Monday, April 30, 2012
YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU
Special to TorSun
29 APR 2012
Pictured: Krystin Pellerin, Gregory Prest
TORONTO - Unless one is a botanist, one might never know whether or not the stately sycamore tree produces nuts, but one has only to visit the theatre to know that the Sycamore family tree yields them by the bushel. The Sycamore family, of course, is at the very heart of YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, the enduring Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy created in 1937 by playwrights George F. Kaufman and Moss Hart and subsequently transformed into an Academy Award-winning movie. The story is relatively simple — or as simple as a story about relatives can ever be. Under the benign eye of an eccentric patriarch, the Sycamore home is fairly filled to the rafters with artists and other harmless eccentrics, brought together to create a sunny view of the depression-era world of the ’30s that offers comforting, if charmingly dated, resonance in a world facing similar problems three quarters of a century later.
Which is reason enough to celebrate the fact that YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU has returned to a local stage after an absence of more than a decade, brought to life in a new production from Soulpepper which opened at the Young Centre last week. Directed by Joseph Ziegler, with the venerable (and delightfully volatile) Eric Peterson in the role of the Sycamore family patriarch — a man who spends his time collecting snakes and attending commencement exercises while side-stepping bothersome little things like income tax — it is a production that offers elusive glimpses of the genius of a collaboration determined to celebrate the ‘functional’ in the family dysfunctional.
As the story goes, Peterson’s Grandpa hasn’t worked in years, but his home is still a hive of activity, filled with his children, grandchildren and the occasional hanger-on, like Mr. De Pinna (Michael Simpson), who dropped by to deliver ice eight years ago and got so caught up making fireworks in the basement with Paul (Derek Boyes), Grandpa’s son, that he never left. Meanwwhile, Penny, Paul’s wife (played by Nancy Palk), has given up painting to take up playwrighting, after a typewriter was mistakenly delivered to the door. Her daughter, Essie (Patricia Fagan), meanwhile devotes herself to dance and candy-making, while her husband, Ed (Mike Ross), dabbles in printing and music. In other words, everyone is as eccentric as all-get-out, except for daughter Alice (Krystin Pellerin) who has gone outside the home to work and fallen madly in love with her boss’ son, played by Gregory Prest.
The two agree to marry — but when his up-tight parents (played by John Jarvis and Brenda Robins) come to call, chaos ensues, with an extensive supporting cast that includes Raquel Duffy, Diego Matamoros, Sabryn Rock, Andre Sills and Maria Vacratsis, among others, adding fuel to the fire.
As usual, Ziegler proves a dab hand at finding the emotional heart of a piece, capturing the familial bond that binds the clan Sycamore and making the most of the lovely romance brought to life by Pellerin and Prest. Unfortunately, he’s not nearly so successful at building and sustaining comedic momentum. As they move about Christina Poddubiuk’s un-necessarily cramped set, everyone on the stage seems to be not only too aware of their individual eccentricities, but they seem to be cultivating more as well — and that spells disaster for a play that extolls the virtues of simply being oneself. And as a result, Ziegler never succeeds in finding the comic sweet-spot of the play, proving conclusively that when a heart-warming comedy doesn’t catch fire on stage, you can’t take it with you when you leave.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
OPERA REVIEW: A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY/GIANNI SCHICCHI
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
26 APR 2012
Pictured: Alan Held, Michael König, Gun-Brit Barkmin
in A Florentine Tragedy
On the surface, one of the few things that composers Alexander Zemlinsky and Giacomo Puccini had in common (beyond their shared profession, of course) was the fact that they both wrote one-act operas set in Florence — the former’s A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY, adapted from a play by Oscar Wilde, and the latter’s GIANNI SCHICCHI, based on an episode from Dante’s celebrated Inferno.
