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Reviewed here: Vigil, Omnium Gatherum, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Hamlet, Ah, Wilderness!, Swanne: Victoria, Noises Off and Urinetown.

Vigil Written and Directed by Morris Panych (Canstage)

In this piece of comic fluff, a man visits his dying aunt whom he hasn't seen in 30 years. Much to his exasperation, she doesn't die but lingers on and on. Mute and bedridden for most of the play, she communicates by gesture and facial expression. Meanwhile, he prattles on and on in a hilariously self-absorbed way. No opporunity for macabre jokes about death and funerals goes untaken. Lots of them are very funny.

     The play is structured in short scenes, separated by blackouts. I prefer a play in which we can watch a playwright struggle to bring his characters through larger swatches of real time. But what the hell, this play works. The audience was having a great time.

     Even so, there were times during the man's tirades when I wanted to say "enough already". The dramatic tension, such as it is, goes slack when his monologues have nothing to do with the old woman. Occasionally, he says something worth thinking about but there seems to be no point, no forward thrust to the piece. Just when I was getting weary of it all, along came a great first act curtain. The writing was tighter in the second act and a tremendous surprise took me completely off guard and re-invigorated me.

     Brent Carver does a great comic turn as the man: fussy, preening and neurotic.I couldn't help feeling, though, that he was doing a shtick rather than simply being real. He has chosen a sing-song, rapid-fire delivery than often runs lines together. It doesn't sound natural and, because of it, I think, some jokes misfired. But I'm odd man out here. The audience was loving him.

     Martha Henry as the old woman is a marvel. Every theatre student in Toronto should see her for an object lesson in physical acting: minimum exertion for maximum effect.Whether it be a quarter turn of the head of a flick of the hand, everything is perfectly timed and executed. This being a Morris Panych production, you know there are going to be some striking visual moments. Some of the best of them occur when Ms. Henry is alone on stage.

     But I have one picky question for Mr. Panych as the  playwright. Throughout most of the first act, we assume the reason the old woman isn't talking is that she has had a stroke. Later, we find that she can speak. So why doesn't she?

 

Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros (Canstage; Director: David Storch)

Waiting for the show to begin, I'm worried. Very worried. The set consists of one round dinner table, formally set with seven places. How are we going to see everybody? From my seat in the front row, some chairs around the table are blocking my view of others. Somebody is going to have their back to us all the time.

     As soon as the play begins, that problem is solved: the table starts to rotate ever so slowly.

    Would that the other problems with this piece could be resolved so simply. The guests at this dinner party, apparently all Manhattanites, although not all US born, discuss the post-Sept 11 world. They represent various points of view from liberal-touch-feely to rabidly pro-US. Trouble is, they tend to sound like types, not real people, more like mouthpieces for ideologies. To compound the problem, there's no plot; things aren't going anywhere. This kind of thing can fly if the conversation's brilliantly witty. It isn't. There are sputterings of tension but we don't know the people well enough to care.

     Still, the play might have a chance, if the actors could find natural, conversational rhythms in which to deliver their speeces. Unfortunately, most of them have chosen a loud, declamatory style that acts like a concrete sheath over the script, preventing any tiny shoots of real life from springing up. I wanted to shut the actors in a room and make them talk to each other. The might find that it felt very different from what they were doing on stage.

     For lack of any momentum to carry my interest forward, I kept wondering when the next course would come. How long till dessert, please? Then I tried to estimate the time it took for the table to make a complete turn. And I spent a lot of time admiring the glittery black, filmy thing Fiona Reid was wearing as the hostess.

     This isn't the greatest role that Ms. Reid has played but it's the only good one in this piece and she brings her well-honed comic skills to bear on it. Later, I wondered if the play might have fared better with a less funny hostess at its centre. Still, her charm and her ditzy, yet genuine kindness made me long for an invitation to one of her parties.

     In the last quarter of the play, the hostess does, as advertised, produce a big surprise. I couldn't decide whether this coup de theatre was clever, silly or just plain stupid. No matter, it got the guests off their bums and things began to happen. Some sort of play started to kick into gear. A few surrealistic touches were thrown in to spice things up even more. But everybody soon settled into more speechifying and it all ended (none too soon) with an effusion of goodwill and bonhomie.

