Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Ten Niagara Arts Companies want to see YOU this season!

My apologies for not writing my usual Saturday diatribe, but a combination of the Grape & Wine Grande Parade and the fact I was finishing work on the front porch this past weekend (yes, it is finally done...for now!), plus the fact I was setting up a wireless connection at home, all conspired against my creative energies...until now.

I wanted to write about an event I attended earlier this month at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre in downtown St. Catharines, now home to ten, count 'em, ten arts companies over the course of the year. On September 9th, all ten companies showcased highlights of their respective seasons, all of which take place at this intimate, almost quaint theatre space in downtown St. Catharines. If that evening is anything to go by, and I am sure it is, we're in for some thought-provoking and creative theatre this fall/winter/spring at the venerable Courthouse Theatre.

The ten companies are as follows: Brock Centre for the Arts, Carousel Players, Essential Collective Theatre, Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, NeXt Company Theatre, Niagara Dance Company, Stray Theatre, Suitcase in Point, Theatre A&A and Theatre Beyond Words. Now, I know what you're thinking: "What's Brock Centre for the Arts doing in that list? They have their own theatre space at Brock University." Well, yes, they do. But this will be the first time the Centre for the Arts will be testing the waters downtown, no doubt in anticipation of moving downtown once the performing arts centre is built, with a performance April 1st of next year by Debashish Bhattacharya, the Indian guitar maestro, who will perform with his brother Subhasis on tablas. That should be the ideal show to bring downtown, and I hope all the seats are filled for the performance.

Speaking of seats filled during the performance, I think it is important to note that once you get past the opening night with most of these companies, which are usually full, the remainder of the performances are not always sold out, and that is a shame, really. Sure, some shows will do better than others and even some days will be better theatre days than others, but when you come right down to it, more people should be venturing downtown to discover a wealth of live theatre experiences throughout the fall/winter/spring. We know we can travel to Centre for the Arts at Brock University for a myriad of live performances from October to April each year, and from April to November each year we can travel the short distance to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

But what about downtown? You'd be surprised by what you find! Last season, I attended most of the Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects shows, for example, and they rivalled just about anything you'll see in the more familiar summer theatre venues, at very affordable prices. And don't forget, Ric Reid, one half of the Lyndesfarne team with wife Kelly Daniels, is a well-respected actor at the Shaw Festival during the summer months. In fact, you can still catch him in Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma at the Festival Theatre until the end of the present season. In other words, with all of the companies I have seen at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre, the quality is great, the prices reasonable, and the variety is simply astounding. You couldn't want for more variety in a downtown venue or anywhere else for that matter, so what's stopping you?

Parking shouldn't be a problem, as Market Square is right next door. Don't know what peformances are coming up? Most companies have their own websites now and they should be easy enough to find; heck, I just finished putting all the companies' full seasons up on the calendar page of my website, www.finemusic.ca, and if that doesn't make it any easier for you, I don't know what will.

DAPA, or the Downtown Alliance for the Performing Arts, what you to experience what they have to offer. So this season, why not take a night or afternoon and simply head downtown for one of the performances at the Sullivan Mahoney Courthouse Theatre? You'll be impressed by what you see!

September 28th, 2010.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Highs and Lows in the past week for Chorus Niagara

With the start of autumn later on tonight, we are gradually turning our attentions to other activities that involve spending time indoors more than out, especially where the arts are concerned. The Niagara Symphony is less than a couple of weeks away from starting their much-anticipated new season, for example. So, too, will Chorus Niagara in early November.

Chorus Niagara, it is well known, is Niagara's premiere 100-voice strong choir directed by Robert Cooper, and they perform a program of four concerts each season at various locales in and around the Region. In the case of a couple of their performances this coming season, they double the number of performances, due to their popularity in the area, especially at Christmastime with their performances of Handel's oratorio Messiah, for example.