And while many might see that as a tenuous connection at best, for the Canadian Opera Company’s Director General Alexander Neef and diva-turned-director Catherine Malfitano, it has proven to be a golden thread that can bind the two operas into a single evening of often delightful entertainment — an evening that opened at the Four Seasons Centre Thursday.
It begins with A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY, ripped from its renaissance roots by designers Wilson Chin (sets) and Terese Wadden (costumes) and transplanted into the 1920s, where, truth to tell, it rests about as comfortably as a Vestal Virgin on a Vespa, particularly when it gets into discussions about spinning and weaving and the like, which were not common activities, if one recalls, for the flappers inhabiting this new time frame. But somehow, through sheer will and determination and the commitment of her three-member cast (bass baritone Alan Held, soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin and tenor Michael König) Malfitano makes it work, spinning out Wilde’s tale of infidelity and betrayal (adapted by librettist Max Meyerfeld) in often delicious, even stylish fashion and using the twist that ends the tale to score major dramatic points.
In tackling GIANNI SCHICCHI, Malfitano once again indulges a penchant for time travel, setting Puccini’s comedy about death, greed, betrayal and the ultimate triumph of young love down smack-bang in the middle of modern day Florence, where the aged Buoso Donati lays dying in the midst of his acquisitive relatives and his accumulated possessions, arranged by Chin in such a way as to suggest an Italian edition of TV’s Hoarders. When the clan Donati discovers that the newly deceased has left his fortune to the church, they quickly overcome their distaste for the upstart lawyer of title (played by Held in an impressive show of his acting and singing range) and enlist his help in circumventing the will and getting their hands on the estate. Encouraged by his lovely daughter Lauretta (soprano Simone Osborne in a deliciously understated turn) who longs to marry the dead man’s nephew (tenor René Barbera), Schicchi conspires with the next of kin and ultimately turns their greed to everyone’s advantage, including his own.
Under Malfitano’s tutelage, its not just the era that has been changed in Giovacchino Forzano’s libretto, but the comedic underpinnings as well, with an extensive cast (including mezzo Barbara Dever and bass Donato Di Stefano as well as Barkmin in her second role of the evening) all doing their level best to give the proceedings a sort of Fellini-does-slapstick feel that’s probably a lot more buffo than most opera lovers have come to expect. But aside from the fact that it makes Osborne’s task a lot more difficult when she slides into the over-the-top romanticism of Oh mio babbino caro like it was a warm bath — a task she accomplishes nonetheless with impressive ease — it works in its own glorious fashion. Finally, it all comes together as a memorable Florentine feast.
Friday, April 20, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHANCE
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
19 APR 2012
Pictured: Harry Judge, Trish Lindström
Influenced as he was by Italy’s commedia dell’arte style (which, lest we forget, gave us, for better or for worse, something called slapstick), it is difficult to imagine anyone ever held French playwright Marivaux up as a paragon of comedic subtlety. Still, in his long career, he scored some telling points about the inherent differences (and the attendant similarities) between 18th century France’s ruling class and its subservient working class.
Of course, today, in the wake of a little event called the French Revolution, many of those points are moot, unless of course, plays like his Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard (THE GAME OF LOVE AND CHANCE) are presented in the context of the period in which they were written — which is precisely what translator/director John Van Burek did in a revival of the work back in 2000 in a charming production for Pleiades Theatre. But in mounting the work for a Canadian Stage/Centaur Theatre co-production, director Matthew Jocelyn has opted to explore new ground, taking a translated adaptation from playwright Nicolas Billon and setting it down in the midst of a distinctly contemporary and highly theatrical milieu. His production of THE GAME opened a Toronto run at the Bluma Appel Theatre Thursday.
Jocelyn’s choice, one suspects, was made in an attempt to strip away hidebound theatrical convention and add a certain theatrical relevance for those who see theatre as merely a spectator sport — and to some degree, it works. As Jocelyn and his tremendously hardworking cast plunder the comedic canon from commedia to Jim Carrey in search of anything that might possibly get them a laugh, they get more than a few.
