Saturday, August 27, 2011

Two Shakespeare plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

I've just returned from Stratford and caught my last two shows of the season, The Homecoming and Hosanna, which I will write about next week as we wrap up the reviews of Stratford plays this season.  This weekend, a look at a couple of the larger-scale Shakespearean plays onstage at the Festival Theatre, both of which have much to recommend them.

The first one, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is a lesser-known Shakespeare play, but certainly a lighter work that works well for summertime theatre fun getaways.  It perhaps is not the Bard's best work, but it makes a nice change from, say, Titus Andronicus or Richard III, both onstage at the Tom Patterson Theatre this season.

Director Frank Galati has fashioned a production with just enough flash and no unnecessary props cluttering up the stage, with a cast that works well together to make a worthwhile theatrical experience.  The strong cast includes James Blendick as Master Robert Shallow, a justice of the peace who is fed up with Falstaff's constant insults.  Blendick's deep, rolling voice always resonates on the Festival stage, and as always, his presence is felt whenever he is onstage.  Master George Page, a wealthy Windsor citizen, is ably played by Tom McCamus; Laura Condlln plays his wife, Meg Page.  The other wealthy Windsor citizen, Master Francis Ford, is played a little over-the-top by Tom Rooney, and Lucy Peacock gives a typically strong performance as his wife, Alice Ford.

Enter the ever-popular, ever-broke Sir John Falstaff, who schemes to woo the wealthy Windsor wives of Page and Ford in order to solve his ever-increasing money problems.  Trouble is, of course, they are married; they also receive identical letters from Sir John and decide to act on it and basically outwit Falstaff with some mischief of their own.  Now, I am of two minds on this Sir John Falstaff, played by Geraint Wyn Davies.  On the one hand, I admire his comic abilities and the fact he really starts to make you believe he really is Falstaff, but being a traditionalist at heart, I still can't get good ol' Douglas Campbell out of my mind as the quintessential Sir John from years ago.  Oh I know, the late Douglas Campbell was from another era, and we need another Falstaff now, so Davies makes an effective Falstaff for this production.  He really comes off being quite loveable.

Others in the cast worth mentioning are Dan Chameroy as Ensign Pistol, Nigel Bennett as the French physician Doctor Caius, and Janet Wright making a strong appearance as Mistress Quickly.

This won't be the best Merry Wives you've ever seen, but let's face it, it does not show up on the playbill all that often, so this likeable production is definitely worth catching.  The Merry Wives of Windsor runs to October 14th at the Festival Theatre, and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

Next, the much-anticipated Des McAnuff production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, also on the Festival Stage until October 28th.  From almost every perspective, this is a spectacular show, although it relies a little too much on glitz and special effects to make it a really slick show.  But you can tell almost from the get-go, this is a Shakespeare production geared to a younger audience.  It is really skewed to bring in those future theatre subscribers the Festival will need in the years ahead.

I am not against that approach; both Stratford and Shaw have to cultivate those younger patrons now rather than later, but the fear is a generation brought up on lots of special effects will expect it here as well, and eventually those effects will overtake the production so you forget the wonderful story Shakespeare has written.

Okay, that concern aside, you cannot help but like this production; even though it is modern-dress Shakespeare, it all makes sense in this very contemporary take on the classic Twelfth Night story.  Well, maybe not the sword fights, but there you go...anyway, it is a wonderful show.  The sets and costumes are at times eye-popping, and the extra music Des McAnuff and company have added to the original Shakespeare songs in the play all work very well.  If anything, this is more a musical than a play, a fact that will also appeal to a younger audience.

There are strong performances all around, led by the wonderful Sir Toby Belch of Brian Dennehy.  Brian has the time of his life here, and there is much to savour in his portrayal of the party animal Sir Toby.  His side-kick, as it were, is Sir Andrew Aguecheek; this production benefits mightily from the casting of Stephen Ouimette, who almost steals the show all on his own.  The two work so well together, you know there is a wonderful chemistry at play here.

Others in the cast include Juan Chioran as Fabian, Tom Rooney as Malvolio, and Sara Topham as a lovely Olivia.  Mike Shara makes a regal Orsino, Duke of Illyria, and Cara Ricketts puts in a strong performance as Maria.  But the special mention has to go to Ben Carlson's multi-talented Feste, a jester who sings with a great deal of heart and passion.  Carlson is just great both as a singer and actor.

