Theatre Review: ‘The Glass Managerie’ at The Shaw Festival

Julia Course and Jonathan Tan in “The Glass Managerie.” Photo by David Cooper.

Tennessee Williams comes from a cohort of playwrights whose early 20th century upbringing, while horrid by any standard, provided ample source material that would later be used to craft some of the most iconic works of American theatre. Along with Eugene O’Neil’s “Long Days Journey Into Night”, “The Glass Menagerie” is semi-autobiographical and features characters loosely (or not so loosely?) based on himself, his mother, and sibling. This window into Williams’ early life illuminates the psyche of a man who experienced profound heartache, but repurposed that heartache into dramatic works that speak to the human condition. One of those works is currently experiencing a stunning production at the Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s renowned celebration of theatre.  

. . .haunting and brilliantly acted. . .

“The Glass Menagerie” tells the story of Tom (Andre Sills), a 20-something man toiling away in a shoe factory to support his mother Amanda (Allegra Fulton), an overbearing and faded southern belle; and sister Laura (Julia Course), a mentally fail and cripplingly shy shut-in who spends the bulk of her time obsessing over her glass animal collection. In an effort to appease his mother, Tom arranges something of a blind date between Laura and Jim (Jonathan Tan), a co-worker and friend from the shoe factory. After overcoming an initial bout of nerves and shyness Laura seems to be warming to Jim, until he reveals that he’s already engaged to be married. This revelation breaks Laura’s heart and sends Amanda into a rage, which she ultimately redirects to Tom, who flees the home and, as he later reveals, never returns.

The humanity and profound sadness of this production largely stems from its intimacy; in terms of acting choices, staging, and the theatre itself. Like most productions of “Menagerie”, Shaw’s takes place in-the-round, with seats on all sides in a theatre that’s only slightly larger than blackbox (I’d estimate 200 seats or so). Being so close to the stage gives the impression that you’re sitting in the Winfield’s living room seeing firsthand the agony on Laura’s face and the fire in Amanda’s eyes. The use of darkness and sparse lighting also added to the show’s intimacy, as well as the ways in which Tom—who also acts as the story’s narrator—moves in-and-out of the apartment as he toggles between his two roles.

Each member of this small cast beautifully channels the complexity of William’s characters. Course’s Laura is fragile and childlike, filled with youthful wonder but also utterly broken. Laura is a human embodiment of the glass ornaments that she treasures so dearly; she’s beautiful yet fragile.

Allegra Fulton’s Amanda is the seminal southern belle, a character found in many many Tennessee Williams plays (similar to Balance Dubois in “A Streetcar Names Desire”). She’s manipulative and overbearing, but also charming and magnetic. 

Jonathan Tan’s Jim is relentlessly positive, constantly brimming with a smile and a bursting with a kind word, even as he’s breaking Laura’s heart.

And stealing the show is Andre Sills’ Tom, whose magnetism as the narrator is mirrored in intensity as Laura’s protective older brother. Sills brings out a different dynamic in his relationship with each character in the show. With Laura he’s nurturing and patient, frustrated and fiery with Amanda, chummy with Jim. He brings immense focus likability to a complex character and is an absolute powerhouse in this production of Tennessee Williams’ most iconic play.

Ultimately, Shaw’s production of “Menagerie” stems from director Laszlo Berczes’ understanding of the fact that, while rich with emotional baggage, the story is simple. It’s about the delicate balance between reality and hope, and the acceptance that life can be both beautiful and tragically unkind. 

The Shaw Festival’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is haunting and brilliantly acted, an intimate and deeply sorrowful story about beautiful dreams and the cruelty of reality. It’s playing at the festival’s Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre until October 12. For tickets and more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Rope’ at The Shaw Festival

The cast of “Rope” at The Shaw Festival. Photo by Emily Cooper.