But, for all their efforts, in the end, it simply doesn’t work, for while the setting has been updated, the story hasn’t, and while the whole notion of a father giving his daughter permission to choose her own husband lent a piquant comedic element to the play in 18th century France, it is simply the norm in 21st century Toronto, where the whole notion of maids and valets is of another time as well. Which means that things are shaky from the get-go as Silvia (Trish Lindström) frets about meeting the man her father (William Webster) wishes her to marry.
To get a more honest take on her potential groom, she switches places with her maid, Lisette (Gemma James-Smith), happily oblivious to the fact her suitor, Dorante (Harry Judge) has made a similar switch with his valet, Arlequino (over-played by Gil Garratt). Zach Fraser plays Silvia’s brother, Mario. By modern lights, what happens next is entirely predictable as true love triumphs, in the face of all of Marivaux’s mixed signals and human roadblocks.
Recognizing that in placing the work in a contemporary setting, he has reduced it to what is at best a moderately amusing tale, Jocelyn overdraws his account at the Ministry of Funny Walks, demands that every entrance be made as if in full flight from a proctologist and finally allows designer Anick La Bissonnière to transform her graceless set into a house of mirrors in an attempt to find modern humour in the tale. In the process, he strips the story of any subtlety and humanity as well.
THEATRE REVIEW: OIL AND WATER
Special to TorSun
19 APR 2012
In the whole nature vs. nurture debate, the topic of racism is pretty much a non-starter, at least in the theatre world, where artists have been weighing in on the side of the angels since Shakespeare was a pup. That said, playwright Robert Chafe seems to have stumbled across a good story — and a true one to boot — that promises to add grist to the ongoing debate. Not surprisingly, it’s a story he found it in his native Newfoundland, where he and long-time collaborator Jillian Keiley (with whom he successfully collaborated on the acclaimed Tempting Providence) have long laboured.
Titled OIL AND WATER and produced by Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, it’s the tale of Lanier Phillips, an American sailor who washed up on the shores of Newfoundland following an horrific shipwreck in 1942. Half-frozen, he was taken in by the residents of St. Lawrence, a small and impoverished mining town, and nursed back to health, just as countless hapless sailors have been by generations of Newfoundlanders.
What made Phillips’ tale extraordinary however, was the fact that he was a black man who had never before been treated like he was just folks by white people — and once he found himself dealing with people who hadn’t been taught to mistrust him on the basis of the colour of his skin, it dawned on him that the mistrust he had been taught to feel for white people might be misplaced on occasion as well and he returned to America to work for racial equality and harmony.
OIL AND WATER opened Wednesday on the Factory Theatre mainstage, the cornerstone of an increasingly exciting annual rite of theatre known as Performance Spring. To bring the story to life, Chafe and Keiley have assembled an impressive team and turned them loose on an wonderfully adaptable and powerfully evocative set designed by Shawn Kerwin, lit by Leigh Ann Vardy.
Phillips is played as a young man by Ryan Allen and in an older configuration by Jeremiah Sparks, while Petrina Bromley and Jody Richardson essay the roles of Violet and John, the St. Lawrence couple who give him shelter from the storm, rising above their own problems to help a man in need. These four performances, each marked by a simple, touching dignity, are reflected by a strong supporting cast that includes a haunting Neema Bickersteth (embodying Phillips’ powerful racial memory) and a quirky Alison Woolridge and a youthful Mark Power, as memorable St. Lawrence townsfolk.
The story plays out in parallel worlds set more than 30 years apart — on the impoverished Rock of the Second World War and in a race-riven Boston, circa 1974. They are tied together, however, by Andrew Craig’s rich musical contribution, which uses gospel to capture and reflect the rich musicality of both cultures.