From start to finish, this is a Twelfth Night almost everyone will enjoy; from the brilliant performances to the clever staging to the three original songs added to the original seven Shakespeare supplied, this show is a winner.  It rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars, and runs at the Festival Theatre until October 28th.

August 27th, 2011.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thought-provoking, contemporary theatre this season at both Shaw and Stratford

Both the Shaw and Stratford Festivals introduced their smaller, studio theatres a few seasons back, and both use the opportunity of a smaller space to program more cutting-edge, riskier productions.  In most cases, the gamble pays off handsomely with some great productions open for only a short run.  Such is the case this season with two productions currently onstage at each festival, which we'll look at in this space today.

The Shaw Festival presented the Canadian premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Topdog/Underdog, from playwright Suzan-Lori Parks late this season, and in fact it closes this weekend at the Studio Theatre.  I attended one of the final performances this week, and it is both crude and exhilarating at the same time, employing more foul language than we are used to hearing in Shaw theatres, to be sure.  In fact, a few years ago I doubt this production would have made it to the stage at Shaw, but it has, and the work is a triumph.

Artistic Director Jackie Maxwell knew this would be a gamble, especially given the age of a large part of the audience base at Shaw, but looking around me at the performance I attended this week, young and old shared space in the audience in almost equal numbers, and almost everyone gave the performers a resounding standing ovation at the end.

The two performers, Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams, each give exceptional performances here, directed with a sure hand by Philip Akin.  Hanchard plays the part of Booth; Williams the part of Lincoln.  Yes, the irony is not lost on the audience, of course, as the two young men, cast adrift by their parents years before, struggle to find themselves in a tough world that is often unforgiving.

The older brother, Lincoln, plays the late American president in a carnival show, dressing up with white-face and sitting there while carnival-goers pay for the opportunity to "shoot" him.  How demeaning!  Younger brother Booth, meanwhile, shares his apartment with Lincoln, who has left his wife.  Booth, although unemployed, knows how to "acquire" things with great regularity, so manages quite well, thank you very much.

Their trials and tribulations in a seedy apartment in a seedy part of town make up the play, a telling expose on the hopelessness of the poor and how difficult it can be for them as they struggle to make a go of it.  The whole thing is very sad and quite unsettling, but also makes for some riveting theatre.

Topdog/Underdog continues at the Shaw Festival Studio Theatre until August 27th, and rates a strong 4 out of 4 stars.

Over at Stratford, their production of Canadian playwright John  Mighton's The Little Years continues at their Studio Theatre until September 24th, with a larger cast than the Shaw show, and just about as much  of an edge.

Director Chris Abraham assembled a strong cast for this tough, soul-searching play about what matters most in life, or at least what should matter most.  It begins in the 1950s with a young Kate, played by Bethany Jillard, being fed the female stereotypical career paths by both mother and her teacher.  The play progresses through Kate's life with its ups and downs and the characters she meets along the way.

The older Kate, played by Irene Poole, is a much wiser Kate, but also quite bitter and angry with the world.  Others in the cast also age and learn from life, including Grace, played by Yanna McIntosh, whose husband is away and never appears in the play.  She ends up having an affair with an artist named Roger, played by Evan Builung, who discovers much later having his work compared to the music of Barry Manilow is not necessarily a good thing.

It is amazing watching some of the characters age right before our eyes, including Kate.  But most interesting of all is Kate's mother Alice, played by Chick Reid, who is so convincing as both young mother and very old mother near the end of her life.  Bethany Jillard appears later in the play as Tanya, a young lady who found her way through life with the help of Kate's diary entries, which she read while Kate was away.  The fact Tanya learned from Kate's life experiences heartens and softens Kate somewhat at the end, and she winds up thinking perhaps, her life was not so bad after all.

There is a lot of content to this soul-searching play making it a little hard to follow at times, but it is a journey and challenge worth taking as we watch the characters age and learn from youth through to old age, and the life experiences that bring them there.