    By my estimate, it took about five minutes for the table to complete one rotation.

 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee (Alumnae Theatre; Director: Barbara Larose)

First some personal history around this piece.

     Back in the 1960s, there was a discussion one morning at the seminary breakfast table about the newly released Liz Taylor/Richard Burton movie of the play. The question was whether it would be permissable for a seminarian to attend such a movie. None of us had seen it but some were pretty sure that it was a scurrilous piece of garbage. I kept quiet about the fact that I'd read the script.

     At first opportunity during the Christmas holidays in Toronto, I hurried out to catch the movie at one of those grand old theatres on Yonge near St. Clair (now gone, alas). The experience turned out to be a revelation in more ways than one. First, I discovered that attending a movie alone on an afternoon in the big city suited me just fine. More importantly, it amazed me to discover that the piece was so funny. Reading it as a conscientious seminarian, it had never occurred to me that bits such as the Bette Davis take-off ("What a dump!") could be so hilarious.

     So I was looking forward to this production as a chance to get re-acquainted with a work that meant a lot to me. On the whole, this show is great. The Alumnae Theatre people give us the real deal: excellent pacing and mood, lots of laughs and pathos. If there are any imperfections they have to do with casting.

     But not in the case of large, raven-haired and blousy Tricia Brioux as Martha. She blows you away. This is one of those cases where an actor inhabits a role somewhere around the one-hundred-and-ten percent range. You can barely imagine anybody better in the part. If you wanted to quibble, you might say she could be a little less vicious at the outset, maybe she could yell less, maybe her physical work is a bit sloppy at times. But it's kind of hard to quibble with dynamite.

     Which points to the problem that Mark Whalen has as George. He's an excellent actor in a subtle, under-stated way (wonderful shadings of mood) but, lacking any special charisma, he tends to become invisible when Ms. Brioux gets going. That may be what the relationship between Martha and George was like, had they been a real couple, but it makes for a lopsided show. In addition to speaking too quietly sometimes, Mr. Whalen rushes through some lines far too quickly. I was beginning to suspect a touch of Irish, not so much in pronunication, but in the rapid lilt of some phrases. Sure enough, the program notes that he is a frequent performer with the Toronto Irish Players.

     Karie Richards does excellent comic work as Honey. If she seemed to me a bit too beautiful and intelligent for the pathetic dope that Honey is supposed to be, that may have to do with the fact that I know Ms. Richards as a friend. Sometimes you can forget that you know an actor personally when that actor happens to land in the perfect part (I bet Ms. Brioux's friends didn't have any problem) but it didn't happen for me in this case with Ms. Richards as it did last year in her unforgettable performance in Summer and Smoke.

    Her co-star from that show, Jason Gautreau, appears opposite her again, as Rick. This is the second time that I've seen Mr. Gautreau on the Alumnae stage in the role of a young stud as written by a gay playwright. In each play, the author has given him an under-written part: more of a token than a real person. Mr. Gautreau, obviously an accomplished actor, doesn't seem quite the hunk the writers are dreaming of. For all I know, he may be the studliest guy on the block but his stage presence tends towards the more sensitive type. In this case, he wasn't helped by the fact that the blonde dye job required for the part made him look extremely pale and washed out. But his performance warmed up and expanded in the second act where the two men started to let it all hang out.

    I kept thinking about how those audiences in New York in the early 1960s must have wondered what hit them. This was surely the first of those plays that consist of nothing but a lot of talk fuelled by alcohol. (There wouldn't be any play if it wasn't for the booze.) By now, the routine has become so familiar: let's get tanked and play games that will tear each other apart. But those first audiences must have been amazed at the naturalness of it, the vulgarity, the seeming randomness, the apparent lack of structure. And what about that intriguing mystery about "the little bugger"? That's a real grabber.

     I love the play. I marvel at the wit, the brilliance, the agility of the writing. But I kept wishing it was all very new. I wanted to be back in those first audiences. Since I wasn't, and since I knew very well what was coming, I simply couldn't stay for the third act which would have kept me out of my bed till well after midnight.