As she has demonstrated so effectively on other occasions on this stage, Keiley (recently named head of English Theatre at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre) can be a powerful stage force, and she achieves sustained periods of breathtaking honesty and simplicity. In fact, she only trips up when bogged down in cast busy-ness, or by a playwright determined to make his audience understand that this is A Very Important Life Lesson. If he’d placed more trust in his audience and his story, one suspects this could have been a very important play.
Wednesday, April 18, 2012
OPERA REVIEW: ARMIDE
Special to TorSun
Pictured: Peggy Kriha Dye,
TORONTO - Long before Xena, Warrior Princess, conquered our airwaves and Joan of Arc lit up the world, there was yet another conquering heroine. Her name was Armide, and she was first glimpsed in Torquato Tasso's epic 16th century poem, Jerusalem Delivered. But it wasn't until she became the heroine of Jean-Baptiste Lully's 1686 opera that fittingly bears her name that she conquered the baroque world and beyond.
And now, she's poised to conquer the world once again, as Opera Atelier reawakens and re-imagines its 2005 production of the classic work, originally mounted in celebration of the company's 20th anniversary. This time out, it is being served up, not only for a Toronto audience, but for audiences at both New York's prestigious Glimmerglass Opera Festival and the Opera Royal in Versailles, where it will make stops later this year. Torontonians got their first opportunity to revisit the revitalized production Saturday at the Elgin and, in the main, it's a winner, with artistic director Marshall Pynkoski assembling an impressive cast to bring the work to life on Gerard Gauci's ever more impressively lavish set.
Playing out according to a libretto by Philippe Quinault, ARMIDE is set in and around Damascus during the first great crusade, at the end of the 11th century, and it opens as the armies of King Hidradot (bass João Fernandes) celebrate victory over the Christian invaders intent on 'saving' the Holy Land. That victory, it seems, is thanks in large part to the efforts of Hidradot's warrior niece, Armide, impressively sung by soprano Peggy Kriha Dye.
But while the city celebrates, Armide broods, despondent she has been unable to subdue the Christian knight Renaud, sung by tenor Colin Ainsworth, who happily reins things in a little from his cloying '05 performance. But after Renaud single-handedly frees a brace of Armide's Christian captives, she pulls out heavy artillery from the sorcery department and enlists all sorts of Moorish magic to help her enslave the errant knight, unwittingly setting herself up for a fall in the process when she finds herself head-over-heels in love with the man she has heretofore despised.
Musically, ARMIDE is rich fare, with conductor David Fallis drawing some impressive work from the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra (after it settled into the work) and its Chamber Choir, but dramatically, it's a bit of a stop 'n' start affair, with a plotline heavy on reflective, introspective moments that provide plenty of opportunity for choreographer Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg and her corps de ballet to strut their stuff.
Happily, Pynkoski draws fine work from the majority of his cast, with sopranos Carla Huhtanen and Meghan Lindsay joining baritones Curtis Sullivan and Vasil Garvanliev to add dramatic depth to the proceedings, before they surrender the stage to tenor Aaron Ferguson and bass-baritone Olivier LaQuerre, who whip things into a perfect comic frenzy injecting some boffo buffa into the proceedings.
Meanwhile Gauci continues to refine his lavish, Persian calligraphy-inspired sets to a point where they fairly shimmer with beauty, setting off the lavish costumes for which Dora Rust D'Eye apparently pillaged Gerrard East seven years ago. Sadly, on opening night Bonnie Beecher's otherwise flawless lighting seemed to be suffering from a bit of premature illumination, opening windows into upcoming scenes before the scene at hand was completely finished — but hopefully, that should work out in subsequent playings. It still remains to be seen whether ARMIDE can conquer the world once again — but Saturday night, she got off to a good start.
Friday, April 13, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: PRISONER
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
13 APR 2012
Pictured: Bahareh Yaraghi, Razi Shawahdeh, Mirian Katrib
TORONTO - Even the most cursory examination of the history of revolutions is enough to underscore the terrible truth in the old adage that sometimes the devil you know is preferable to the one that you don’t.