Chorus Niagara made news a couple of times this past week, and it is with mixed feelings I share those with you now. First, the good news: Artistic Director Robert Cooper will receive a prestigious Trillium Award - Established Artist, later this month. Cooper, who has been at the helm of Chorus Niagara since 1989, has seen the performance level of the Chorus rise considerably under his direction, and the choir has doubled in size since he took over. This is a 100-strong voice choir from all walks of life, each devoted to presenting the finest choral music in the Region, and more often than not, they do that year in and year out.

In addition to his duties down here with Chorus Niagara, Dr. Cooper also directs the Orpheus Choir in Toronto and the Opera in Concert Chorus. He has taught in the Choral Department of the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, and among his most recent projects, he was an adjudicator this past summer at the World Choral Games in Shaozing, China. Who knew?

I have had the pleasure of knowing Bob for many years during my association as a sponsor and fan of Chorus Niagara, and have always found him to be an honest, genuine soul who simply loves to share his passion for great choral music. Almost without exception, his appearances with Chorus Niagara are educational, entertaining and very creative. This is a richly-deserved award, and I know Bob shares the honour with his colleagues within the ranks of Chorus Niagara. In the press release issued to announce the award, Mr. Cooper states: "It really is an acknowledgement of Chorus Niagara's growing stature and presence in the community, for which I must thank the many, many singers who have devoted so much time to our organization's success...we are collective recipients." Thank you, Bob, for all your music making with Chorus Niagara!

The sad news that came out on the heals of that announcement was the fact a long-standing member of the Chorus, Rowland Lampard, known to everyone simply as Roy, passed away late last week of a heart attack while out for a morning ride on his bike. Roy, married for many years to Peggy, another member of the Chorus, and father to a son and daughter as well as a loving grandfather to their children had been singing with the Chorus for as long as I can remember.

This was really a shock to everyone who knew him, as he always appeared to be in good health and living his retirement years to the fullest. Being a member of Chorus Niagara meant that after the performances, the men in the Chorus would have to tear down the stage and bleachers and lug them out to the truck. I remember many a time over the years seeing Roy right in the thick of it, sans tuxedo jacket but fully dressed otherwise, lugging the heavy bleachers and things along with everyone else. He seemed the picture of health.

But more than that, his outlook on life and how he interacted with those around him made him a special person to know. I had the pleasure of serving Roy and Peggy as customers of my music business, A Web of Fine Music, a few times over the years, and his enthusiasm and love of music was quite infectious. He was a gentleman, and caring soul, and someone you would consider yourself lucky to be acquainted with.

Roy will certainly be missed, and his passing will certainly hang over the Chorus as they prepare for the coming season. But he would want them to continue on, and that they will come November. For now, though, we'll all gather at his beloved St. Thomas' Anglican Church in downtown St. Catharines at 11 am on Saturday, October 2nd for a memorial service. It will be a musical affair to be sure, but it would be even nicer knowing he were there singing that day, too.

Our condolences go out to Peggy and the rest of the family on the loss of such a gentleman. Roy will be sorely missed.

September 22nd, 2010.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Last week I wrapped up my summer theatre reviews for Stratford and Shaw, and the fall season is quickly approaching, with lots of arts entertainment to be had both here in Niagara and beyond. I will be returning to writing more about music-related topics in the coming weeks, but for now, I have a couple of theatre-related topics to cover before the month is out.

Years ago while living in Toronto, I spent many a pleasant evening in many of the prime downtown Toronto theatres, attending openings on a regular basis, from the Royal Alex to the then-named O'Keefe Centre and just about everything else in between. I was a particular fan of the ballet, and for over twenty years attended performances of the National Ballet of Canada on a regular basis, which I always enjoyed. I became a real fan of the ballet, and have missed the ballet performances the last few years. I also, rather slowly, I admit, became an opera fan and attended many Canadian Opera Company performances over the years. Again, I have not the past several years and I have missed them, but both the National Ballet and the COC were always more than generous in accomodating my ticket requests. Maybe I'm getting older after all, but I rarely make the trek to Toronto these days for live theatre; still, I couldn't resist an invitation to attend the opening night performance of Love, Loss and What I Wore at the Panasonic Theatre on Yonge Street.