The Little Years continues until September 24th at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

August 25th, 2011.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Shaw Festival presents two challenging productions this summer

I know that heading suggests the rest of the Shaw Festival season is not challenging, but that is not true.  There is lots of challenging theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake this season, with the two offerings I will write about today being of particular interest.

At the Royal George Theatre, Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs until October 23rd and is a must-see this season.  I remember the Stratford Festival production of a few seasons back and while both have their particular idiosyncracies, both would rank as exceptional productions.  In the current Shaw production, director Eda Holmes secures the considerable talents of a capable cast to present a tough, realistic and somewhat abrasive interpretation of the classic play.

The story, of course, involves the young couple Maggie and Brick and their inability to produce a child; she is more than willing while he is more than not.  In short, the flame has gone out in their marriage, and the constant conflict at the southern home of Maggie's parents, Big Mama and Big Daddy, during Big Daddy's birthday party is at the crux of the play.  Add to this news Big Daddy is dying from cancer and refuses to accept or even believe it, and you have lots of conflict for one evening's theatre.  And a long evening it is, as this production runs about three and a quarter hours, but it never drags and never releases its grip on you.

As Brick, the young man Maggie loves no matter what, suffering from a broken leg, Gray Powell is great to watch.  His avoidance of members of the family as well as his wife is handled with skill, and I can't imagine being onstage all that time with one of those casts on his leg and hobbling around, either with or without his crutch.  His wife Maggie, played with great passion by Moya O'Connell, is an absolute firecracker, and her almost constant talking in the first act is masterful.  Imagine talking almost non-stop for over an hour in the first act alone.  On a basic level here, how do you remember all those lines?  Ah, the magic of theatre!

The supporting cast is also very impressive, with Jim Mezon as Big Daddy making a powerful impression whenever he is onstage; Mezon is made for this role and nobody else at Shaw does anger fits quite like Mezon does.  His long-suffering wife, Big Mama, played by Corrine Koslo, is a tortured individual in a long-running marriage she refuses to do anything about; that is just the way things are and she accepts it and Big Daddy, prejudices and all.  The rest of the ensemble is up-to-the-task, with the young children succeeding in being absolutely annoying and grating on everyone's nerves.

This Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is not light summer theatre, of course, but if you go, you will be riveted by the portrayals.  It runs at the Royal George Theatre until October 23rd and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Meantime, over at the Court House Theatre, another tortured family resides in a dirt-poor part of 1850's Lisbon, Portugal.  The late-season offering of the musical Maria Severa has garnered a lot of attention this season at Shaw, as it is a very ambitious project by Shaw ensemble member Jay Turvey and Shaw Music Director Paul Sportelli.  It runs only until September 23rd, so you'll have to look into this one sooner rather than later if you are interested.

The story, which Turvey and Sportelli read about while visiting Portugal in 2005, is based on actual characters that typify the dangerous and poor conditions people lived with at the time, with prostitution one of the few ways the women could help to put food on the table for their families.  Into this dangerous world strolls acclaimed bullfighter Armando de Vimioso and his brother, Fernando.  Fernando is looking for a woman to satisfy his sexual desires, but Armando is more interested in the woman, rather than what she can give him.  He encounters Maria in their tavern, and refuses her offer of sex, although lets her keep the money.  He falls hard for the Portuguese beauty, and after awhile she also falls for him.

But all is not what it seems.  Maria needs to work the streets to make ends meet, so any time away from that job can be hard to justify.  But in Armando, she finds a supposedly wealthy man who is willing to marry and support her, so things seem to be looking up.  Lucky Maria!  Ah, but the conflict of supposed wealth marrying dirt poor, in other words before their class, is never an easy thing, and in this case Armando's mother, Constance de Vimioso, is dead-set against the match.  That sets the stage for the final conflict that ultimately tears apart the young lovers and sends Maria's family into a tailspin.

When you enter the Court House Theatre, you are immediately struck by the dramatic and beautiful set design by Judith Bowden, which makes the best use of the small stage space at the Court House while allowing us to imagine we are actually in Portugal.  The musicians are onstage, off to the corner, visible throughout the show.

