”, the museological jargon that describes putting actors into period costume and into particular historical roles both real and fictional. Seldom do these projects break into the mainstream of theatrical activity the way The Railway Children has done and this is because of a pairing of two important components; an iconic artifact (a nineteenth century steam powered locomotive) coupling to a terrific story.
Natasha Greenblatt is perfectly cast as the feisty young heroine who leads her sister, brother and Mother through the tough times after their father (Richard Sheridan Willis) is arrested for “spying”, a shady charge never substantiated and for which he is later exonerated. John Gilbert, is the kindly “old gentleman” who finally comes through as the family’s benefactor in a surprising way that won’t be revealed here. An extended chorus of young people is deployed effectively and the specially built 1000 seat theatre at the Toronto Railway Heritage Centre works well for this event. The seats may be a bit small and tight, but the time passes quickly and the passengers all leave the station with smiles on their faces.
The pairing of Aleph and Fronteras Americanas, running separately in rep at Soulpepper Theatre in the Distillery District, is an inspired bit of programming from artistic director Albert Schultz. In the first piece Diego Matamoros injects his own life story on top of the ideas set in motion by Jorge Luis Borges’ short story. He opens with an avuncular sense of humor and a good joke that superimposes some theatrical elements on top of the biographical format which makes it all work beautifully for an uninterrupted 70 minutes of pure story telling. He is aided in his task by the subtle but spot on direction of Daniel Brooks and some magical scenic elements by Michael Levine that kick in critically at the conclusion of the tale tightening the story line and enhancing the metaphor. i missed the show first time around and was glad to see this re-mount. If you missed it the second time out, don’t worry, i’m sure it will come around again whenever Mr. Matamoros decides to pull his rabbit out of the hat at some future date within the very accommodating new Soulpepper template.
Likewise, Fronteras Americanas is one of those one person shows that just gets better with age as does the writer and performer, Guillermo Verdecchia, who first performed his bio-dramedy in 1993 at the Tarragon Theatre (directed then and now by Jim Warren). This two-acter is a technically more ambitious piece than Aleph and Mr. Verdecchia has to work a bit harder to pull it off. He has refreshed the script and included more contemporary elements like mixed media, selections from YouTube, etc, that aid in the portrayal of the who, what, when, where, how and why of border crossings, acculturation and the added burden of choosing to make your way in life as an actor. This last twist gave the show some of its more humorous moments as Verdecchia describes his initial introduction to the show business as an industry weighed down with the freight of much excess cultural baggage in the form of various racialisms, stereotyping and other downright inanities. Still and all, we arrive at a happy ending and the journey, as seen through Mr. Verdecchia’s ironic and mischievously humorous eyes, takes us to a borderline well worth crossing.
This year’s Luminato Festival in Toronto has once again subjected us to what seems to be their annual exercise in reductive essentialism (last year’s entry being the uneven African Trilogy) with the world premiere of Tim Supple’s One Thousand and One Nights based on the folk tales of Arabic origin and often called the Arabian Nights. Mr. Supple’s intellectual through line on this project was to jettison the appropriation by Disney and others that dumbed down the stories and made them into children’s fare (i.e. Aladdin, Ali Baba, et al) and return to the “explicit, violent, complex, difficult, long, tough, and adult” origins of the literature. It doesn’t take long for the scimitars to come out in this long, sprawling and stultifyingly boring 6 hour performance that occurs over two nights (Part One and Part Two). Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata it ain’t. Luminato commissioned the work and budgeted it at 1 million (public) dollars with two additional venues, the Chicago Shakespeare Festival and the Edinburgh Festival. The CSF cancelled out because of visa problems with some of the actors and press spin has the show now described as a “work in progress” that is “in need of some tightening” before it opens at the Edinburgh Festival in August. The only thing i can say about this embarrassing misadventure is the next time Luminato decides to commission a new play, please don’t use Toronto as the workshop venue.
Meanwhile, the Shaw Festival popped the champagne to celebrate 50 years of GBS in Niagara-on-the-Lake and in true socialist fashion i noticed on opening night that the hoi polloi didn’t hesitate to drift on over to the private members lounge and help themselves to the free bubbly. Bring on the classless society!
Artistic director Jackie Maxwell opened the season with a real crowd pleaser by choosing Drama at Inish - A Comedy by Lennox Robinson (1886-1958), who was associated with the Abbey Theatre in various capacities for most of his artistic life. Maxwell’s keen sense of curation has become something of a tradition at Shaw since former AD Christopher Newton began to mount the little seen plays of Shaw’s contemporaries such as Harley Granville-Barker and others that audiences would seldom (if ever) have an opportunity to enjoy on this side of the pond.