“Rope,”  on stage at the Shaw Festival’s Royal George Theatre, is a not-so-classic  whodunit where you know who the killers are from the opening moments of the story. What you don’t know is who from their inner circle will figure it out, or how long it will take for the killers to crack. Cue the theatrical suspense.

. . .the staging and art of presentation of ‘ Rope’ is pure stage magic. 

Penned by playwright Patrick Hamilton, ‘Rope’ preceded his more renowned play ‘Gaslight’ by 10 years, debuting in London in 1929. This timing makes it a perfect fit for this gem of a theatre. Designer Joanna Yu’s period-perfect set is the epitome of British society of the day. It’s something of a metaphor, too:  simple elegance can successfully hide something that’s dreadfully disturbing. The set pieces deserve credit for taking on character roles themselves: the grandfather clock is the larger than life presence that marks the passage of time. The bar table that exposes and conceals elixirs is there to draw out truths. The center-stage wooden chest is both the table and ersatz coffin. And together it just looks so darn pretty at first blush.

The story opens just after the crime is committed. University pals (or are they lovers?) Wyndham Brandon (Kelly Wong) and Charles Granillo (Travis Seetoo) have just killed one of their school chums. No real reason, other than they feel strong to his weakness, affluent to his common, and heck, they had nothing better to do. Another stage metaphor: the first 10 minutes of the show are very dark, with only the flicker of their lit cigarettes and quick flashes of table lamps to punctuate the dark. When finally convinced to let there be light, Brandon announces, “ I have committed murder. I have committed passionless – motiveless – faultless – and clueless murder. Bloodless and noiseless murder … And immaculate murder. I have killed. I have killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing. And I am alive. Truly and wonderfully alive. “ Granillo or Granno as he is called, is the less willing accomplice (could he have been a potential victim?) and is nervous and not proud. When he neglects to hide the deceased’s theatre ticket, Brandon reminds him of his place when he tells him, “It’s your business to see what I don’t see.”  Well, every Batman needs a Robin as they sang in “The Book of Mormon.”

The duo then hosts a party – with the deceased still in the wooden chest – with more university chums and even the deceased’s aged father. The coffin-cum-buffet is neatly covered with linen and snacks as the bon mots fly between veiled threats, some grandstanding, where the roots of suspicion are revealed. It’s university prof Rupert Cadell (Michael Therriault) whose suspicions are aroused as the others drink and banter around him. Therriault plays this role with a delicious detachment, almost like the observer who waits for the right moment to insert himself in the moment. He’s the one to watch in the ensemble.  I’m not completely convinced with actors Wong and Seeto as recent university grads, but casting Therriault in this creepy “guest who won’t leave” role is fine.

There were up and down moments throughout: the costuming was stunning. The fight scene was almost too balletic. There was some suspense, but not enough real tension. Granno’s fear was almost comedic and nervously jerky.

While the plot may be implausible, the staging and art of presentation of ‘ Rope’ is pure stage magic. Louise Guinand’s lighting design is meticulous: the near dark sequence may have felt a bit too long, but the effect was stunning. So was the constant rain patter and splatter on the window. Director Jani Lauzon kept the action fluid and well-paced. She used the backlit stairway well as a point of transition and a good visual device. Composer/sound designer John Gzowski (good to note  that this was a woman-dominated production team) laid down a subtle and constant music bed that was just ‘there’ enough to connect you to the characters and their machinations. When the story fails me, it’s these elements that pull me in.

‘Rope’ is a visually beautiful production that hides a seamy story of murder and deception. It’s onstage on a rotating schedule until October. 12. It runs two hours with a 10-minute intermission. Visit www.shawfest.com for details and tickets.

Theatre Review: ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ at The Shaw Festival

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Ric Reid and Damien Atkins in “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at The Shaw Festival. Photo my Emily Cooper.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles”, currently playing at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, is adapted from the famous novella by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. This is one of the most suspenseful Sherlock Holmes stories. In addition to murder and mystery, there is a supernatural element. Many Sherlockians consider “Hound” the finest of all stories about the world’s greatest detective.

