Sunday, August 14, 2011
TORONTO - There’s a new Cirque in town, and it’s got Lepage’s fingerprints all over it. That’s Cirque, as in Cirque du Soleil, the international circus juggernaut that rolled out of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec in the early ’80s, set on selling its own unique vision of circus entertainment to the world. And that’s Lepage, as in Robert Lepage, the Quebec-based visionary whose imagination has turned modern theatres into houses of wonder, returning to the Cirque fold on the heels of a successful collaboration in 2004 titled KA.
This time out, they have come together to create TOTEM — and for those still considering a trip down to the Port Lands off Cherry Street, where TOTEM opened last week under the Grande Chapiteau, perhaps what you most need to know is that it aims at nothing less than telling the story of the evolution of mankind.
Of course, it is full of trademark Cirque moments, courtesy of daring young men (and women) on flying trapezes, Russian bars and unicycles, with a coterie of jugglers, acrobats, dancers and, of course, clowns (a rather lacklustre bunch, this time out) thrown in for good measure. It is also full of Lepage magic, certain to take one’s breath away and underscore the fact that he is engaged in, and pivotal to, the continual re-evaluation and evolution of the furthest boundaries of theatrical possibility. In the twinkling of an eye, stages morph from tidal pools to lava-spitting volcanos and performers swim through solid stages and water-ski on dry land, before inevitably setting off to explore the boundaries of outer space.
In short, it is everything one might expect from a union of two of la belle province’s best known artistic treasures — everything, and sadly, just a little bit less. For while TOTEM is filled with those edge-of-your-seat moments we all expect from the Cirque experience, and loaded with the kind of magical theatrical effects we’ve come to expect of the Lepage experience, the two elements never really fuse into a single show.
So, while it is perfectly possible, even highly likely, that you are going to find yourself lost in the simple elegance of Lepage’s creativity, chances are the circus act to which it is building will pull you out of that hard-won theatrical moment and leave you scrambling to catch up with this latest big-top diversion. And while you’re equally as likely to find yourself lost in the romantic wonder of, say, the fixed trapeze duo billing, cooing and quarrelling while suspended in mid-air, expect to be pulled out of whatever reveries their artistry might inspire by some new and compelling effect Lepage and his design team have cooked up.
But while TOTEM fails to coalesce into the perfect union of Cirque and theatre one might have expected, there remains much to recommend the experience, once it emerges from the primordial ooze and starts to dazzle with a bar routine set inside a giant carapace that evokes both the shell of a turtle (central to many First Nation’s beliefs on the origin of man) and the longhouse which played such a pivotal role in their culture.
From there, using an array of often breathtaking costumes designed by Kym Barrett to evoke evolving life-forms and cultures, mixing in the sets and props of Carl Fillion and the lighting of Étienne Boucher, mixed with the dazzling projections of Pedro Pires to highlight the acts, it offers everything we’ve come to expect from a Cirque show. And though there are moments where Lepage’s genius and the Cirque-inspired spectacle come together to underscore the possibilities of their union, one is left finally wanting both a whole lot more from it and on occasion, even just a little bit less.
Saturday, August 13, 2011
STRATFORD - Be it ever so humble, chances are you’ll be grateful as hell for whatever it is you’ve been calling home once you’ve seen The Homecoming.
Written by the late, great Harold Pinter in the mid-1960s, at the peak of his genius, The Homecoming was a theatrical groundbreaker in its day — a new basic-in-black comedy that brought its audience to the edge of its seat and left it skin-crawling discomfited and breathless, amused, abused, shocked, dismayed and perhaps even a little titillated at finding themselves suddenly part of someone else’s nightmare. And happily, it has lost little of its power in the ensuing half-century, as witnessed by a flawed but powerfully compelling production that opened in the Stratford Festival’s Avon Theatre Thursday under the direction of Jennifer Tarver.
Tarver, you might recall, rose to prominence here at the Festival with her masterful direction of Krapp’s Last Tape, starring Brian Dennehy, who happily returns to the Stratford stage and Tarver’s vision for The Homecoming.