In France, in Russia, and more recently in countries like Iran and the former Yugoslavia, the overthrow of repressive regimes has resulted in the imposition of an even more repressive regime, as new rulers struggle to remake the world according to their vision, regardless of the will of the population at large.
In Iran, however, it was not a case of replacing the devil they knew — in this case, the former Shah and his henchmen — with a devil they didn’t, for the revolution in Iran was fomented in the mosques of the nation, driven not by devils but by the nation’s foremost clerics and holy men. Despite its religious roots, however, the regime that replaced the Shah proved to be at least as repressive as the one it replaced and three decades on, it still manages to cling only to the very edges of the civilized world, mired as it is in a hidebound social and political theocracy.
For Marina Nemat, that revolution is not a master of history, but of memory — a memory documented in a pair of books that trace her often horrific voyage through the belly of the beast. Now, the first of those books, PRISONER OF TEHRAN, has been brought to the stage in a new and often moving adaptation written and directed by Maja Ardal. PRISONER OF TEHRAN opened Wednesday on the Theatre Passe Muraille mainstage, a production of Contrary Company in association with TPM.
PRISONER begins in the days before the revolution when Nemat, played here by Bahareh Yaraghi, is simply a carefree schoolgirl, nurturing a strong Christian conviction despite her unabashedly secular ways. Slowly, she is drawn into the incipient revolution, but once it has been accomplished, she quickly begins to question the repressive ways of the new Islamic masters. That questioning not only puts her at cross-purposes with her educators, but lands her in jail as well. There, she is first tortured, then sentenced to death, redeemed ultimately only by the passion she has awakened in one of her torturers. Forced into a loveless marriage in order to protect her family, she faces further hardship when her new husband is assassinated by political activists and, finally, she is forced to flee her homeland for safe harbour in Canada.
Using a set of simple, stately elegance created by Julia Tribe and subtly lit by Steven Hawkins, Ardal (working with associate director Kim Blackwell) contents herself with a more or less straightforward retelling of Nemat’s story, using Razi Shawahdeh and Mirian Katrib to flesh out a wide range of supporting roles, as her story shifts back and forth in time. Happily, she draws considered, committed work from all three of her performers, although Katrib’s performance is sometimes marked by a certain archness that hopefully will dissipate during the length of the run.
But, while there is much to like in this adaptation, it is finally diminished, one suspects, by the reverence with which Ardal has so obviously approached the source material. Ultimately, while there is no doubting her success, it must be said that in an adaptation that tells us far more than it shows us, she has succeeded finally in putting the book on stage, rather than a fully realized play that tells the same story.
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
OPERA REVIEW: TALES OF HOFFMANN
JOHN COULBOURN - Special to TorSun
11 APR 2012
Pictured: Andriana Chuchman, Steven Cole
TORONTO - In spinning out THE TALES OF HOFFMANN, composer Jacques Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier apparently decided to leave tales told by idiots to Shakespeare and his ilk and dwell instead in a world where tales are told by drunkards and layabouts.
And while their operatic adaptation of the stageplay written by Barbier and Michel Carré (based, not surprisingly, on tales originally told by E.T.A. Hoffmann) is filled with all sorts of glorious sound and a certain frenetic fury, in the end, it still seems to signify nothing, as its five acts well-told fail to add up to a single well-told story.
It begins with Hoffmann, sung here by tenor Russell Thomas in a performance that sadly doesn’t equal his magnificent voice, in the midst of a battle royal with his current mistress, the lovely diva, Stella, sung by soprano Ambur Braid. She storms out in a huff, and fuelled by several bottles of his favourite libation and encouraged by his lovely Muse (mezzo Lauren Segal) masquerading as his good friend Nicklausse, Hoffmann is soon lost in a sea of reminiscences of loves won and tragically lost.