. . . a very pleasant and imaginative production. . .

In this classic Sherlock case, Holmes and Watson venture from their “digs” at 221 B Baker Street to the desolate Devon moor to investigate strange doings, including an escaped convict, a possible murder, and a ferocious hound from hell. This adaptation by R. Hamilton Wright and David Pichette is basically faithful to the Sherlock Holmes Canon with one notable exception – the ending. The adapters have added a dramatic and surprising plot twist, but it leaves one puzzled. I won’t give anything away, but, in lieu of an earlier scene in the play (which is taken directly from the original text), this new ending doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  

This liberty with the traditional story doesn’t spoil the production, however, by any means. This is a breezy, irreverent adaptation with plenty of humor and a nice brisk pace – especially when Damien Atkins, with his quirky, quicksilver, tongue in cheek portrayal of Holmes, is center stage. Atkins is admirably supported by Ric Reid as the stalwart and often beleaguered Dr. Watson.

The entire cast is solid. Standouts include Kristopher Bowman as the affable Hank Baskerville, Claire Jullien who is delightful as Mrs. Hudson, and Natasha Mumba who plays the many faceted Beryl Stapleton.

The proceedings are directed in an appropriately melodramatic vein by Craig Hall, and there are plenty of inventive and humorous touches. The production is enhanced enormously by breath-taking projections by Jamie Nesbitt and a gorgeous, evocative musical score by John Gzowski. The scenery moves on and off stage in a fluid, almost magical, way, and the optical illusion created when the characters go into the cellar got applause! There are technical wonders on that stage!

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the Shaw’s Festival Theatre is a very pleasant and imaginative production, perfect for summertime fun, and suitable for children over 10 years old and the whole family.

Running Time: 2 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions.

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” runs until October 27, 2018 and is presented at The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Ontario. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Stage Kiss’ at The Shaw Festival

Fiona Byrne as She and Sanjay Talwar as Husband in Stage Kiss. Photo by Emily Cooper.

While it’s a little bit “Kiss Me Kate”with a  touch of “Noises Off,” “Stage Kiss,” onstage at St. George’s Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s iconic Shaw Festival 18, distinguishes itself in the ‘play within a play’ comic genre with one good plot twist and a few interesting insights on the difference between matured true love and unfinished 20-somethings romance.

. . .a fine summer night of theatre.

American playwright Sarah Ruhl’s script isn’t over-the-top hysterical, but it’s witty and smart in just the right measure for a rom-com on stage. The story centers on He and She, two actors separated by time and circumstance, unexpectedly reunited for a revival of a flopped 1930s melodrama. Here She’s character is dying and her last wish is for one last meeting with her ex – He – now a famous sculptor in Sweden. She’s husband makes it so without regret, it seems. They fall back in love and she’s miraculously cured. Cue the irony.  The ‘real’ He and She are ex’s, too: She left showbiz to marry and raise a family, while He bounced around the country in minor roles for meager salaries. After a long absence, fate puts them on the same stage with an oft-distracted director and overly ambitious understudy. Life imitates art imitating art, and He and She find themselves – after a few awkward Act 1 moments – back in each other’s arms.

They do have an Act 2, starring opposite each other again in an original work (guess what? The same director is also a playwright), off-off-off Broadway….in Detroit. “It’s real, honest work,” says the director, pumping up the skeptical pair. It’s here that She realizes the difference between fizzy excitement and the comforts of her more grown up life.  “You’re champagne,” She tells He, “and you can’t just live on champagne. My husband is bread.”

This isn’t Ruhl’s finest script (New Phoenix Theatre staged  her Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-nominated “In the Next Room…Or the Vibrator Play” back in 2011). The production itself elevates the almost sit-com script. Long time Show Festival actors Fiona Byrne and Martin Happer as She and He play their roles well. Byrne makes She nervous and a little twitchy that’s the perfect essence for a woman caught between looking back while examining her present and future. Happer’s take on He is just short of swaggering, without catching the trappings of success. I love their Act 2 interplay as they rehearse in character but converse as themselves. Neil Barclay is fine as the director, into his muse one minute, and focused on his phone in the next.

