Saturday, August 21, 2010

Shaw Festival continues to impress with two Shaw plays this season

It seems strangly odd, in a way, that after all the reviews I have written so far this season about offerings at the Shaw Festival, I have yet to write about any of Shaw's plays. There are only two on the playbill this season, after all, but let's remedy the situation right now, and take a look at those very two offerings: John Bull's Other Island and The Doctor's Dilemma.

Shaw's John Bull's Other Island was written at the invitation of W.B. Yeats for Dublin's Abbey Theatre, but was rejected for performance as "uncongenial" as Shaw put it; the play opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1904, directed by both Shaw himself and fellow playwright and good friend Harley Granville Barker. Barker also played Peter Keegan in that first production. The Shaw Festival has produced the play three times before: in 1964, 1985 and 1998, the last two of which I have seen. Jim Mezon, who plays the role of Keegan here, directed that 1998 production. This time, the play is directed by former long-time Artistic Director Christopher Newton.

Newton has crafted a finely detailed, beautifully staged and acted edition of John Bull's Other Island, but being a Shaw play after all, it is a long sit and very wordy. So, be advised if you are not prepared for the adventure; if you are, you will be rewarded with some finely drawn characterizations by a great cast directed by a man who knows his way around a Shaw play.

The story centres on civil engineers Broadbent and Doyle, who travel from London to Roscullen in Ireland, with Doyle reluctantly returning to his Irish roots. Broadbent, played with great style by Benedict Campbell, likes the place and the people so much he decides to run for political office so he can represent them. Ultimately he is thwarted in his plan, and certainly the irony of a transplanted Englishman wanting to represent the Irish was not lost on the audiences of the day. Broadbent's Irish partner in his firm, Larry Doyle, is played by Graem Somerville, who is having a very strong season at Shaw this year. Other notables in the cast include Jim Mezon in the aforementioned role of Peter Keegan; Severn Thompson as Nora Reilly; and David Schurmann in a small but important role as Hodson. The other notable standout is Mary Haney as Aunt Judy; Mary always makes her mark in these roles, and this one is no exception.

I liked the presentation of John Bull's Other Island, but I must confess it is not my favourite offering by the Irish playwright. Still, there is lots to recommend this production, so I give it an advised three out of four stars. John Bull's Other Island continues at the Court House Theatre until October 9th.

Meantime on the Festival stage, one of the big productions this year is Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma, directed by Morris Panych. It runs until October 30th. The set, incidentally, is not everyone's cup of tea. The oversize backdrops, courtesy of designer Ken MacDonald, apparently have rankled a few, but I found them fascinating and managed to magnify the dilemma the doctor, in this case Sir Colenso Ridgeon, faces in the play. The big decision he has to make is done in front of a backdrop just as big.

As director Panych notes in the program, the play is very much reflected in today's debate of public, socialized medicine vs. private. He stands squarely on the side of public medicine, and Shaw's play offers reasons still very valid today why it is in our best interest to remain public rather than private with our health care. The dilemma faced by the doctor in question, Ridgeon, is one of time; he has only so much time to treat so many patients, and if he accepts just one more patient, in this case the gifted but conceited artist Louis Dubedat, he must let one of his other patients go. Ridgeon wrestles with the question, and ultimately refuses Dubedat's wife's pleas to help her man so he can help a man Ridgeon feels is more moral, Dr. Blenkinsop. Ridgeon passes Dubedat off to a colleague, Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington and this does not go down well with Jennifer Dubedat.

In this day and age, we cannot fathom a doctor having to make that decision, but when The Doctor's Dilemma premiered in 1906, again with Harley Granville Barker directing with Shaw's help and also appearing in the role of Dubedat, Shaw was helping to shape public opinion on public vs. private health care with this very play. So the timeliness, especially here in the Niagara Region, is not lost on those in the audience, to be sure.

The cast is uniformly strong here, with Patrick Galligan making his mark as the recently knighted Ridgeon; Michael Ball is wonderful as the wise old Dr. Cullen, now retired; Thom Marriott is suitably overbearing as Bonington and Ric Reid is quite effective as Dr. Blenkinsop. Jennifer Colosimo is a striking Jennifer Dubedat and Jonathan Gould is a very model of the scoundrel Louis Dubedat.

There is lots of interest in this production of The Doctor's Dilemma, last produced at Shaw in 2000, and with good reason. A strong cast and assured direction have produced a very fine edition of the play, and as a result it rates a strong three out of four stars.