But it is the character of Maria, played by Julie Martell, that is centre-stage for the entire show, and with good reason.  She is a commanding presence, and her singing of the painful Fado music of Portugal is exceptional.  What a beauty!  No wonder that devil Armando, played by Mark Uhre, falls hard for her...

Beyond Martell and Uhre, the supporting cast is also good, with top marks going to Maria's work-mate and friend, Jasmine, played very expressively by Saccha Dennis, and Jeff Irving as young Carlos, the guitar-playing accompanist for Maria who also loves her, although she realizes the depth of his love too late.  Neil Barclay is good as Father Manuel, the local priest who is pressured by Armando's mother, Constanca, to force the Bishop to alert the police to the nefarious goings on in the tavern Maria's family runs, ultimately to shut it down.  As Constanca, Sharry Flett is suitably snooty and bitchy, but I was taken by how good a singing voice she has.  I have known Sharry from her many stage appearances for years, but never realized how good a singer she is!  Finally, Maria's mother, played by Jenny L. Wright, offers some regular humourous takes to help ease the tension between the two factions.  Her rendition of "Fountain in the Square" is hilarious.

The first act moves along at a good clip and shows great promise as it sets up the conflict to come in Act 2.  But the second act doesn't quite satisfy, with an ending that appears a little on the clunky side.  I see why it is set up as it is, but perhaps some rewriting might be in order once the present production ends.  Don't get me wrong:  I really like the show and the cast is great; it just seems to still be a work in progress.

So, while Maria Severa might indeed be viewed as a work in progress; I would not let that stop you from catching this particular production of it.  Artistic Director and director of this production, Jackie Maxwell, has shown great courage programming the piece in this 50th anniversary season, but I think her decision is worthy and reflects the importance they put on supporting new works being produced at the Festival along with the tried and true.  It may not be a box-office winner, but Maria Severa will be viewed as a successful addition to the season's offerings when all is said and done.

Maria Severa continues at the Court House Theatre until September 23rd, and although it isn't perfect, I think a 3 out of 4 rating for the show should encourage additional work on the project in the future.

August 20th, 2011.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Seana McKenna shines brightly at the Stratford Festival this season

One of the major in-house stars at the Stratford Festival for many years has been Seana McKenna, an actor who imbues almost everything she does with a depth few others can match.  She can also make you believe, more than many others, she is something she isn't.  Such was the case a number of years ago when she played a sprightly 16-year-old Juliet in Shakespeare's play about the ill-fated lovers on the Festival stage, even though she was obviously not anywhere near 16 years of age at the time.  But she played the role and we bought into it.

So it is again this season, as Seana plays two difficult roles with total assurance and impressive results, even though with one of them, you really have to get your head around the fact she is playing a male lead character.  I had difficulty with that at first, as I suspect others will as well this season, but Seana is just so darn good in the title role in Shakespeare's Richard III, you soon put aside your qualms and buy into her character yet again.

Let's start our review of Seana's two star turns this season with, obviously, Richard III.  I've seen several productions of the play before, but Seana takes this male role and makes it uniquely her own, with just a right mix of evil and malice plus a certain vulnerability I don't think most males in the role could match.  Although she appears rather slight, physically, on stage, her strong presence is felt from beginning to end.  The physical deformity of Richard is not played up so much in this production, which is probably a wise move on the part of director Miles Potter and McKenna.  She appears real, yet suitably challenged, without taking that part of the character to the next level.

The acting ensemble supporting McKenna is uniformly strong as well, including good performances by Martha Henry as the widow of King Henry VI, and Roberta Maxwell as the King's mother.  Andrew Gillies missed all of the performances I was scheduled to attend that particular week, which is unfortunate, as I was looking forward to seeing his work this season after missing his considerable presence on stage in any major roles for several years.  No explanation given for his absence, but I hope he is well and back onstage now at Stratford.  In Richard III, incidentally, he would be playing the role of Lord Stanley.

Overall, this Richard III benefits from good direction and a strong cast, but it is a long sit and clearly not a production for everyone.  Those who do go, however, will be impressed by McKenna's performance once they adjust their expectations at the door.