Starting with the mechanical Olympia and progressing through the tragic Antonia and the wanton Giulietta (sung respectively and gloriously by sopranos Andriana Chuchman, Erin Wall and Keri Alkema), Hoffmann recounts a series of romantic disasters, each tragedy seemingly engineered by his shape-shifting nemesis, magnificently sung by bass-baritone John Relyea, who takes a different form in each story and manages repeatedly to separate the drunken poet from the current object of his affections.
In a production first performed by the Vlaamse Opera, director Lee Blakeley opts for a more or less straightforward retelling of the tale, ignoring for the most part the implications of Hoffmann’s insistence that all four women are really one woman in different guises, and the more subtle Freudian suggestions that Relyea’s villain is really a part of the poet’s subconscious.
Instead, with the connivance of designers Roni Toren (sets), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes) and Jenny Cane (lights), he layers his story with a tragicomic evocation of Victorian penny-dreadfuls and lets the chips fall where they may, making the most of tenor Steven Cole’s comedic range in a variety of servant’s roles and overlaying every-thing with through-the-looking-glass sensibility that transforms sleigh-beds into gondolas, hand puppets into inner voices and memories into midgets.
Musically, it is a glorious affair, with a largely impressive cast, backed by the COC Orchestra under the assured baton of Johannes Debus, and by the COC Chorus turning in its usual impressive work, the collective enthusiasm in no way dulled nor diminished by the length or the complex demands that TALES places upon them. Dramatically, however, it never really comes together — and one suspects it rarely has, considering that the composer died before completing the work, leaving it to his friends and admirers to assemble the bits and pieces of what he was working on and cobble it into some semblance of a complete work.
To the level that their handiwork has survived more than 130 years, it can be assumed that they succeeded to some degree, but to the level that it all adds up to nearly three and a half hours of glorious sound and fury signifying next to nothing is a measure of their shortcomings. It’s five acts of magnificent operatic entertainment that, in the end, fail to add up to a single memorable opera.
Friday, April 6, 2012
Special to TorSun
06 APR 2012
Pictured: Mark McGrinder, Sterling Jarvis, Audrey Dwyer
TORONTO - It would be naive to suggest that Canada doesn’t suffer many of the same racial tensions that hamstring our neighbours to the south but equally naive to suggest those tensions are exactly the same on both sides of the 49th parallel. And indeed, in approaching the Canadian première of Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer Prize-winning CLYBOURNE PARK, the artists who make up Studio 180 seem to have recognized that fact — if only to a point. In preparation for Thursday’s opening at the Berkeley Street Theatre (produced in association with Canadian Stage), they filled the theatre lobby with a display that examines the evolving Toronto real-estate market, effectively providing a Canadian context for at least half of the playwright’s vision of “a battle over race and real-estate.”
But inside the theatre itself, they aren’t so successful. In the hands of director Joel Greenberg, Norris’ work emerges as a very Canadian take on a uniquely American play — and sadly, not one that lends the work any meaningful new perspectives. In essence, what the playwright has given us here is not a single play, but rather two plays in one, set half a century apart, both set in the same home that housed Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal A Raisin In The Sun — a home that in 1959 was in the middle of a white enclave of Chicago, on the cusp of becoming predominately black. The first of Norris’ plays takes place in the days preceding events in Raisin, his second more or less in the the present day, as the neighbourhood in question emerges from the poverty in which it had been mired and begins the process of re-gentrification.
It’s a play that demands double duty from its entire cast, with everyone involved tackling roles in both halves of the play. And while Audrey Dwyer, Michael Healey, Sterling Jarvis, Jeff Lillico, Mark McGrinder, Kimwun Perehinec and Maria Ricossa all approach this theatrical double dealing with enthusiasm, they are finally, under Greenberg’s direction, not unlike a group of performers working phonetically in a foreign tongue — pitch perfect in pronunciation but undone by misplaced emphasis.