He’s cast as Max, the patriarch of the family at the heart of Pinter’s bleak vision. A retired butcher like his father before him and a widower, Max shares his sprawling and decaying London home with two of his three grown sons — the enigmatic Lenny, played by Aaron Krohn, who runs a stable of women-for-rent; and the affable but dim Joey (Ian Lake), the apparent recipient of a few too many blows to the head in pursuit of a career in pugilism. Max’s brother Sam, played by Stephen Ouimette, also shares the house, earning his living as a chauffeur and doing his best to disappear from the world in which he finds himself a perpetual, even professional, outsider.
Max’s third son, Teddy, played by Mike Shara, has escaped familial bondage, moving to America where he teaches at a university — but suddenly, he pays an unannounced return visit to the family seat, accompanied by a wife no one knew he had. Apparently married on the cusp of his departure to America, he and his wife have built a new life there and a family that, like Max’s, now includes three sons.
But clearly all is not well with Teddy’s marriage and once he brings wife Ruth, played by Cara Ricketts, into his father’s home, his marriage starts to come unglued — helped at every turn it seems, by his father and his two brothers. Indeed, even Ruth herself seems content to throw her marriage away, once she’s entered the great moldering world of Leslie Frankish’s set — recreating Pinter’s very specific instructions. It is a tragic story, but in Pinter’s hands it is also compelling and often bleakly funny and Tarver mines that humour for all it is worth without ever shortchanging the tragedy.
In the process, she draws particularly fine performances from Dennehy and Ouimette. The former rules his roost like a malevolent toad, using his personality like the walking stick he carries, as a cudgel, while the latter paints a touchingly funny portrait of tragically ingrown and ineffectual decency. Ricketts meanwhile offers up a Ruth as impenetrable and as enigmatic as a sphinx, while Lake manages to combine the charm of a child with a deeper physical menace, rendered more powerful for all its innocence.
Just a tiny bit of that innocence would go a long way in leavening Krohn’s tightly coiled performance, which at times threatens to over-balance the work, as does Shara’s uncharacteristically heavy-handed application of comedic gormlessness, which turns Teddy into a total twit.
In the end, Tarver and her company create a work that is nothing if not memorably Pinteresque — a world open to every interpretation, where nothing is as it seems, even while it all seems terribly familiar.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
THEATRE REVIEW: HOSANNA
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
STRATFORD - Politics, we’ve all been told, can make for strange bedfellows. It turns out, however, that sometimes if you remove the politics, those bedfellows can be just as strange, or even stranger.
Case in point: the Stratford Festival’s revival of Michel Tremblay’s ground-breaking Quebecois classic Hosanna, which hit the stage of the Studio Theatre Wednesday with something that sounded suspiciously like a thud.
To refresh your memory, Hosanna became a bit of an international sensation in its English language première at the Tarragon Theatre in 1974, featuring as it did an acclaimed translation by John Van Burek and the late Bill Glassco and, in the title role, rising young Canadian actor Richard Monette, who would go on to make his name as the longest serving artistic director in the history of this festival.
Back then, this tale of a Montreal drag queen — the Hosanna of title — and her motorcycle riding boyfriend Cuirette no doubt provided a surreptitious look inside the then-daring and mysteriously naughty gay subculture, while at the same time using that subculture as a metaphor for a broader Canadian culture and the growing disconnect between French and English Canada.
While Hosanna’s outfit — an evocation of Cleopatra, as played by Elizabeth Taylor, in her triumphal entry into Rome whipped up by Hosanna herself for a Halloween fête — no doubt raised eyebrows in a world that had not even fully begun to comprehend the notion of gay equality, not to mention gay marriage. That’s certainly not the sole reason for the play’s success; instead, it was finally the language of the play that excited theatrical purists — a rich, earthy English-language evocation of joual, the distinctive language of Quebecois’ francophone streets, unlike anything that had been previously heard on the English stage.
And although this production works with the same translation as that original production, under the direction of Weyni Mengesha, almost all of that magical linguistic sense of place has disappeared. As he roams around Michael Gianfrancesco’s littered, squalid set like a be-sequined linebacker, a sculpted Gareth Potter’s Hosanna only really bothers to put a French Canadian twist on his pronunciation of place names, while as Cuirette, Oliver Becker doesn’t even go that far.
Sadly — and not surprisingly — many of the political overtones of the piece disappear right along with its linguistic integrity, leaving an audience feeling like they’ve stumbled on a gay episode of the Bickersons, as an overwrought Hosanna recalls her comeuppance at the hands of a group of vengeful drag queens earlier in the evening.