This will tell you how long I have been out of the loop on Toronto theatre: I didn't even know the Panasonic Theatre even existed until the invitation came in! It is a nicely compact, reasonably modern facility with high ceilings and a good-sized balcony, with a proscenium stage not too large. One thing I immediately noticed upon taking my seat: the ushers are also wait staff, and take drink requests up until showtime! How's that for service?

Michael Rubinoff and Daryl Roth are the presenters of Love, Loss, and What I Wore, which is described as an intimate collection of stories by Nora and Delia Ephron, directed by Karen Carpenter. The stories are based on Ilene Beckerman's best-selling book of the same name. To be honest, I didn't know if I would get much out of the show going in, as it clearly appeared to be geared to women; mind you, I enjoyed (for the most part) The Vagina Monologues down at Brock Cente for the Arts several years ago, so I figured I was prepared for this show.

I was, as it turned out, prepared, and thankfully not the only male amid a sea of females on opening night. That being said, a lot of the stories are geared towards women, and frankly, most men - this reporter included - shake our heads in amazement when women rhapsodize about such things as shoes and handbags, both of which women apparently can never have enough of.

The set is simple, with five chairs lined up across the stage, each with a small podium for notes read by each respective actor. To the left of the stage resides a rack holding large drawings of particular outfits described by Barbara Budd in her segments, with each successive outfit moved to the front of the rack by a stagehand.

The five actors, Barbara Budd, Jeanne Beker, Sheila McCarthy, Luba Goy and Jane McLean, each present stories about love, life and particular clothing memories ranging from hilariously funny to poignant, in a show that runs just over 90 minutes without intermission. All five bring plenty of theatre credentials to the stage, with Jane McLean being the biggest suprise of the evening, as she held her own next to some very well-known Canadian personalities; Jane lives in Los Angeles and only began her acting career in 2001. Of the others, Sheila McCarthy seemed to garner the biggest laughs with a dissertation on handbags and how they become sort of a 'black hole' for everything a woman needs or wants to have with them. But really, there was not a weak performance in the bunch: each made the stories uniquely their own in convincing fashion.

Do you have to be a slave to fashion to enjoy the show? It might help, but frankly, anyone who has lived life to the fullest for some time will get plenty of enjoyment out of the show, and even if you haven't, you'll still be introduced to some interesting material presented by five very talented women.

Love, Loss and What I Wore rates a strong three out of four stars, and continues at the Panasonic Theatre until October 2nd.

September 18th, 2010.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Trio of great productions at the Stratford Festival

Hard to believe, but I have arrived at the final installment of my Stratford reviews for the season this weekend; my last Shaw reviews, of course, were a couple of weeks ago. Overall, it has been an impressive season at both Shaw and Stratford, with several strong recommendations for both festivals if you plan to catch a late-season performance. Frankly, I enjoy going at this time of year, as the weather is more bearable, and the fall colours are starting to show ever so slightly now. In October, incidentally, you still have a number of great shows at both festivals to catch, and in the case of Stratford, the B&B I stay at, Dusk Till Dawn on Brunswick Avenue, has a very light schedule of bookings for the month, so booking a room at any B&B in either town should not be a problem for the balance of the theatre season.

The first production at Stratford we'll look at this weekend is the musical revue Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which opened at the Tom Patterson Theatre in June and continues until September 25th. I didn't get to see the show myself until sometime in August, due to scheduling conflicts, but I had heard much good news about it before I went. The comments I had heard beforehand all turned out to be accurate, as this show contains a wonderful collection of Brel songs, sung both in English and French, in a very simple format.