 

Singalong Hamlet By the Sea  (directed by Joseph Ziegler, Soulpepper, Toronto)

   It felt strange to be heading down to Harbourfront at 11 a.m. for a noon production of this great monument of English literature. In a way, it was exciting to think you could have such an opportunity on a beautiful fall morning. On the other hand, I was wondering whether or not Hamlet's any good. Isn't it just a collection of famous speeches? Don't we go to it just for the sake of nostalgia, to prove to ourselves that we really did learn something in high school English class? What is all that palaver about a ghost and a murdered father? Does it grab anybody as a play?

    Well, this production convinced me that Mr. William Shakespeare did actually write something that works more or less the way a really good play -- say one of Ms. Agatha Christie's -- should. This Hamlet clicks right along; there's a "line running through it", as they say these days. It held my attention most of the time. But not without difficulty. There were several bizarre aspects of the experience that very nearly sabotaged the whole thing. Not least of them was the fact that when I ran out at intermission to try to find something for lunch, I very nearly bumped into Hamlet coming out of a convenience store with a chocolate bar in his hand.

    But first and foremost of the formidable circumstances: this was a school performance. Now, I'm all for high school students getting a day off and I'm not even opposed to sharing our cultural heritage with them on occasion. But seven-year olds too? It took a lot of self control not to jump on stage and ask their teachers what was to be gained by bringing such youngsters? I appreciate that a full house looks good on the company's books. But does it do anything for the children, for the rest of us, for Mr. Shakespeare?

     Gradually, I settled down, if the children didn't. They were there and there was nothing I could do about it. (A group of them left at intermission, so maybe this was a field trip that had nothing to do with Mr. Shakespeare's play.) Given the restlessness in the hall, the uncanny sensation began to come over me that we were on a ship, at sea. The constant squeaking of the seats as the children jumped up and down was like the squealing and creaking of the sheets ("ropes" for the less nautical reader) and the boards of the hull. The bobbing and squirming all around me suggested the frolicking of the various sea creatures, perhaps a school of dolphins. As for the long tresses that kept flopping onto my knees as the girl in front of me repeatedly rearranged her hair, well that was seaweed washing over the bow into my lap.

     So this was not your average, everyday Shakespeare happening. There were a lot of things to be overlooked. Such as the fact that Gertrude appeared to be barely five years older than Hamlet; and that his school chum Guildenstern looked a generation older than he. No big deal. The stripped-down style of the production also took some getting used to. Take the costumes: a non-descript, vaguely Victorian garb that didn't fit any period. But what about those black flowing things the men wore over their shirts and trousers? They looked like nothing so much as -- what I think they were -- priests' cassocks, unbuttoned and open down the front. Presumably they were meant to add a theatrical flourish as they billowed about. As a former seminarian who spent several years wearing one of those things, I kept wanting to tell the guys to button up and get to chapel pronto.

     It was all very well to have some cast members come out and chat casually with the students before the show, but what was the point of having the actors sit around the edges of the stage for the duration? Was this supposed to make the production more student-friendly? I could only think how enormously taxing it must be on the actors. Except during her scenes, Nancy Palk (Gertrude) sat there maintaining her magnificent posture for nearly three hours.

    Although the complete text was offered (as far as I could tell), the production at times felt like a workshop. This was very disappointing in terms of the Ghost's first appearance. He walked in with not much more effect than the average trick-or-treater appearing at our door on Hallowe'en. Couldn't we have a bit of dry ice, please? Maybe somebody missed a lighting cue; the Ghost's second appearance benefitted from a somewhat spookier lighting effect.

     The fact that the bright, blonde wood of the stage was entirely bare except for a few chairs and benches, and the near total lack of props, meant that there was no business for the actors: no plants to water, no dishes to wash, no nick-knacks to dust. This left them with virtually nothing to do but stand and deliver their speeches. Which they did....very slowly....and very clearly. You began to get the impression that they were spoon-feeding the play to the students. The actors were all doing good work, but straining to make their points. At this pace, subtlety and nuance, any illusion of naturalness and spontaneity, were impossible. (Kenneth Brannagh where are you when we need  you?)

     The first scene that really worked for me was the one in which Patricia Fagan as Ophelia told her father how Hamlet was freaking her out with his looney schtick. Ms. Fagan struck a note of genuine pathos that held through the whole show. All of her scenes moved me. She manages a very effective combination of a classical style with just a touch of contemporary off-handedness. During her singing in the mad scene, however, I was bothered by a disconcerting echo effect. While somewhat haunting, it interfered with my hearing her clearly, which is what I would have preferred.