And while a ’70s audience might have been content to accept Hosanna as the poster child for a gay culture taking its first tentative steps out of the societal closet to which it had been too long exiled, in today’s more enlightened world, this production’s refusal to confront the political overtones of the piece simply underlines the fact that as purely an examination of the gay subculture, it has its shortcomings.
While the whole notion of a selfish and domineering mother’s role in ‘causing’ homosexuality was almost obligatory in the ’70s, for instance, that notion has since been thoroughly debunked. Moreover, based on Tremblay’s dialogue, one can’t help but think that a Hosanna for the 21st century would deal far more with gender reassignment than simple cross-dressing.
Finally, while both Potter and Becker tackle their roles with a certain commitment — and with varying degrees of success — where the production finally fails is in Mengesha’s inability to fuse her two actors into any sort of believable relationship. As a result, when Cuirette finally moves to comfort the grieving Hosanna, it is a moment that, for all its nudity, proves devoid of anything but the most cursory basic intimacy. And what it lacks in the queer bedfellows department, it certainly makes for in strange bedfellows.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Canuck signed to War Horse;
Oz homage theme of Panto
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Alex Furber, a relatively unknown Toronto actor who only recently graduated from the National Theatre School, has been signed to play the principal human role in the Canadian première production of the National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse. But while Furber’s name may not be familiar to Canadian theatre-goers, he will be surrounded by some of his better-known countrymen when the show opens at the Princess of Wales in February.
According to casting announced Tuesday, Brad Rudy, Richard McMillan, Tamara Bernier-Evans, Patrick Galligan, Melanie Doane, Tatjana Cornij, Ryan Hollyman, Neil Foster, Geoffrey Pounsett, Brendan Wall and a host of others will be a part of the production as well.
TORONTO - Toronto audiences won't get anywhere close to Kansas this Christmas, Toto — at least not if Ross Petty has his way. The producer of Toronto's annual Christmas panto announced Tuesday that the 2011 edition of his fractured Christmas classic will be in the way of an homage to The Wizard of Oz.
Subtitled The Wickedly Wacky Family Musical, it is slated to run at the Elgin Theatre, Nov. 24 through Jan. 6. In addition to Petty himself, the cast will also include Dan Chameroy, Jessica Holmes, Elicia MacKenzie, Yvan Pedneault, Steve Ross and Kyle Blair.
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE It is, at first blush, most definitely not the kind of theatre one might expect to find on the boards in this quaint little bastion of white upper-middle class complacency. But then again, for the past 50 summers, the stages of the Shaw Festival have often given themselves over to ideas and plays that were considered shocking and controversial — at least when they first hit the stage.
But in programming her new Studio Theatre over the last several years, artistic director Jackie Maxwell has played up the controversy by ensuring Topdog/Underdog hits the stage well before its best-before date has passed. And even by those lights, Suzan-Lori Parks' Pulitzer Prize-winner is so fresh that it is still steaming, despite the fact that it premièred in 2001 — a heaping theatrical plate of viscera, still pulsing with life, ripped from the underbelly of America and served up whole for audiences largely unaccustomed to its cadences and flavours.
It is, needless to say, rich fare. Set in a single room in a squalid boarding house in an unnamed American city, it is the tale of two brothers seemingly trapped in a downward spiral since birth, when their father, in a fit of macabre whimsy, decided to name his black sons Lincoln (played by Nigel Shawn Williams) and Booth (played by Kevin Hanchard). Having been abandoned by both their parents at a young age, the brothers have joined forces to try to survive, brought together after Lincoln's wife also walked out on him. Lincoln, for his part, has taken a page from the hero of Parks' America Play and is earning a subsistence wage playing the great emancipator for whom he is named, appearing daily in white-face, top hat and fake beard at a local arcade where patrons pay good money to re-enact one of the most famous assassinations in American history.
Booth, for his part, manages the money Lincoln brings home, making up for any shortfalls by shoplifting everything from shoes to champagne along the way. To wile away the hours, he alternately dreams of ascending the dizzying heights Lincoln once occupied as the local king of three card monte, and of reuniting with the lovely and now resolutely absent Grace. For the present, he fills the void Grace has left in his life with fantasies fueled by a range of girly magazines he has stolen and hidden beneath his cot.
