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.

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