Richard III continues until September 25th at the Tom Patterson Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

The second McKenna show this season, which I saw the afternoon following Richard III, incidentally, is  McKenna's one-woman, one-act play by Vern Thiessen, Shakespeare's Will, which the author freely admits is his own take on what might have transpired once Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, returns home from burying her husband and finally, if slowly, faces the fact of dealing with her late husband's last will and testament.

The marriage of William and Anne was a long and generally solid one, although Will spent much of his professional career in London writing his plays and acting, while his wife and kids were back home in Stratford-upon-Avon.  When he retired from the theatre a wealthy and well-respected man, he returned to Anne and the family to live out his final years, starting sometime after 1610.  He died in 1616 at the age of 52; Anne lived until 1623, dying at the age of 67.  He did indeed leave a will, which offers the springboard to what Thiessen imagines transpired after his death in this play, Shakespeare's Will.

To be sure, their marriage was a most unusual one for a number of reasons, but one that evidently worked for these two.  Both Anne and Will were more sexually engaged than we might have imagined, with Will known to have several dalliances outside the marriage and Anne telling Will before their marriage she likes the company of "lots and lots of men."

The simple set design at the tiny Studio Theatre by Peter Hartwell and effective lighting by Kevin Fraser leave the small stage almost entirely to Seana, who together with director Miles Potter again, make the most of a very interesting character and a most intriguing performance by McKenna.

Seana is one of our great Shakespearean actors, and both of her performances this season, in Richard III and Shakespeare's Will, prove the fact beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Her stage presence in both productions make them both must-sees at Stratford this season.

Shakespeare's Will runs only until September 2nd at the Studio Theatre and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

August 18th, 2011.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Shaw Festival brings back the past for the present season

As part of the Shaw Festival's 50th Anniversary season, they are celebrating with a couple of shows from their past:  one from the not-too-distant past and the other from their very first season 50 years ago.  Both bring with them a good deal of entertainment at the small Royal George Theatre.

The annual Lunchtime Show at the Royal George is often a hit-and-miss affair, but three years ago when they staged Morwyn Brebner's wonderful adaptation of Ferenc Molnar's the President, people had no idea what they were in for.  What they were in for, as it turned out, was a one-act farcical tour-de-force with a good-sized cast lead by Shaw stalwart Lorne Kennedy.

This year, knowing the show is back again, the people are returning in droves for the Lunchtime Show, and many, many more are taking advantage of an opportunity missed the last time.  If that includes you, I suggest you run, not walk, to your phone or computer now to order tickets before the run ends October 9th.

Kennedy is the glue that holds this whole thing together, of course, displaying comic timing and a rapid-fire delivery that leaves the audience breathless.  He is, if anything, even better this time out than last time, and the fact he is only doing the lunchtime offering this year is an indication just how demanding the role is.  Imagine learning all those lines and delivering them faster than almost humanly possible for the better part of an hour!

But he's not alone.  Kennedy is surrounded by an all-star cast of Shaw regulars who know what is needed with this production and deliver with style to spare.  Peter Millard's Bartleby, The President's assistant, is up to the task of keeping up with the boss, and Kennedy's comic foil for much of the play is Jeff Meadows as Tony Foot, the love of the life of Julie Martell's Lydia, the young lady Kennedy has been charged with "guarding' on behalf of her parents who are on their way for a visit with their daughter.

The daughter, of course, couldn't have picked a worse candidate for her husband, and it is up to Kennedy to bring him up to snuff, as it were, and make him into a titan of business in under an hour in order to impress Lydia's parents.  He does it, but the road to that end is full of bumps and for us, laughs.

You will not find a better ensemble-piece anywhere this summer, and this is the perfect show to add to your one-day or weekend theatre stay in Niagara-on-the-Lake.  The President, directed by Blair Williams with a sure hand, and impeccable timing, continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 9th and rates a very strong 4 out of 4 stars.

The second historical offering at the Shaw Festival this season is a remount of their very first show 50 years ago, Shaw's Candida.  It continues at the Royal George Theatre until October 30th.

Directed by Tadeusz Bradecki with a beautiful set design by William Schmuck, this Candida has flashes of life and some lovely, tender moments between husband and wife as well as said wife with not-so-distant admirer, but there doesn't appear to be a lot of fire ignited between the three main protagonists.  They do well enough, but I can recall earlier productions of Candida at Shaw that have proven more memorable than this one.