August 21st, 2010.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Stratford Festival presents two Shakespeare plays you must see this season

I have been back and forth to Stratford a few times already this season, and I still have two more trips left to finish off the season before the end of summer, so lots more to write about in the coming weeks. For now, a couple of productions, both by Shakespeare, I saw in July, both of which are highly recommended.

The Winter's Tale, along with The Tempest, are two of the Bard's final works. Written within a few months of each other, both were first performed in 1611, each with powerful fathers and remarkable daughters at the centre of the play. Let's look at The Winter's Tale first.

The Winter's Tale, directed by Marti Maraden, is the first time I've seen the play since Robin Phillips' triumphant return to Stratford with a production on the Festival Stage about 20-odd years ago. The story deals with Leontes, King of Sicilia, and Polixenes, King of Bohemia, friends for many years. However, you have to wonder just how strong the friendship would be if within the opening minutes of the play after Polixenes leaves the stage, Leontes suspects an adulterous affair has occurred between the King of Bohemia and Leontes' wife, Queen Hermione. The suspicions continue, eventually raging out of control to the point Leontes throws his wife into prison as Polixenes flees for home. While in Prison, Hermione gives birth to a daughter Leontes suspects belongs to Polixenes; he banishes the child to the wilds, and prepares to put his wife on trial for her life. It takes sixteen long years before Leontes sees the error of his ways and the damage caused by his rampant jealousy.

I have always sat there wondering how logical Leontes' jealousy really is; much like Rosalind duping her lover in As You Like It into thinking she's actually a boy. Really, now, are both men here really that blind to reason, or are they just stupid? No matter; we wouldn't have a great Shakespearean play in different circumstances, would we?

I have always enjoyed Marti Maraden as an actress and in recent years, even moreso as a director. Her direction here is clear and to the point, making for a satisfying evening of theatre. I am not, however, entirely sold on the costuming for this production, which is largely in close to period garb; however, they seem a little chintzy, particularly in the first act, I find.

The cast is almost uniformly strong here: Ben Carlson goes from strength to strength in Stratford, and his Leontes has a lot going for it. It is a nicely balanced performance. His Queen, played by Yanna McIntosh, is suitable regal and elegant. The one real standout performance, however, is Seana McKenna as Paulina, Antigonus's wife, who defends Queen Hermione strongly in front of her jealous husband. She presents a strong case; can't this guy get it through his head? Other strong performances are by Sean Arbuckle as Camillo, Dan Chameroy as Polixenes, and Luke McCarroll as Mamillius, song of Leontes and Hermione.

You will do well to see this production of The Winter's Tale; it runs at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 25th, and rates a strong three out of four stars.

The next production we'll look at is, of course, The Tempest, which is the big production on the Festival stage this year due to the fact Christopher Plummer appears as Prospero. Directed by Artistic Director Des McAnuff, this is far and away one of the best Shakespearean plays I have seen at Stratford - ever. And that is going all the way back to 1982 when I first started reviewing here. Like his predecessor, Richard Monette, I find McAnuff can sometimes not leave well enough alone and show some restraint in his direction. But here, everything falls into place perfectly, and not a single element overpowers anything else, producing a wonderfully balanced production that satisfies on so many levels.

The most significant aspect for me is the fact although it is chock full of special effects, they do not overtake the production as is often the case nowadays, creating a show where the special effects are the show and the dialogue is almost secondary. Not a single effect goes over the top here; not a single visual distracts from the play but rather enhances it. This is all due to a creative team lead by McAnuff who knew when to stop, when to hold back. It is breathtaking to watch this production, causing the people sitting next to me afterwards to simply exclaim "Wow!" That said it all, really.

The story, of course, deals with Alonso, King of Naples, who is battling a violent storm at sea as the play opens. He is aboard ship with his son, Ferdinand, and his ally Antonio, Duke of Milan. But the tempest is no ordinary garden-variety storm; rather, it is one magically raised by Prospero, Antonio's elder brother who for the past twelve years has been marooned on a remote island with his daughter Miranda. After the storm subsides, Prospero comes clean with Miranda and explains he is the rightful Duke of Milan, having been deposed by Antonio. Antonio sent him out on a decrepit boat with the infant Miranda a dozen years ago, and they found themselves marooned on this island, where Prospero had been honing his magical arts for just such an occasion: to bring his enemies within his grasp once again.