Drama at Inish is the well travelled story of a touring repertory company (Thom Marriott and Corrine Koslo elegantly cast as the leading players) who comes into a small town in southern Ireland to bring the locals a taste of the great “serious” drama of the age - plays by Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg. The results are hilarious with one local member of parliament (Peter Krantz) finding himself so moved by the solitary stance taken by Dr. Stockman in Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, that, as a matter of his own conscience, he rises to vote “no” against his own party. In that their happens to be only a one vote majority in parliament at the time, he subsequently brings down his own government. Forgive me for not calling out additional names of actors and designers mentioned in the heading above who all deserve much praise. Just go see the show and reward them yourself with a standing ovation.
Candida directed by Tadeusz Bradecki is another winner at Shaw this season. Although we’re never as convinced as we should be that Clair Jullien as Candida would actually make love (purely altruistic and instructional, mind you) - with the much younger Marchbanks (an extremely eager, ready and willing to wait Wade Bogert-O’Brien) the necessary sexual tension between the potential menage a trois with Candida, Marchbanks and the Reverend James Mavor Morell (Nigel Shawn Williams) is more than enough to keep our interest. i do believe the color-blind casting in the role of Morell helps the play and is something that GBS himself would have heartily approved. In the 1930s when Shaw was approached by the Negro Theatre Project (a division of the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project) and asked for the rights to do some of his plays, he agreed immediately waiving all royalty rights.
And this final gift from Shaw; if you ask every theatre critic in the world (not so far fetched a task in this wired age) about the American musical theatre canon and which top 5 musicals are their personal favorites, would My Fair Lady have to be on everyone’s list? Yes, i think so.
Just when you think you’ve heard about every vowel there could be enunciated oh so properly out of Professor Henry Higgins’ mouth, along comes Benedict Campbell in the role who decides to sing a few of them in ways that we’ve never heard before. And Deborah Hay’s Eliza Doolittle invests herself so deeply in the cockney side of Eliza (actors act at Shaw) that it adds considerably to the arc of her character. Molly Smith moves the whole business along in a sprightly manner and the multi-talented Paul Sportelli remains everyone’s anchor in the pit, leading an orchestra that is exceptionally smooth and fine tuned. A few missteps in costume design when we get to the racetrack at Ascot but other than that a fine production, which brings me to the next Lerner and Loewe vehicle, Camelot, now playing at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
It was interesting to see these two shows back to back in the same chronological order in which they were written and try to imagine the pressure that must have been on the creators at the time. My Fair Lady was a huge success - could they possibly top that? The simple answer is no, they couldn’t. The score for Camelot doesn’t hold a quarter note next to My Fair Lady. Although the score remains delightful in many ways if only to reflect on how many times a number like “C’est Moi” has been recycled in other shows over the years (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) and the perfectly placed “If Ever I Would Leave You” not only saves the second act but saved Robert Goulet’s career by providing him with a signature song for the rest of his life.
Nonetheless there are some interesting revelations in the show more by way of a revealed subtext that portrays a majestically bi-curious King Arthur (Geraint Wyn Davies) ambivalently swaying in the treetops while eyeing Guenevere (Kaylee Harwood) and Lancelot (Jonathan Winsby), their triangular musical chops more than adequately carrying the day or plying the knight (whichever the case may be) in this production.
The final revelation was the strong anti-war sentiment at the end of Camelot that i would not have anticipated. Perhaps it’s just a sign of the times on how far to the right things have shifted with an almost anodyne public reaction to the whole notion of the violence associated with war these days but when King Arthur confronts the youthful, war romanticizing Tom of Warwick (well done Jimmy Mallet) with a heartfelt cri de coeur “to run away - as far away as you possibly can from these wars” it creates an emotional moment at the very end of the play that certainly resonates sympathetically with the audience. This may be due in part to the fact that Canada has served as a safe haven for war resisters and conscientious objectors from all parts of the world over the years or just the fact that many people these days are simply “war weary”. I don’t know, but if this was the intention of director Gary Griffin, he succeeded admirably.
When Frank Galati created his adaptation of the Grapes of Wrath for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and subsequently transferred it to Broadway in 1990, i was not able to see it, so it was with great anticipation that i came to the show lo, these many years later. My appreciation for the work of John Steinbeck has grown over the years (especially enhanced by the knowledge that we both dropped out of Stanford University at critical periods in our lives). The current production playing at Stratford’s Avon Theatre is lovingly recreated by director Antoni Cimolino. A good thing to, because Galati is working just around the corner at the Festival Theatre this season with his production of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The large ensemble cast in Grapes of Wrath - there are 61 spoken roles in the script - is courageously led on their journey from the dustbowl of Oklahoma to the lush Salinas Valley in California by Evan Buliung and Janet Wright as Tom and Ma Joad. Cimolino has maintained a meticulous sense of style, period (good work here from musicians George Meanwell, Anna Atkinson and Andrew Penner) and place while asking the actors to do no more than is absolutely necessary, that is, find the truth that resides so abundantly in Steinbeck’s novel.