In a story that careers in dizzying fashion between love and hate, hope and despair, Parks makes the language king, picking up the cast-off argot of the street and shaping and polishing it to a profanely poetic sheen that catches in the heart even while it dances in the ear. And in bringing that language to life, director Philip Akin and his two hugely talented players make the most of it, filling Camellia Koo's sprawling set with edgy, often pulsing life as they ride Parks' seesaw of despair.
For those accustomed to the kind of theatre that is content to examine how things once were, Topdog/Underdog will almost certainly represent a major stretch. But for those who prefer that their theatre examine the world the way it is, this is a banquet that shouldn't be missed.
Sunday, August 7, 2011
NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — The world is full of talented singers, of course, but every now and again, one senses that while good singers abound, the only way to be a truly great singer is to become a deceased singer, and the younger the better. And that’s not just a notion born of the tragic and too-premature-by-half death of Amy Winehouse — consider late greats like Janis Joplin, Judy Garland, Cass Elliot, Billie Holiday and even the little sparrow herself, Edith Piaf, all of whom left us wanting much, much more.
To this pantheon of the too-soon-departed, Portugal has contributed the legend of Maria Severa, a woman long considered the mother of Fado, a ripped-from-the-heart form of music popularized in the nation’s bars, brothels and universities during the 19th century. But even though Severa has been gone for a century and a half, her fame and her legend continue to grow — and the rise of a new musical bearing her name and telling her story isn’t likely to diminish her fame in the least.
Written by Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, Maria Severa had its world première Friday at the Shaw Festival, where the playwright/composers make their professional home, on the intimate stage of the Court House Theatre. Starting with the few facts that survived Severa’s apparently premature death, Turvey and Sportelli build their story around the troubled relationship between their spunky heroine, played by Julie Martell, and Armando di Vimioso, her nobly-born paramour, played by Mark Uhre.
A child of Lisbon’s impoverished Mouraria district, Maria makes her living selling fish and her body, occasionally entertaining the rough clientele in her mother’s seedy bar with songs composed with Carlos (Jeff Irving), a childhood friend who serves as her accompanist. Armando, meanwhile, is the toast of a nation, a renowned cavaleiro, famous for his daring in the bull ring. They meet when Armando and his wastrelling brother Fernando (Jonathan Gould) are walking on Mouraria’s wild side and although it is Maria’s physical attributes that first attract the bull fighter, once he hears her sing, Armando is utterly (and frankly quite inexplicably) in her power — bringing his society friends to hear her sing night after night.
It’s a development that delights Maria’s mother (played by an infinitely too young and bouncy Jenny L. Wright), even while it appalls Fernando’s (played by Sherry Flett), determined as she is that he will rescue the family fortunes by marrying the wealthy Clara (played with pluck by Jacqueline Thair). Neil Barclay and Saccha Dennis round out the cast, the former as a priest with a foot in each world, the latter as Maria’s Brazilian best friend.
It is, perhaps not surprisingly, a story fraught with melodrama and B-movie clichés, having inspired several retellings over the years, and while director Jackie Maxwell manages to sidestep the worst of them, she never really finds anything new or compelling in a story often (and frankly, far better) told in works like La Traviata and The Way We Were. While designers Judith Bowden (sets), Sue Le Page (costumes) and Kevin Lamotte (lights) create an evocative stage world, it too often simply feels cramped by a production that flirts constantly with uncomfortable cultural stereotypes.
In the end, despite a few memorably faux Fado tunes and a raft of committed performances, it simply fails to engage on a meaningful level, thanks as much to Martell’s hedgehog of a Maria as to a book that seems to be singing a musical theatre mash-up of If I Only Had A Heart and How Do You Solve A Problem like Maria?, with some Evita thrown in for good measure.
Thursday, August 4, 2011
DAILY DISH: MacIvor's Greatness on display
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - It won the Jessie Richardson Award for outstanding original script in its 2007 world première in Vancouver and now, His Greatness — an acclaimed 'new' play from Daniel MacIvor — finally is poised for its Toronto debut.
MacIvor's tale of the declining days of playwright Tennessee Williams, built around an actual Vancouver visit by Williams in 1980 for the opening of a local production of his play, The Red Devil Battery Sign, is slated to open on the stage of Toronto's Factory Studio Theatre Sept. 22, with previews beginning Sept 20, running through Oct. 23.