     Another early scene that worked well was the one in which Hamlet taunts Polonius. William Webster, as the old man, made the excellent choice of coming down centre to address his astonishment directly to the audience, virtually involving the students in a dialogue. They loved it.

      And the little "play within the play" worked splendidly, thanks largely to the beautiful accompaniment of a plaintive tune on the guitar and some soft drumming. The students very much enjoyed the physical comedy of Philip Riccio as the Player Queen.

     Actors who have played Hamlet sometimes speak of it as a mountain to be scaled. The more modest among them are willing to discuss how close to the summit they may have come. The late Nicholas Pennell (if I remember correctly) said of his Stratford performance some years ago that he felt he had reached the tree line. Albert Schultz brings us a good way up the mountain but I never felt the need for supplementary oxygen. On the whole, he seems a rather nice young man who's bummed out by this thing with his mother and his uncle that really sucks. He gives us most of what we want from Hamlet. What I missed was the black, brooding quality, the keenness of the depression, the sense of something scary within him that seeps into the whole play.

     But his big confrontation with Gertrude is great. After unleashing torrents of anger and abuse on her, he collapses, his head in her lap, and whimpers that they're sending him to England. (Maybe a quick puff of oxygen would have been in order.)

     The final scene struck me as perfunctory. This was where the barrenness of the show took its greatest toll. All of a sudden there were all these dead people but no blood. Well, I suppose it would have been quite a nuisance to clean up those bright blonde boards of the acting platform. But maybe the students were into it more than I. There was a gasp from the balcony when Gertrude reached for the goblet. And when Hamlet stabbed Claudius, from the back of the hall came an exultant "Yes!"

    Come the end of the play, I guessed that, for the actors maybe it's worth putting up with a student audience for the sake of all the screaming and yelling at the curtain calls. As the hubbub died down, the man next to me was speaking to the little girl in front of us (her of the long tresses). He had figured out that she was the one who was providing the echo effect, singing along with Ophelia in her mad scene. The woman chaperoning the child effusively explained that they'd had the record of the song and had been studying it at school. The woman clearly thought it was quite a coup.

     The girl, a chubby black child, was grinning from ear to ear as the man complimented her on her contribution to the performance. His enthusiastic approval obviously made her day.

    

 

Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O'Neill, directed by Joseph Ziegler (Shaw Festival)

   You don't often get a chance to see this play. From my reading of it many years ago, I remembered it as the flip side of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Whereas the latter shows the dysfunctional family in all its dark, sick misery, Wilderness! pictures a healthy, loving  family whose problems, difficult as they seem at the time, turn out to be pretty typical family stuff. (Horrid thought: could this play be the grandaddy of Leave It to Beaver ?!?) Not to say that there isn't a pervasive sadness about the chronic problems besetting some of the older members of the family.

  True to my memory of the script, this production is sunny, warm, full of family affection. At times, I wondered if it wasn't too slow-moving, almost self-indulgent. What playwright today would get away with a long dinner scene just for the sake of showing an uncle in his cups? I kept thinking the meandering plot would work better in a movie where you could liven it up with cutaway shots and exterior locations. And what about all that laborious exposition in the first scene?

   But let's drop the analytical pose and admit the truth: this play is so beautiful that I was swimming in tears through most of it. The first time a thing like that happened -- to my astonishment and embarrassment -- was about 40 years ago when I had a front and centre seat for Tony Van Bridge's performance as Falstaff in Henry IV, Part One, at Stratford, Ont. When you see genuine humanity in all its fulness and realness coming at you across the stage, you can't help (at least I can't) reacting emotionally. Mind you, I was very short of sleep during Wilderness! and I'd drunk too much tea that morning. Still, no excuses Patrick!

   It occurred to me that one of the most satisfying things about an actor's work is when that actor so fully inhabits a role that you forget that it's an actor at work and you feel that this is a real person whom you know or want to know better. Most of the younger members of the cast inhabited their roles around the 70 to 80 percent range:decent work, but sometimes their movements were a bit awkward and, being young actors today, they often don't handle language very well. Most of the veteran performers hit the 90 percent mark.