Without pushing the idea of a theme driven set of reviews too far here, there is one issue that crops up in the Merry Wives of Windsor and Richard III that does bear mentioning - that is the notion of women’s equality when mounting male bound classical theatre. Merry Wives may not be Shakespeare’s best play but it’s certainly not his worst and it gives the women a chance to give as good as they get which they do in great abundance here. Laura Condlln (Mistress Page) and Lucy Peacock (Mistress Ford) have great fun at the expense of the portly, oleaginous Falstaff (Geraint Wyn Davies) whose substantial girth is exceeded only by the size of his libidinous ego. Here is the logical extension of Falstaff from the pubs and battlefields of Henry IV Part One to your living room. Would you really want to have him over for dinner? To my ear, the women tend to key in on the humor more than the men with huge belly laughs as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford come down stage and let Falstaff “overhear” their pretend conversation.
One quibble - with all of the attention given to mise en scŹne by director Frank Galati, why did he not send a note to props when it comes to one of the play’s central set pieces in the story where Falstaff is forced into a large dirty basket of laundry in order to avoid discovery by Master Ford (the not to be cuckolded Tom Rooney)? It seems like a no-brainer after Falstaff himself goes to great lengths to describe the unpleasant experience: “ram’d me in with foul shirts and smocks, socks, foul stockings, greasy napkins... the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.” When we see the huge basket unloaded with its contents strewn all over the stage, it is stuffed with perfectly tailored, sparkling clean cotton muslin shirts, underwear and trousers. Go figure, i dunno.
Finally at SSF, there is Seana McKenna’s groundbreaking, gender bended run at Richard III that, although marred by the cumbersome direction of Miles Potter, is certainly a step in the right direction. The first time that i was really struck by the problem of classical theatre in general and the casting of roles in Shakespeare in particular as an issue for equal opportunity in employment, was some years ago while visiting the Globe Theatre in London. This tourist attraction was then under the artistic direction of Mark Rylance and meticulous care was being made to present Shakespeare in exactly the way Elizabethans might have experienced the plays. The Globe Theatre itself was a built historic site with an open roof that was meant to closely replicate the architecture of the original and the players (since there were no women allowed on the stage during this period) would be comprised of an all male company with younger men and boys playing the women’s roles just as they did in Shakespeare’s day. Adhering strictly to this mandate eliminates a lot of employment opportunities for women at this institution and eventually British Actor’s Equity became involved when grievances were filed by some of their members.
Seana McKenna’s take on Richard grabs you early on when she bitterly confesses that she is “Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up,” as we lean back and note that a transgendered or intersexual Richard is indeed a possibility. Why not? And so that’s what i went with for the rest of the performance that, for the most part, worked for me. As stated, my biggest disappointment was in the direction of the play and i’m not going into a litany of offenses here - it really wouldn’t serve any purpose. Suffice it to say, that i have warned Aisle Say readers in the past that if i am ever again subjected to a cowardly second act slow motion fight scene in one of Shakespeare’s plays (just at a time when the action is supposed to be speeding up) i would myself leap to the stage and take up a broadsword, enjoining the battle on behalf of the playwright’s intentions. Had it not been for Des McAnuff’s presence that night (sitting right in front of me at the performance I attended), I would have done so, but i feared the man might lay me flat before i reached the stage.
Finally, i just want to briefly mention the passing (in January at the age of 91) of Michael Langham whose memorial was recently celebrated on the Festival stage. Mr. Langham was the Festival’s second artistic director following Tyrone Guthrie. He served in that capacity from 1955 to 1967 and was often invited back as guest director. In 1991 I saw his remount of Timon of Athens with Brian Bedford and came away from that production with an understanding of what makes a truly great director; that is, the apprehension not to go with just the popular plays of the canon but to take one of the lesser known plays and demonstrate indisputably why it too is great. With the creative insertion of an original score by Duke Ellington that served as incidental music and a marvelous performance by a cast that included Brian Bedford as Timon, i came away from the theatre with a much deeper understanding of what genius (a sorely abused word) in the theatre truly is.
For a more complete overview of the Canadian theatre scene nationally, Aisle Say readers may want to visit www.canadiantheatrecritics.ca