Produced in Toronto by Independent Artists Repertory Theatre and directed by Edward Roy, His Greatness will star Richard Donat as The Playwright, MacIvor as The Assistant and Greg Gale as The Young Man.
For tickets, priced from $40 to $60 (previews $20) and further information, call 416-504-9971.
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Christian Laveau comes full Cirque
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
TORONTO - Christian Laveau was born from a union of two worlds - so, in retrospect, it is only fitting he finds himself inhabiting multiple worlds today — even while he’s doing his level best to make all those worlds one.
His mother and father, while both of the Huron (or Wendat) nation, came from two very different worlds — his mother from the world of the trapper in English Ontario, his father from the world of the reservation in French Quebec where Laveau was raised. And even though the 37-year-old was raised in the French language, he was steeped not just in the culture of his people, but in its traditions as well.
Which is how he found himself centre stage, singing traditional songs in the ceremonies commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec a few years back. After his performance, he was approached by no less a personage than Robert Lepage, who explained he was in the process of creating a new work for the visionaries at Cirque du Soleil — a work that would trace the very evolution of mankind from the beginning of time.
“He said to me: ‘I see you inside my show,’ ” Laveau recalls. Honoured at the invitation, Laveau was more than a little reluctant to tackle such a complex project. “I was afraid to be not ready,” he says, striving for fluency in an English language that still sits a little uncomfortably on his tongue. But Lepage persevered.
“He said: ‘What we need is the spirit,’ ” Laveau recalls. Lepage must have said it in a rather compelling fashion, for Laveau ended up signing a contract to perform — in his native Wendat tongue — as the main singer in the show Lepage was creating. That show is called TOTEM and it is slated to open an already-extended run under Cirque’s trademark Grand Chapiteau in the Portlands on Cherry Street next week.
A year and a half into his contract, Laveau says it has proved to be a good choice. “They have never tried to change me,” he reports, as he recalls Lepage telling him: “It is you who is going to teach us.”
For Laveau, who in addition to his music also devotes his considerable energies to an acting and television career (he’s host and co-producer of APTN’s cultural magazine, Chic Choc), the principal thrill has been performing in the language of his ancestors — a language he is working hard to reclaim, not just for his personal use, but for his people as well. “When the missionaries arrived, they obliged us to speak in French,” he explains. “For 80 years, my language was sleeping.”
And while he strives every day to awaken his own knowledge of that language, he seems to harbour no rancour at how close his people came to losing it. “I cannot change the history,” he says. “I have to see the present and the future — but I have the memory of my ancestors.” And that memory is what he strives to pass on, not just in his work with TOTEM, but in his own music and in his television show. “Our children are our future,” he says. “I help the children now to always be proud of the culture — to be proud to be native Canadian.”
And that pride and passion for his culture is not confined to preserving its music and its language either. He’s also passionate about the husbanding of a knowledge of native plants and has worked for several years in the First Nations Garden at the Montreal Botanical Garden, learning and passing on centuries of hard-won wisdom in the only way he feels it should be passed on. “It’s the elders who teach it to us,” he explains “And they don’t want us to write the book. It all comes from the plant and you have to take what you need.”
It is, finally, all part and parcel of a personal philosophy that certainly has its seeds in the Wendat culture but has grown until it seems to embrace all of humanity. “Wendat means ‘human’ — it’s very simple.” he says. “All these things that I do, it’s just sharing.”
And he’ll continue to travel and to share. “If (people) don’t understand what I’m saying, I know they feel it in their hearts,” he says. “Of course, I miss my home, but I’m very happy here and the experiences I have here I will take back to the young people.”
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
THEATRE NEWS: Twelfth Night Score on CD
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
STRATFORD - At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, they know the score — and now, they're willing to share it.
Citing audience demand, Antoni Cimolino announced Tuesday that the score of the Festival's current production of Twelfth Night, composed by artistic director Des McAnuff and Michael Roth, will be released in CD form Aug. 12.
Featuring 11 tracks from the production, plus a bonus track of The Wind And The Rain, performed by McAnuff and the Red Dirt Band, the CD, priced at $19.95, will be available through the Theatre Store or by calling 1-800-561-1233. Songs will also be available for download through CD Baby.