   Except for Norman Browning. His performance as the father comes in at about 110 percent. This is the role of a lifetime; he was born to play it. The marvel is that the best of it comes in body language, gesture and inarticulate grumbling. I wish I had on tape the scene in which he tries to talk to his errant son about the facts of life.The nuance, the range of conflicting emotions, the clowning are phenomenal. Mr. Browning is the epitome of the strong, gruff, loving, comical and wise father, the one that we all wish we had, or could be.

    Handkerchief thoroughly soaked, I came away feeling that this was one of those rare occasions when a play lifts you up to someplace sublime, a place where you feel that, for a few moments at least, life is better than it looks most of the time.

The Swanne: Queen Victoria written and directed by Peter Hinton (Stratford Festival)

    I'd been wanting to attend something in the new Studio Theatre at Stratford and had been hearing good things about this new Canadian work, a trilogy, of which Victoria is the final part. Jane and I studied up before hand on the program notes and the background info on the webside because we'd been warned that it's a complicated play.

    Did I say complicated? The connections among the vast cast of characters are so intricate that it makes the Old Testament look like a primary school reader. People are dying all over the place, illegitimate kids are being born, rebellions going on, coronations forestalled, buggery indugled in along with prostitution, insanity, thievery -- to mention just some ingredients. The program lists 58 roles. One man seems to have three mothers. All this has something to do with young Victoria's fantasy about a challenger to the throne. Time sequences are jumbled. A woman is giving birth to a son who was an adult when the play began. People talk across the stage at each other over scenes that don't involve them.

    It's a long time since I have seen work approaching the inept on the Stratford stage. That was the case, though, with some of the younger members of this cast. They lacked the classical physical presence this play called for and their deficient vocal articulation left you guessing what was being said much of the time. Several of the mature actors held the stage in the style that you expect of Stratford actors but even they couldn't make this unwieldy piece work.

     Things might have improved in the second act but the management informed us, when we inquired at intermission, that we were in for nearly two more hours. We fled into the cool night.

Noises Off by Michael Frayn (Stratford Festival)

     We saw a British production of this play years ago when it was relatively new. It was probably the most hilarious night in the theatre we'd ever experienced and I had doubts about trying to recapture the rapture. But people were saying that this is a great show and I decided it would be worth the effort of dragging ourselves to Stratford for the rare opportunity to see such a well-crafted comedy.

     After the first act, I wasn't so sure. It didn't seem quite as funny as I'd remembered.But the second and third acts were pure bliss. As you probably know, it's a first-rate farce about a group of second-rate actors putting on a third-rate farce. As a person who is very verbally-oriented, it amazed me that we could be falling out of our seats laughing in the second act when almost nothing is being said onstage. A motion coach is listed in the program. That's a rather unusual credit for a show that doesn't have any choreography or fights but it makes sense when you think of the painstaking rehearsal it must have taken to get all the shenanigans just right. At times, the stage is like a perpetual motion machine with all the inter-locking parts perfectly synchronized. Kudos to all involved!

Urinetown at Canstage, Toronto

    My wife Jane was somewhat disconcerted, on arrival at the theatre, to discover that this show was not named "You're In Town". I hastened to assure her that it had been reccommended by several reliable theatre people and that it was said to be a great spoof on contemporary musicals.

     What a piss-off! Seems I forgot that I don't much like contemporary musicals, so a spoof of them doesn't have much to offer me. Especially when it's horribly over-miked like this one. I spent most of the first act with my hands over my ears. My idea of a good time at the theatre is not having cartoon characters leaping about and braying at me. Admittedly, the actors all did jump through their hoops with admirable bravado.

     If you're an innocent like Jane, you may need the premise explained: because of a severe water shortage, people are not allowed to use toilets at home but must resort to public facilities, for the use of which they are gouged mercilessly. That struck a dreary note with me; I could only feel sorry for the poor folks. If I'd been able to summon up some prudery, I might have enjoyed a thrill at the naughtiness of it all. But, what with the Gay Pride Parade going mainstream and all, peeing jokes seem so yesterday.

     Maybe the second act was better. I wouldn't know. I had to go.

 

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