As director Stafford Arima writes in his program notes, Brel is Alive & Well is a song-cycle of more than twenty-five works by Brel, translated by Mors Shuman and Eric Blau, but there is no libretto, no storyline and no recognizable cast of characters. That, for me, is the charm of the work. The music is allowed to speak for itself, and the message is usually quite powerful. The pacing is ideal; nothing is forced or rushed, and some of the musicians join the singers onstage for some of the numbers. Even the costumes are very simple and elegant, appropriate for the spirit of the production. One clever idea in the first act is to have all four singers appear onstage with umbrellas that incorporate a light underneath the canopy. Nice touch!

All four singers are exceptionally talented and versatile, bringing new dimensions to much of this work many will have only heard Brel sing himself, if at all. The big name in the cast is Brent Carver, but this does not turn into 'Brent's show' due to the fact the other three singers are great performers in their own right. Jewelle Blackman, Mike Nadajewski and Nathalie Nadon each bring their own perspective to the show, making for a nicely balanced presentation from beginning to end.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is a must-see this year if you can find tickets this late in the season; the full house at the performance I attended in August suggests that might be difficult, but worth the effort. The show rates a very strong four out of four stars and continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 25th.

Incidentally, there is no shortage of Jacques Brel recordings available, including the original 1968 production of the show, and if the music appeals to you, drop me a line at music@vaxxine.com or go to my website at www.finemusic.ca and I can get you some great music worth having by Jacques Brel.

Michel Tremblay has had a long history with the Stratford Festival, and his works just seem to come off rather well in the hands of the largely anglo staff and performers in the festival productions at Stratford. This year's production of For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again is no exception. Although brief at just over 90 minutes with no intermission, the play packs a lot of emotion and laughter into that time-frame.

Tremblay's plays usually translate well into English, and this production, featuring a translation by award-winning Linda Gaboriau, shines on the Patterson stage. Tremblay has written about his mother often in his plays, and in For the Pleasure, he literally puts her onstage as herself, showing the influence this powerful woman has had in the playwright's life.

This is a very loving tribute to his mom, and I think, to all our moms, for I suspect more than a few in the packed audience at the performance I attended could see more than a little of their own moms in the character brought to life here by festival veteran Lucy Peacock. Lucy plays against Tom Rooney as the Narrator, who guides us through the play with observations on living life with Nana. But make no mistake, this is Lucy Peacock's show, and she makes the most of it! I heard some people beforehand suggest Peacock was playing the role over-the-top, but from what I can see and have heard, this is as fairly accurate depiction of his mother. If nothing else, she wasn't dull!

The set is simple, yet effective, and director Chris Abraham has wisely chosen to let the play and the two characters be the centre of attention here. The play is quite fun and very uplifting, even at the end when Nana realizes she is not well. Her son arranges a surprise onstage for her: a recreation of the wheatfields she knew back home in Saskatchewan; however, how typical of Nana, and many of our moms, that while running through the imitation wheatfield, she notices the set is not painted on the backside! It was a great moment.

For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again will bring pleasure to anyone who has had difficulty in their relationships with their own mothers, and even if they haven't they can't fail to see some simularities here with their own family situation while growing up. The play rates a highly-recommendable three out of four stars, and continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 26th.

The final production in our trio today is the final mainstage production this season, Christopher Hampton's Dangerous Liasons, directed by Ethan McSweeny. If you saw the movie version years ago, you'll know this is sort of an 18-century take on the Desperate Housewives idea with lots of sexual conquests either happening or spoken about; but also, as with the Shaw production of Serious Money which shows the greed of the 1980s, this shows the greed of the 1780s. This suggests we didn't learn much over the last two centuries.

The glorious sets and costumes designed by Santo Loquasto are a suitable backdrop for the action onstage, with everything moving smoothly through the myriad of set and costume changes. But it is the cast that makes you sit up and take notice here: Seana McKenna as La Marquise de Merteuil dominates from beginning to end, with the way she holds her notes at the end of sentences being particularly effective. Her main protagonist and onetime lover, Le Vicomte de Valmont, played by Tom McCamus, is certainly up to the task of matching her barb for barb. McCamus is having a terrific season at Stratford and this production just cements his claim as one of the leading actors in the Stratford Festival company.