That being said, we have some good, solid performances here, beginning with The Reverend James Mavor Morell, played with a lot of enthusiasm by Nigel Shawn Williams.  His wife, Candida Morell, is nicely played by Claire Jullien, who shows a lot of spirit in her confrontations with her husband and young suitor.  That suitor is played by Wade Bogert-O'Brien, as Eugene Marchbanks, an idealistic young man who challenges Rev. Morrell for the hand of his wife.  This Marchbanks is all very well and good, but I found myself wondering just what the attraction was for Mrs. Morrell with this young lad; but then, his desire for a mother-figure perhaps aroused some special feelings in her that logic can't quite explain.

There are more laughs in Candida than we are used to in a Shaw play, and since it is an earlier work by Shaw, dating as it does from 1897, it is much less of a Shavian Rant and more of a real play.  And a relatively brief one at that.

Candida rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars, and continues at the Royal George until October 30th.

August 15th, 2011.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

International Busker Festival off to a great start!

Before we head back inside to the theatres for the rest of the month, I thought it would be timely to remind people the International Busker Festival - the first-ever in downtown St. Catharines - is set to get underway late Friday afternoon.  The weekend will be full of entertainers of almost every description, performing throughout the downtown core.

Some area streets are going to be closed off to traffic, of course, and that will likely prove to be a mixed blessing to downtown businesses, who might benefit from the added pedestrian traffic downtown depending on what line of business they are in.  But overall, the fact lots of people will be in a good mood and wandering downtown being entertained by buskers from all over the world shouldn't be too hard to handle.

There are a total of 14 buskers representing six countries performing on six stages from Friday to Sunday, presented by Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects and organized by Lyndesfarne's Artistic Director, Kelly Daniels.  Performers range from Alakazam from Sydney, Australia; Alex Kazam from Toronto; Daredevil Chicken Club Presents A Honeymoon Cabaret from Sonoma, California; Fireguy from Toronto; Hoop Girl from Toronto; Kobbler Jay from Niagara Falls; Magic Brian from New York City; Marie Antoinette from Toronto; Mr. Istvan from Barcelona; Seven O Four from right here in St.Catharines; Silver Elvis from Toronto; Witty Look from Tokyo; and the headliner this year, Rob Roy Collins from York, England.

You likely have heard by now of Rob's big event yesterday to get interest going in the Buskerfest this year:  the reknowned British Escapologist set a new world record yesterday on Canadian soil (or rather, just above it) by escaping from a straight jacket while hanging by his ankles from a helicopter in flight in the Niagara Falls area.  The stunt, held over water at a height of over 100 feet, saw Rob set a new world record by taking only one minute and 22 seconds go successfully escape the straightjacket, a personal best for him as well.  I spoke with Rob this morning and he sounds thoroughly relieved it is over, and plans to enjoy the rest of the Buskerfest on terra firma, apparently.

It was a great kickoff to a great weekend of entertainment, which will be presented in the James Street & King Street area downtown, including of course the Market Square.  There is also a fundraising Inaugural Busker Ball set for tonight at Jackson Triggs Winery, a partner in the event.  All of the buskers will be in attendance at the Thursday evening Busker Ball, and they will then take to the streets of downtown St. Catharines starting with the opening ceremonies downtown at 5 pm on Friday.

If you want more information, go to their website,  Hope to see you downtown this weekend for some great family entertainment!

August 11th, 2011.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Stratford Festival provides some challenging theatre this season

I just returned from a few days in Stratford, catching five more plays in what is proving to be a generally impressive season at the annual Shakespearean Festival.  So from now to the end of the summer we'll be alternating back and forth between Stratford and Shaw, providing my reviews in this space on our two major theatre festivals in Ontario.

Today, we'll look at a couple of the more challenging plays offered at the Stratford Festival, both of which bring rewards for those who choose to accept the challenge.  Musicals they are not, but there is no denying their impact at the Festival this season.