The cast, like the production itself, is without equal at Stratford this season: all the big guns are here, supporting Plummer in the role of Prospero. Peter Hutt appears as Alonso, King of Naples; James Blendick as Gonzalo, an old councillor; Bruce Dow as Trinculo the jester; Stephen Russell as Master of the Ship; and Geraint Wyn Davies as Stephano the butler, a comic role he makes the most of. Rounding out the cast highlights are Trish Lindstrom as Miranda, and Dion Johnstone as the slave Caliban. But special mention must also go to Julyana Soelistyo as the spirit Ariel. She comes from New York City, and at barely four feet tall is perfect for the part. She literally floats around the stage, with an infectious laugh you cannot ignore. She is a genuine find, to be sure!

If I am guilty of writing an unequivocal rave, I am guilty as charged, your honour. This production has everything going for it: great cast, great direction, great design. If I could give it five stars I would, but four stars, my limit, will have to do. But beware, this is the hottest ticket in town with good reason, and it only runs until September 12th, so run, don't walk to the phone or computer to book your tickets now. This is one show you will want to see this year, without question!

August 14th, 2010.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Rotar Sunset Music Series continues until end of August

I have been remiss writing about the first Rotary Sunset Music Series, which began July 6th and continues until August 31st at the brand new Rotary Shell at Charles Daley Park in Lincoln. But I want to make up for lost time before the season ends, as I went to the park last evening for the TiannaH and Jazz with a Twist concert, and was very impressed both with the music and the surroundings.

I have not been to Charles Daley Park much over the years, which is a shame since it is so close to home and right on the water. But for some reason, it's on the 'one of these days we have to go there' list and never seems to make it to the 'let's do it now' list. Well, last night it made it to the 'let's do it now' list and I couldn't be happier! I last visited the park about three years ago when the Town of Lincoln invited me to emcee a Canada Day celebration at the park, and even then I could see the early stages of work to be done to make the park an even more people-friendly place throughout the summer months. Returning last evening, I was struck by the considerable improvements even in the last three years or so, which have totally transformed the park.

The main focus, of course, is the new Rotary Shell, which opened earlier this summer and is a joint project of the Town of Lincoln and Lincoln Rotary. The Rotary Club contributed $ 165,000 to the capital project, and the money appears to be well spent. With Lake Ontario as a backdrop and a generous grassy slope between the parking lot and the bandshell, perfect for audience members to relax and enjoy the music, the setting is absolutely perfect. Even with the sun beating down during the first half of the show last evening, the breeze off the lake helped make the hot weather more bearable, at least for a little while.

The musical offerings this year, all free thanks to a grant of $14,500 from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, is varied and innovative, with something literally for everyone this summer. Last evening, TiannaH and Jazz with a Twist were the featured performers, and it was a pleasure to finally hear Tianna and the band, who are regular performers around the peninsula, but for some reason have escaped my eye until now. However, I have been well aware of TiannaH, otherwise known as Teresa Holierhoek, who lives with her family in nearby Vineland and is a native of St. Catharines. Every February, she joins Laura Thomas and Choralis Camerata for their annual Black History Month concert at one of the Region's churches, and every year it is my pleasure to narrate the concert. I have enjoyed Teresa's powerfully expressive voice belting out spirituals at these concerts, but this was my first chance to hear her as TiannaH with her group in a jazz setting.

Without a doubt, TiannaH is one of the best-kept secrets in Niagara. Her voice covers a wide range of jazz standards, as it did in the first half last evening, and a lot of soul standards in the second half. Unfortunately, this tired old boy didn't stay for the second set, as I am up at 3 am for work, but what I heard made the trip more than worthwhile. TiannaH caresses the songs with great love and affection; her band, including Sandy Vine on keyboards and Warren Stirtzinger on guitar, know their stuff and don't miss a beat. Look for her around the Region at venues ranging from the Jordan House Hotel to open-air events over the summer months.

The final weeks of the Sunset Music Series include the Barroom Buzzards on August 17th; the Jimmy Marando Swing Band on August 24th; and the group Flat Broke wraps things up on August 31st. All concerts run from 7 pm to 8:30 pm, and are absolutely free. You can even access the concerts from your car in the parking lot if you like via your car's FM radio.

If you have not had a chance to enjoy some time at Charles Daley Park and experience some great music at the Rotary Shell, you still have time, and you will likely be amazed at the transformation taking place at the park. Just remember, with the 16 Mile Creek bridge out on the North Service Road for the time being, you have to take the QEW to the Jordan exit and then double back on the North Service Road. That means you'd better allow a few extra minutes to get there.