The supporting cast, though very good, simply can't overtake these two dominant forces onstage. Notable performances, however, include Yanna McIntosh as Mme. de Volanges; Martha Henry as Mme. de Rosemonde, aunt to Le Vicomte de Valmont; and Sara Topham as La Presidente de Tourval, the well-married and well established woman Valmont wants to seduce. Special mention goes to Michael Therriault as Le Chevalier Danceny, who catches the fancy of Merteuil, much to the chagrin of Valmont, who still wants to bed the vengeful Merteuil as if it were old times again.

Over the top? No, not really. What Hampton's play does show is the abject poverty of purpose the French upper classes possessed prior to the French Revolution. Basically, watching this bunch go about their daily dalliances, you have to conclude they had it coming...

Dangerous Liasons continues on the Festival stage until October 30th, and rates a strong three out of four stars.

September 11th, 2010.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Three offerings at Stratford's Studio Theatre

In late August I was down to Stratford for my final shows of the season, most of which were late season offerings, and since we are now into the first week of September, I thought we would take care of the rest of the Stratford Festival offerings this week and next. This week, we'll look at the three shows at the smaller Studio Theatre, situated at the rear of the Avon Theatre in downtown Stratford.

The first of the three shows actually closes this coming Saturday, September 11th, and has been selling very well, so tickets will likely be scarce for this show, but if you can find some, you are in for a real treat. Leon Pownall's Do Not Go Gentle, a one-man show directed by Pownall, who died in 2006, and realized here by Dean Gabourie, stars Geraint Wyn Davies as the enigmatic poet Dylan Thomas. In it, Wyn Davies, as Thomas, looks back on his life and loves, and ultimately measures his talent against that of the greatest writer of them all, of course, William Shakespeare. The hard drinking, coarse-speaking Thomas, who lived from 1914 until 1953, provides a wealth of material for both author and performer to draw upon for the play.

Geraint Wyn Davies, who is no stranger to the role, having played it at Stratford back in 2002 as well as several times since in Chicago and New York, really embodies the colourful poet, infusing the part with a great deal of charm that smooths over his rough edges and makes him a totally likeable character. Sure, there are lots of sexual references, but Thomas was if nothing else a ladies' man, so that is all part of the package. Thomas may not have been perfect, but he is a perfect subject for Pownall and Geraint Wyn Davies to bring to life on the Studio stage. The staging is simple and effective: a desk, a chair, lots of papers of his work strewn about the floor, and a large bottle of, presumably, scotch, that barely lasts the night.

The night, incidentally, is a short one, running just about 100 minutes including intermission, but the time is very well spent, and every moment shared with performer Wyn Davies is pure pleasure. If you can get a ticket for this show before the run ends on the weekend, don't hesitate: go! Do Not Go Gentle plays at the Studio Theatre until September 11th and rates a very enthusiastic four out of four stars.

Canadian playwright George F. Walker teamed up with composer John Roby to present a clever, inventive take on The Threepenny Opera by Weil and Brecht, in an ambitious commission from the Stratford Festival, King of Thieves. One wonders if one really needs a new "Threepenny", but it is an ambitious project. This is a musical, complete with musicians tucked away at the back of the small stage at the Studio Theatre, and although the music is tuneful and easy to listen to, it is not necessarily memorable. That being said, the cast is very good and make the most of their moments onstage.

The performances are strong all around, with particular mention going to Sean Cullen as Vinnie, the owner of a speakeasy who guides the audience through the storyline; Evan Buliung as Mac, the thief who masterminds much of the skulduggery going on onstage; and Laura Condlln, another thief who also happens to be Mac's wife. I was particularly pleased to see Nora McLellan back onstage as Myrna, the wife of Peacham, the father of Mac's wife, Polly. Nora has been notably absent from both major festivals the last little while, and we're all the poorer for it. She is still a great performer who brings so much to her roles.