Firstly, we'll look at Frank Galati's adaptation of John Steinbeck's epic The Grapes of Wrath, directed by Stratford's General Director, Antoni Cimolino.  It continues at the Avon Theatre until October 29th.  As you can imagine, the play's subject matter, dealing as it does with the the escape of a half-million people from Oklahoma to supposed new hope in California during the dreadful "dirty thirties", can be hard to watch at times, but Galati's faithful adaptation of Steinbeck's novel manages to inject some flecks of humour amongst the grey, dreary landscape faced by all those people years ago as they made their way across the country.

To many today, it is almost impossible to comprehend what our parents and their parents would have endured back then, with little or no social safety net to fall back on at the time.  The strife is almost unbearable to watch, let alone endure, but the journey for both us and characters in the play is ultimately worthwhile.  There might be very little light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, but at least there is a little light.

Director Cimolino has provided some lovely touches here, such as a pool onstage at one point the characters splash around in, and some timely music to break up the scenes performed by Anna Atkinson and George Meanwell, both of whom provide a delightful musical balm for the hardships played out onstage.

Performances are generally very good, with top marks going to Evan Buliung as Tom Joad, Victor Ertmanis as Pa Joad, Chilina Kennedy as Rose of Sharon, and Chick Reid as Granma Joad.  Special mention goes to Janet Wright as Ma, and Tom McCamus as Jim Casy, a defrocked priest who tags along with the Joad family on their trek across North America.

The set design is quite evocative of the landscape and period, provided by designer John Arnone, and costumes are provided by Carolyn M. Smith.

The Grapes of Wrath continues until October 29th at the Avon Theatre, and rates a strong 3 out of 4 stars.

Meanwhile, over at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus presents its own set of challenges, both for the audience and the cast.  It is a Shakespeare play we don't often get a chance to see, and perhaps infrequently is just as well.  Not to say director Darko Tresnjak doesn't get the job done here; he does, but the rampant brutality of the play, not glossed over in this production, makes it tough to endure, I found.

Shakespeare was a relatively young man when he wrote Titus about 1594.  The Roman characters depicted in the play never actually existed, and their brutal vengeful ways are all products of Shakespeare's very fertile imagination.  It probably is not too much of a stretch to suggest Roman society at the time was at least somewhat accurately depicted in Shakespeare's play, but boy, you have to wonder about a so-called 'civilized' society that treats subjects the way this play depicts them.

As the director emphasizes in his program notes, the violence in Titus is indeed extreme, and in fact, essential to tell the story.  That may very well be, but for this seasoned theatre-goer who has seen just about everything over the years, I still found myself turning away when Lavinia, daughter to Titus, is raped and her hands and tongue cut off afterwards.  Yes, I know it is theatre and not real, but the act is so brutal you find many squirming in their seats in the theatre.

In the climactic final scene when death after death eliminates most of the main characters from the play, the audience is left breathless at the sheer magnitude of the violence, as they witness the brutality of a regime that simply knows no other way.  Revenge may be a dish best served cold, as they say, but Titus raises the idea to a whole different level.

The performances are largely very strong, with top marks going to John Vickery in the title role, losing his hand during the play and ultimately his life at the end.  As his daughter Lavinia, Amanda Lisman handles a difficult role with great skill.  Meantime, Claire Lautier's Tamora, the Queen of the Goths is the     picture of evil, as she directs her sons Chiron and Demetrius to perform the unspeakable atrocities on Lavinia.  As the sons, Brendan Murray and Bruce Godfree actually bring some comic relief during much of the play, presenting themselves almost as a Frick & Frack pairing.  It doesn't always work, but it does help relieve the tension.  Finally, Dion Johnstone puts in a very effective performances as Tamora's virile lover, Aaron.

The set is simply yet beautifully executed, and the costuming is pretty much period, which is a nice change.  But make no mistake, this is not a play for the faint of heart, so prepare yourself beforehand.  That being said, I found it intriguing theatre, and worth the effort.

Titus Andronicus plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 24th, and rates a respectable 3 out of 4 stars.

August 8th, 2011.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

News and Notes around Niagara and beyond

Since I am enjoying a few days off this week and spending part of it catching some shows in Stratford, I thought I would take a break from the reviews of Shaw and Stratford this week and pass on some information about other events this summer I have received information on or have caught myself that are worthy of mention.