As he has demonstrated in other productions, Greenberg, for all his strengths, too often emerges as the directorial equivalent of the spouse in those ubiquitous stair-lift commercials, given to nodding enthusiastically to emphasize what someone else — in this case, the playwright — is saying, rather than trusting we’ll figure things out on our own.
In Stuff Happens, he gave us a George W. Bush just shy of a cartoon character and here, he offers performers who are not only allowed but encouraged to play sanitized caricatures of American stereotypes, when the script demands flawed characters, fearlessly and fully realized. When personalities and races collide, the playwright refuses to take sides, but Greenberg and his cast too often override him to point to what we should be feeling.
Happily, CLYBOURNE PARK still emerges as an often blackly comic and thought-provoking play as it unfolds on David Boechler’s sprawling set, and while Lillico, Healey and, McGrinder fall back on stock performances we’ve seen before, others — Ricossa, Perehinec and Jarvis — delight, particularly in a second act that frees them from a Leave It To Beaver vision of America. In the process, they provide some inkling of what CLYBOURNE PARK could have been — and, no doubt, was — in the hands of a director who embraced the fact that it’s a uniquely American tale that can’t be told from any other perspective.
Special to TorSun
06 APR 2012
Pictured: Clare Coulter
TORONTO - According to Friedrich Nietzsche, that which doesn’t kill us is certain to make us stronger, but if Nietzsche were to be distilled by playwright Daniel MacIvor, one suspects that bit of wisdom would be pared down so that it reads simply: “That which doesn’t kill us, makes us,” for in MacIvor’s world, characters carry on whether they are stronger or not.
Certainly, Kitty, the woman at the heart of WAS SPRING, MacIvor’s latest play, has faced a lot in her long life that might have killed her (or made her wish she were dead) but now, as that life slips away, she must find the strength to sort through it all and figure out what she has learned and finally what, in the end, she believes. WAS SPRING opened in its Toronto première under MacIvor’s own direction in the Tarragon Extra Space Wednesday.
It begins as the aged Kitty (played with a heart-breaking and angular grace by Clare Coulter, too long absent from our stages) begins to sense she is losing control of her life, and summons two wildly different women to help her sort through her story. Kit, played by Jessica Moss, is a young romantic, her innocence largely unscarred by her recent physical encounters with her young man, while Kath, played by long-time MacIvor collaborator Caroline Gillis, fairly boils with the pain, bitterness and disappointment that have marked her middle years.
Filled with mutual and self-loathing, the two newcomers spend much of the 90-minute duration of the play sparring with each other and with the aged Kitty before they finally come together to accomplish the task for which they have been summoned. Along the way, the audience is left to sort out the relationship between the three women and how the life each has lived and the pain she has survived have informed the lives of the other two women with whom she now find herself sharing this interlude.
Set on a spare and visually introspective set designed and lit by Kimberly Purtell, with equally spare costumes and sound by Shawn Kerwin and Verne Good, respectively, MacIvor’s WAS SPRING creates an understated snapshot in muted tones of what might mistakenly be considered an ordinary life. And by deconstructing that life at every turn to show the often gaping chasm that separates dreams from needs, his play underlines the fact that as the end draws closer, there really is no such thing as an ordinary life.
It’s another fine accomplishment from one of our finest playwrights, but sadly as a director, MacIvor lets his playwright down, going all isosceles in a triangular tale that should be equilateral to achieve its maximum strength. From Coulter, he draws a heart-rending, profane performance that manages to capture both the dignity and the heartbreak and betrayal of ageing, while from Gillis, he goes against type and taps into a well of bitterness. But sadly, with Moss, while he draws the right notes of youth and vigour, he fails to plumb the sincerity of her innocence, contenting himself instead with merely underlining the depth of her shallowness, selling short her contribution to the story.
Fortunately, as a playwright, MacIvor is strong enough to almost overcome his shortcomings as a director and in the end, these three talented actors create a poignant portrait of a woman who has been shaped by her pain but, in the end, is made stronger by one unshakeable and simple belief.