Enjoy the music!

August 11th, 2010.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Two shows at Shaw worth catching this season...

This has been quite a week for your humble scribe, as I have been on vacation all week, but 'enjoying' my vacation wouldn't quite describe it. I set aside this week to finally paint the front porch on the house, which has been in dire need since last year, when the weather and my health both conspired against me getting the job done. However, this week the weather again worked against me due to the excessive heat and humidity. Today, Friday, was the best day of the week, until it rained. So, I will be going into next week before the job is done, as I get back to work. So that should be fun! The other problem I've encountered this week is my computer once again refusing to operate properly most of the time, even after being in the shop only a month ago. Basically, you try to get onto the internet and it says the computer equivalent of "You want me to do what?" Very frustrating week, indeed. All of which means I am way behind on my work on the computer because it simply isn't doing its job. Where's my typewriter...and where is the USB connection on this darn thing anyway...

So, with all that out of the way, let's head off to Shaw for a couple of exceptional offerings this season. Both run until October 9th: The Women by Clare Boothe Luce at the Festival Theatre and the lunchtime show, Half an Hour by J.M. Barrie at the Royal George Theatre. Let's begin with the Luce play at the Festival Theatre.

Director Alisa Palmer has crafted a clever interpretation of a classic tale by Clare Boothe Luce, the former editor of both Vogue and Vanity Fair who turned playwright during the Depression-era decade of the 1930s. The Women was her second effort, much more successful than her first, even though rumours abounded after the premiere that playwright George S. Kaufman had rewritten the play. He hadn't, but he did do some work on it at some point. The Women premiered in New York in December 1936 to mixed reviews. Audiences loved it: the first production ran for 657 performances, with the costumes changing each season to remain current!

To be honest, the story has become rather dated in the 21st century, but the cast assembled by Palmer for this new Shaw production rivals the 1985 production at the Court House Theatre that Luce herself attended. The sets and costumes evoke a different age, of course, with some clever design ideas: check out the women's gym in the first act - it's hilarious! Designer William Schmuck must have had a ball designing this production!

The all-female cast is very strong, and a testament to the quality of the women in the acting ensemble at Shaw this season. Standouts include Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler; Kelli Fox as Nancy Blake; and Jenny L. Wright as Edith Potter. Honourable mentions also go to Wendy Thatcher, Sharry Flett and Moya O'Connell.

Women especially will enjoy this production, but men, too, will learn quite a bit about what goes on in the powder rooms of the nation when the women are alone, far away from prying eyes - and ears. The Women rates a strong three out of four stars, and continues at the Festival Theatre until October 9th.

The lunchtime offering this year is J.M. Barrie's aptly-titled Half an Hour, which takes exactly half an hour to perform. Director Gina Wilkinson keeps things moving here, and the cast makes the most of the short time on stage to present a finely-crafted tale of 'what ifs' and 'if only'. Essentially, the story revolves around the well-to-do Garson family, moving about their mansion near Park Lane in what appears to be a serene existence. However, all is not as it appears. Mrs. Garson, otherwise known as Lady Lillian, played by Diana Donnelly, is trapped in a loveless marriage she cannot bear, so has turned to neighbour Hugh Paton for solace. The inevitable affair ensues, with Paton, played with great skill by Gord Rand, promising to give Lady Lillian the life she so desperately craves if she will leave the comforts of home with the blockhead Mr. Garson, played with suitable bluster by Peter Krantz. However, fate steps in at the last moment and takes Paton away from Lady Lillian, and she has to face her husband and accept the fact she has been foiled in her plan to escape the marriage she so detests.

The rest of the cast is solid in smaller roles, with Norman Browning fun to watch as Mr. Redding; Laurie Paton as his wife, Mrs. Redding; and Peter Millard as the doubting Dr. Brodie. Special mention must go to Michael Ball in the dual role of manservant Withers and simply 'A Gentleman', a role in which he describes the upcoming scenes with a great deal of dry wit.

I usually try to book the lunchtime show to coincide with a 2pm show so I make an afternoon of it at Shaw, and I would recommend you do the same. But even if no other play on the bill this season appeals to you at 2 pm, don't deprive yourself the pleasure of Barrie's short but clever play. It is half an hour you won't regret spending this summer! Half an Hour continues at the Royal George Theatre, with the curtain at 11:30 am, until October 9th. It rates a very strong three out of four stars.

August 6th, 2010.