I find two significant flaws in the storyline that should be addressed as this musical progesses from one production to another: firstly, Ives, the Pinkerton agent, should turn in his badge for turning his back on a 'bad-guy' in the first act, only to meekly join the gang once he realizes there is money to be made here. Sure, he is a shady character; I get that. But does he have to be so stupid? Secondly, I find the ending almost anti-climactic, with Mac alone onstage with lots of money. It just sort of happens with no buildup and no big finish, so for me at least, it is a bit of a let-down.

Overall, King of Thieves is an ambitious project that shows great promise, and the Festival should be commended for making the commission in the first place. Because of that, and despite its flaws, I give it an acceptable three out of four stars. King of Thieves continues at the Studio Theater until September 18th.

The final offering at the Studio Theatre is Shakespeare's youthful The Two Gentlemen of Verona, directed by Dean Gabourie. Director Gabourie, in his program notes, refers to a review of Shakespeare's play by noted critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw in which Shaw boils down the appeal of Shakespeare's youthful work as something of a 'vaudeville' work. I can see where Shaw was coming from, as the play is as youthful and virile as the young Shakespeare surely was at the time he wrote it; still, you can have too much of any good thing, and in this case, too much vaudeville is simply waaay to much. This production is a vaudeville take from beginning to end, and it tends to wear thin after awhile. It is bathed in lots of clever sets and costumes and some notable performances, but in the end, this Two Gents gets lost in all the clever schtick.

There is lots to like in the performances, to be sure, including Dion Johnstone putting in a very strong performance as Valentine, who leaves Verona and his best friend Proteus to seek his fortune in the world. As Proteus, Gareth Potter is likeable in spite of his decision to compete with Valentine to woo Sylvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan. Trouble is, Proteus, once he joins Valentine in Milan, conveniently forgets about his love back home, Julia. Both women, Sylvia and Julia, played respectively by Claire Lautier and Sophia Walker, play their parts with wonderful flair and grace. The two main comical characters in the play, Speed and Launce, played by Bruce Dow and Robert Persichini respectively, get lots of mileage out of their comic turns onstage, with Persichini especially winning praise as he shares the stage with Crab the dog, played in this show by Otto. And I was especially glad to see Andrew Gillies back on the Stratford Festival stage after a long absence, albeit in a small role as Panthino.

So, the verdict on The Two Gentlemen of Verona? A strong cast almost saves the piece, but not quite. They, and Otto the dog, do all they can, but ultimately, this Two Gents fails to satisfy and rates only two out of four stars. It plays at the Studio Theatre until September 19th.

Next week, we'll wrap up the Stratford reviews for the season with some strong performances!

September 9, 2010.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Final two productions at Shaw Festival well worth making time for

During the final two weeks of August, I spent a couple of pleasant afternoons at the Shaw Festival, catching the final two late-season offerings, and both were well worth making time for. But you'd better hurry, as they have a relatively short shelf life.

The first show was Linda Griffiths' Age of Arousal, a play from 2007 that deals with the time period of Shaw's mandate, namely the Victorian era. The story takes inspiration from a play by George Gissing that actually dates from the era, titled The Odd Women. I suspect most people will assume the late 19th century might have been a sexually repressed age, if styles and mindsets are anything to go by. Yet in Griffiths' play, aptly titled Age of Arousal, she suggests there might have been more than meets the eye. When you consider eligible women far outnumbered eligable men in Britain back in the 1880s, something simply had to give.