The rest of the cast does double duty with multiple roles.  Jeff Meadows is a riot as Kevin, He’s understudy, who can’t quite come to grips with having to kiss a woman actor on stage.  Sanjay Talmar is She’s husband in the melodrama and ‘real’ life. The real standouts are two young actors, Sarena Parmar and Rong Fu, ironically named Mille and Millicent in the stage production (“Why is everyone named Millie in this show,” wails She about the script) who also morphs into She’s daughter and He’s girlfriend respectively.  Parmar as Millie is the 20-something always cast as the teen: a few good hair tosses, eyerolls, and a Catholic school uniform later she’s giving her mom a good talking-to about the value of true, lasting love with a dead-on tattoo analogy. Fu sweeps through the melodrama in mink and then appears demurely dressed as He’s kindergarten teacher girlfriend. Fu’s  ‘my boyfriend is cheating on me with his ex’ meltdown is comic perfection, down to the secret joint in the bathroom to the “I find comfort in a PB&J sandwich” admission.

As we come to expect at the Shaw Festival, the sets are stunning. The barebones backstage of the rehearsal space, the lush Art Deco melodrama set, and He’s dumpy walkup apartment: Gillian Gallow nails them all. There’s more show-in-show fun as Barclay the director calls for lighting changes on a window and Louise Guinand’s lighting design performs on cue.

Well worth the drive over the border and the navigating the lively crowds on the street, “Stage Kiss” is a fine summer night of theatre.

Running Time: 1 Hour 20 Minutes with out 15-Minute Intermission.

“Stage Kiss” runs until September 1, 2018 and is presented as part of The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘Dracula’ at The Shaw Festival

Cherissa Richards and Allan Louis in ‘Dracuala’ at The Shaw Festival. Photo by David Cooper

Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, “Dracula” has made its mark on popular culture over the last century. What was once considered to be a dime a dozen horror novel, has turned into a phenomenon that continues to entertain and scare audiences. Numerous film and stage adaptations have been developed and mounted based on the tale of the aristocratic vampire who manipulates those around him to quench his bloody desires.

 . . . visually stunning. . .

If you have ever read the book, you know that Stoker takes his time to tell his story. That is my nice way of saying that it is very long. It is lengthy, and detailed, and takes a while to get cooking. It is definitely a novel of it’s time. Does it stand up to modern day audiences, yes. It is still an entertaining story, but does it work well on the stage? Not so much.

The Shaw Festival’s mounting of Liz Lockhead’s 1985 adaptation is one that takes many liberties in assuming that the audience knows what is happening and takes many liberties in assuming that we are all still paying attention during it’s slow build. Lockhead’s adaptation is a streamlining of Stoker’s plot points, but leaves holes in the details of the story, and leaves the audience scratching their heads as to what is happening. If I had not read the novel, I would have been incredibly lost. That being said, these script issues are not the fault of The Shaw production. They are that of the playwright. 

Director Eda Holmes mounts a visually stunning production that excites the eye and sends shivers down your spine, thanks in part to the original music and sound effects by John Gzowski. Michael Gianfrancesco’s designs and aesthetics for this production are fantastic. The costumes are absolutely beautiful and the simple minimalistic set, with the key set pieces, really aid in telling of this chilling story. The hanging chain curtain that acts as a doorway is one of the most exciting pieces of set design that I have seen in a long time. The sound that the chains make as they drag across the stage is a successful mechanism for creating an eerie feeling that sets the tone for the atmosphere of the story.

