by Vern Thiessen
Adapted from the novel by
Somerset Maugham
Directed by Albert Schultz
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by Amy Herzog
Directed by Jason Byrne
Starring Allan Hawco
A Production of The Company Theatre
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by Roger Crane
Directed by Jonathan Church
Starring David Suchet
with an international cast
A Production of Theatre Royal Haymarket
playing in (click for info):
Toronto, Los Angeles, and Australia

Reviewed by David Spencer

My recent trip to Canada happily involved some theatergoing—quite a bit of it, actually, five shows in four days. Two of them, since closed, I oughtn’t really report on per se, because my attendance was as a colleague and friend to people involved, but I won’t be shy about mentioning them because they were excellent: A production of the musical Floyd Collins, a joint production of The Cultch in Vancouver and TalkIsFree Theatre in Barrie; and a production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, presented by Toronto’s foremost socio-political theatre company, Theatre180.

                  The others merit a few comments in brief.

                  Still running at Soulpepper, a major theatre complex (like the Signature or the Public) there’s the first-ever stage adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, the tale of a doomed affair between an obsessively infatuated British medical student (Gregory Prest) and an only conveniently interested—one might argue sociopathically opportunistic—barmaid (Michelle Monteith). By NYC-based, but native Canadian playwright, Vern Theissen, it takes what by now is often shorthanded as “a Nicholas Nickleby approach” that combines representational and abstract black box techniques with multiple casting, so that a wide canvas can be presented sparely and suggestively. Under the direction of Albert Schultz (Soulpepper Artistic Director) the staging is imaginative and brisk, with a propulsive energy that avoids the traps that come with dramatizing a claustrophobic relationship. And the cast is solid. The play seems to me a great bet for crossing the border and making its mark in the States.

                  A play that has crossed the border—in reverse—is Amy Herzog’s Belleville, about a thirtyish, down-and-out married couple, whose relationship is disintegrating in a Paris flat. For me personally it’s a curious, elliptical and unsatisfying play, taking a dark journey and leaving much unanswered, without offering compensation for the unsettling ambiguities; but I must also say, it’s a play that has been making the regional rounds, after a heralded debut at Lincoln Center’s LC3, and from film clips I’ve seen of other productions, it was likewise very well represented by The Company Theatre. By which I mean, whatever didn’t click for me in Toronto would have been just as elusive to me elsewhere. Clearly, Irish director Jason Byrne, imported for the task after previous success with the company, was giving the play its due. Co-artistic director Allan Hawco (star and co-creator of the still-running hit CBC TV series Republic of Doyle) played the husband with an effective, furtive intensity, and other members of the cast, as notable, were Christine Horne as the wife and, as the young French-African couple from whom they’re renting, Dalmar Abuzeid and Marsha Regis.

                  The biggest disappointment for me was The Last Confession, currently Toronto, and soon to continue on an international tour that will make stops in Los Angeles and various ports in Australia. Having garnered significant acclaim upon its UK debut in 2007, it’s a play by first-time dramatist Roger Crane, an attorney, who uses his legal perspective to approach the subject matter: the investigation by Cardinal Benelli (David Suchet) into the death of Pope John Paul (Richard O’Callaghan) only two weeks after his inauguration. Opulently produced (grandly Vaticanesque sets by William Dudley), most of its first act proceeds, under the direction of Jonathan Church, in a stately, meticulously expositional manner whose delivery of substance and interest doesn’t live up to the promise of its pomp. It catches a bit of a spark once John Paul assumes his office, and proves to be a modest renegade, looking to make sweeping, positive changes. We enjoy him starting to use his power as a force for good, then he dies offstage, under mysterious circumstances.

                  I had thought the play might bring to the fore some dramatic extrapolation of a real solution—the kind of historical conjecture the theatre can be so good at—but, surprisingly, there are no surprises, and all Mr. Crane dramatizes are the ambiguities that are already a matter of public record. Even if not all the public knows the irregularities of the case and its investigation, Cardinal Benelli’s frustration is not shared by us in the same way. Rather, we’re given a whodunit that doesn’t posit a definitive who; nor, because no autopsy was permitted, even a how. And as to Mr. Suchet as the investigating pontiff: technically impeccable but I cared about his inner emotional life not at all.

                  I must in fairness report glowing reviews and what seemed an enthusiastic audiece response the night I attended. But I must also report a small number of intermission walkouts, one of whom was almost my companion of the evening, but when I told her I felt ethically bound to stay, she gamely and graciously decided to hang in; and was glad of it, for Act Two is certainly better.

                  All this said, I don’t mind having experienced the grandeur of the physical production…And it’s worth noting that, in creating a commercial tour with only one star, the producers appeased the various Equities by engaging actors from the UK, Australia, the US and Canada. And that, I thought, was very successful. I hope we see more such international deals put together. If I've larned anything, getting to know the Canadian and British theatre communities more and more from the inside, there's a greater need for cross-pollenization than one might imagine. May that happen. I think a lot can come of it.

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