Enter into this equation the lone male in the play, handsome and charming Everard Barfoot, played with great style by Gray Powell. He visits his cousin Mary, played by Donna Belleville, who runs a school to teach young women how to use that new-fangled instrument of the day, the typewriter. Mary has a lover, her business partner Rhoda Nunn, who eventually falls hard for Mary's cousin Everard and comes ever so close to accepting his offer of marriage. Ultimately, Rhoda stays with the school, continuing to be a good example to the students who come through the school. But how she comes to that decision makes for a tantalizing play full of interesting twists and turns.

The one really significant aspect of the dialogue you have to get used to is Griffiths' use of what she calls "thoughtspeak", where characters in the play switch with lightening speed from polite dialogue to a volcanic eruption of sexual desire in words in a split second. It does take some getting used to, but the skilled cast in this Shaw Festival production pulls it off with great precision.

The cast is very strong, with Belleville, of course, leading the pack as Mary Barfoot. Jenny Young as Rhoda Nunn is complex, compassionate, strong and sexually repressed; in other words, she is a joy to watch in this production. Kelli Fox does a fine job with the role of Virginia Madden, who controls her alcoholism by dressing like a man; Sharry Flett is fabulous as Alice Madden, and Zarrin-Darnell-Martin does a great job as Monica Madden, the first of the women to find physical comfort in Everard's arms.

Director Jackie Maxwell and designer Sue LePage have each made the production unique, and Valerie Moore's 'movement' choreography brings added inventiveness to the show. Age of Arousal continues at the Court House Theatre until October 10th, and rates a strong three out of four stars.

The final production of the season opened late August at the small studio theatre next to the larger Festival Theatre, and only continues until September 12th. Again, a modern play, this time by contemporary British playwright Caryl Churchill, who lived for a time in Montreal back in the 50s, Serious Money deals with the cut-throat world of sex and money very much a part of the British financial markets following the so-called Big Bang, which deregulated the financial markets, opening them up to these young horses whose ambition knows no bounds. Margaret Thatcher was into her final term of office in 1987 when the play was written and set, and she gets a jovial musical thank-you at the end of the play. Despite the dating of the play at the end, this is a story just a relevant today, given the upheaval in financial markets over the past couple of years that we've seen.

Like Age of Arousal, the dialogue brings with it certain challenges. Griffiths decided it would be most effective to have the actors speak in verse, not unlike Shakespeare did, so that will take some getting used to. But more than that, the play is written so several actors - if not all of them - will be speaking at the same time in certain scenes, and that makes it quite difficult if not downright annoying to try to get your head around, especially in the first act. By the second act, things settle down somewhat and the dialogue, although still rather coarse, makes for a much more satisfying experience.

The cast is the gold-standard of ensembles, even for the Shaw Festival; one cannot imagine a lesser cast managing to pull this off as convincingly. The cast highlights include Lisa Codrington making a striking impression in several roles, including the powerful Marylou Baines; Nicola Correia-Damude in several roles, especially as sultry Jacinta Condor; and Ali Momen, cool and collected as the banker and commentator Zackerman. Other standouts in several roles include Steven Sutcliffe, Ken James Stewart, David Schurmann and Graeme Somerville. The one to watch, however, is young Marla McLean, making a very strong impression as the inquisitive Scilla Todd, trying to get to the bottom of the disappearance of her brother Jake, and just how he amassed such a fortune.

At the performance I attended, a few audience members left after the first act, as the language is rather colourful, to say the least, filled with expletives from start to finish. But they serve a purpose here, as Churchill notes in her essay in the programme; this is how the traders actually talked when she wrote the play. I don't think you can do the play without all the swearing, and frankly, by the end of the play you almost become desensitized to them, much as the characters have become desensitized to the feelings and desires of those around them.

Serious Money is clearly not for everyone, but for those willing to invest the time, it is a biting commentary on our greedy, overzealous king-makers, and the damage that can be done over time. This is a prime example of the Shaw Festival reaching beyond their - and our - comfort zone, and the results are exhilarating. It rates a very strong four out of four stars, and continues only until September 12th. So don't wait: catch one of the final performances if you can!

September 3rd, 2010.