The casting for this show is well done. Allan Louis as the title character of this piece is a wonderful choice for the creepy Hungarian aristocrat. He possesses a presence on the stage that is commanding yet friendly. He gets a great deal of laughs with his delivery and he takes the role of Dracula and makes it his own. You love to hate him and your attention is always heightened when he appears on stage. Louis does not disappoint.

Martin Happer’s performance of Dr. Seward is well done. He plays the confused doctor, searching for answers, well. When it comes to chemistry with love interest Lucy, played by Cherissa Richards, there does not seem to be much. The interesting thing about this problem is that I do not believe that it is the fault of the actors that the chemistry barely exists, I just believe that the script does not allow for it to actually come across. Both Happer and Richards play their parts well, but when it comes to being a believable couple, it falls flat.

Richards is fun to watch because her portrayal of Lucy is one that holds true all the innocence and childhood charm that is expected in the character. Richards also bares all on stage, literally, which in and of itself is a commitment to the role and to the production. 

Steven Sutcliffe does well as Dr. Van Helsing. He plays the role with a very interesting approach. At first I was not convinced of his performance, but he quickly grew on me. Again, Sutcliffe works with what the script gives him. We are told that he understands the vampires, and how they work, but what we are not really given a taste of his previous encounters and why he knows what he knows. The script takes for granted that the audience understands his past, and that I feel to be unfair. Sutcliffe is a welcomed addition to this cast.

The rest of this cast does well filling in the story as needed and assists in creating a visually stunning piece of theatre. That all being said, exposition issues with the script and the length of the show proved to be an issue in this production. The show, which clocks in at three hours, is just not exciting enough to captivate the contemporary theatergoer.

Running Time: 3 Hours, including a 15 minute intermission.

Advisory: Frontal Nudity

“Dracula” runs until October 14, 2017 and is presented as part of The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Canada. For more information, click here.

Theatre Review: ‘An Octoroon’ at The Shaw Festival

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Ryan Cunningham, Star Domingue, and André Sills. Photo by David Cooper.

It’s safe to say that The Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake is commonly known for high-quality detailed productions on a typically classical scale. It doesn’t necessarily feel like the home for a strong subversive piece, but that didn’t stop the festival from producing the Canadian premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” now playing through Oct. 14.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Jacobs-Jenkins offers a reinterpretation of Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play “The Octoroon,” sprinkled with moments in the present. The play within the play (Boucicault’s play) depicts the happenings on the Plantation Terrabone as a new man, George, comes to take over the property following the death of his uncle, the previous owner. A villainous fellow slave owner, M’Closky, announces the plantation is for sale due to financial woes and plans to take all of the slaves, as well as the beautiful owner’s child, Zoe who is implied one-eighth black and is, therefore, the titular octoroon.

During the prologue, the playwright BJJ (an unstoppable André Sills), explains how his therapist encouraged him to explore writing this play and offers commentary on what the audience can expect. For instance, Sills blasts modern rap music following his monologue and sits at a makeup table to plaster his face in white makeup as he prepares for his roles as George and M’Closky (noting that all the white actors quit the production). He is joined by a playwright and his assistant, both white, who begin covering their faces in red and black makeup to play a Native American character and the other slaves, respectively.

There is a lot to unpack in this production, finely directed by Peter Hinton and designed by Gillian Gallow.  For this, I’d encourage every audience member to spend the pre-show reading the background pieces offered in the program. It’s not as simple as having a few moments in the present and performing a play within a play. Jacobs-Jenkins doesn’t waste his time with subtext, most pointedly when a certain stage direction is projected across the screen, “I don’t know what a real slave sounded like. And neither do you.”

Sills is simply a powerhouse leader of this production. He is hilarious and grounded as BJJ and perfectly moves between that character and those of M’Closky and George. His energy and commitment never waver.

Additionally, Lisa Berry and Kiera Sangster as a pair of house slaves, Dido and Minnie, are a perfect duet. Their timing is impeccable and they easily steal the show. Vanessa Sears also charms as the lovely Zoe. But it is Diana Donnelly as Dora, a woman after George’s affections, that masters the true art of melodrama often relied upon in this production.. Her choices are hilarious and well-balanced.