This past weekend, the annual Elora Festival in Elora, Ontario, finished a record-breaking season with 8 sellouts and total attendance breaking records for the July event.  We were up in Elora on the weekend, in fact, and the Gambrel barn was full to capacity Saturday evening for the Swingle Singers performance we attended.  Well worth it, too, as they sang everything you could imagine from Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now to Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, no less, as a closer.  They brought the house down with the latter piece, showing vocal dexterity that is simply jaw-dropping.  I have long admired the Swingle Singers, but this youthful group is miles apart from Ward Swingle's original group that gave us classy, jazzy, interpretations of Bach, Mozart, et al.  This group, including a Torontonian, in fact, is on their first Canadian tour and you can bet it won't be their last.

What was nice to see, in addition to the performance, was the fact the audience was very much into the music and responded enthusiastically to most everything on the programme.  The standing ovation at the end was genuine, and everyone had a great time.  Noel Edison and company are to be congratulated for not only this great performance on the weekend, but also a first-class festival that just keeps getting better every year.  If you have never visited Elora, do yourself a favour and keep it in mind next summer or even this fall when their winter season gets underway.

Closer to home, I attended the belated opening of Norm Foster's rollicking play Office Hours on Friday evening at the Port Mansion Dinner Theatre in Port Dalhousie.  Contrary to popular belief, the theatre is open until the fall with more shows to come, but the final production for Lakeside Players is Office Hours, which runs through to September 4th.  The opening was delayed a week due to an air-conditioning system that gave out the hottest week of the year, so all is now cool and comfortable for the remainder of the run.

Director Brian DiMartile refers to Foster as Canada's own Neil Simon, and that isn't far off the mark, really.  Foster is nothing if not prolific, producing so many clever plays that have become staples of summer theatre  thoughout the country for many years.  It is hard to imagine a summer theatre season without at least one Foster play being programmed somewhere.

Even though Norm Foster is prolific, he is also inventive and exceptionally clever, and Office Hours is no exception.  Six characters dominate six scenes over two acts, all happening about the same time on a Friday afternoon, and all converging in the final scene, bringing everything together.  It is a funny play, made all the more so by an accomplished cast of amateur actors who deserve credit where credit is due, so here's to Laurel Broczkowski, Krissy Neumann, John Dickout, Nick Tripe and Mike Ceci for a job well done.

For tickets and dinner/show information, go to  Office Hours continues until September 4th.

Meanwhile, on the other coast of Niagara, the South Coast as it is called, Port Colborne's Showboat Festival Theatre at the Roselawn Centre opened their new show last Thursday, Back in '59, a 50s-60s Musical conceived by Thom Currie, Showboat's Artistic Director.  The show has been created entirely in Port Colborne, drawing on top 10 radio hits from 1959 to 1964, as four old friends reminisce about the good old days when they get together at their 10th high school reunion in the summer of 1973.  Lots of great music and choreography in the show, I'm told, and it promises to be one of the highlights of the summer in Port Colborne.  Tickets are available at the Roselawn box office by calling 905-834-0833.

Music Niagara continues at several locations throughout Niagara-on-the-Lake until August 13th, with a wealth of classical, jazz and crossover performances still to come before the festival wraps up with a gala closing concert on Saturday evening, August 13th at St. Mark's Church.  Coming up this week, for example, Quartetto Gelato returns this Thursday evening, followed by the Cecilia String Quartet on Friday and Canadian pianist Andre Laplante on Saturday evening.  All the remaining performances can be found on my website, and going to the calendar page, or going to

Finally, a bit of an oddity, if you will, this week in Niagara with The Keith Richards One Woman Show Niagara Bar Tour, put on by Suitcase in Point Theatre of St. Catharines, and starring that Keith Richards female clone, Deanna Jones.  She really takes the part and makes it believable, and fun, too.  The one-person show is created by Jones and Cole Lewis, with a musical score by Kevin Richardson.  The tour kicks off at The Jordan House Wednesday night, moving on to The Angel Inn on Thursday, The Rex Hotel on Friday, the Victoria Inn on Saturday, and wrapping up in Port Colborne at Canalside on Sunday evening.  For more information, call 289-477-102.

Enjoy some summer theatre and music and have some fun this week!

August 1st, 2011.