Rounding out the ensemble are Patrick McManus, Ryan Cunningham, Starr Domingue and Samantha Walkes.

Gallow’s soundtrack is impossible to ignore. Her work stands out as its own character and adds a thrilling interpretive edge to an already interesting piece.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take an extra moment to emphasize the content warning for this show. The language and content is intense enough that certain audience members may not return after intermission. BJJ comments it is hard for theater to shock audiences anymore, but this production does and is worth every one of its 150 minutes.

“An Octoroon” is wildly uncomfortable and wickedly good. There is a lot to unpack, but every powerful second of this play is important. Go see it.

Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including intermission.

Advisory: This show contains mature content and strong language.

“An Octoroon” runs until October 14, 2017 and is presented at The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.

 

Theatre Review: ‘Middletown’ at The Shaw Festival

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Gray Powell and Moya O’Connell. Photo by David Cooper.

There’s countless plays driven by characters who are purposefully larger than life. They will go to great lengths and lean toward the overdramatic, sometimes in order to communicate a very small, simple idea. Will Eno’s play, “Middletown,”  now playing at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre at Shaw Festival, does absolutely none of those things.

The Shaw production marks the Canadian premiere of “Middletown,” and it is a fine one at that. It’s a beautiful commentary on the human experience from birth to death and is well worth the quick drive across the border.

Just as you might suspect, it takes place in what we can guess is any small town located anywhere in the country. There’s all the same types of people as there are in any small town, all of whom have spent their whole lives there. Mary Swanson (a lovable Moya O’Connell) discovers this for herself when she visits the library during her first days as a resident. A recent transplant from an unnamed place, she is understandably nervous around her new neighbors.

It is through Mary and her new neighbors that we unearth small nuggets of information about each of the people of Middletown. Most intriguing is the unemployed, solitary character of John Dodge, intelligently played by Gray Powell. Mary and John start a sort of friendship after a few chance meetings, learning more about each other and about human nature.

What this production, directed by Meg Roe and superbly designed by Camellia Koo, succeeds at best is relating every one of these characters to every audience member, sometimes by force. Seriously – the actors come out before the show begins and start making small talk with the audience as if they were also about to watch the play. They use their real names, ask where you’re from and ask about your day. Additionally, they are taking turns drawing a map of Middletown on the center of the stage, located in the center of the seating area. Immediately, you have a connection to these people, and no matter how many characters they end up playing, you remain very aware of the fact that they are, indeed, humans just like you.

O’Connell and Powell lead the talented cast, most of whom play multiple characters. Karl Ang is a comical stand-out during his brief scene as the doctor, and Jeff Meadows is wonderfully mysterious and endearing as the mechanic, a man who seems to be a mess but might just be misunderstood. Claire Jullien and Peter Millard were also a crowd favorite as a pair of delightful tourists.

The ensemble also includes Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Natasha Mumba, Tara Rosling and Sara Topham.

Eno’s strengths lie in his ability to make his characters sound like real people, sometimes witty or awkward and sometimes overjoyed or fearful. Every thought expressed, whether it is a quick apology to a new friend for an awkward comment or a nervous muttering to a doctor about fearing to die, comes out as honest and raw as can be.

The structure of the play can be a little disjointed, mostly in the moments where the fourth wall is broken, but it ultimately succeeds in communicating the themes of the show. No matter how dull or uneventful your town or life may seem, we all wonder and fear the same things.

The Shaw production marks the Canadian premiere of “Middletown,” and it is a fine one at that. It’s a beautiful commentary on the human experience from birth to death and is well worth the quick drive across the border.

Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes including intermission. 

“Middletown” runs until September 10, 2017 and is presented at the Shaw Festival at Niagara-On-The-Lake in Canada. For more information, click here.