Monday, March 26, 2012
MY GRANNY THE GOLDFISH
Special to TorSun
26 MAR 2012
Pictured: Kawa Ada, Yolande Bavan
TORONTO - If dysfunctional families didn’t exist, theatre would have had to invent them. From the travails of the House of Atreus, first family of ancient Greek tragedy, through to the brawling Weston clan at the heart of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, familial dysfunction has been a theatrical mainstay for millennia.
So, at least in that respect, novelist Anosh Irani isn’t exactly sailing into uncharted waters when he boldly sets sail on the high comic seas of family drama in a play titled MY GRANNY THE GOLDFISH, which opened Friday on the Factory Theatre mainstage. But, it is, it turns out, a voyage fraught with peril nonetheless. In a play that splits its time between a hospital room in Vancouver and an apartment in Bombay (or Mumbai, as it is now known), Irani strives to transform the dross of simmering, booze-addled family resentment into comedic gold.
The hospital room, it develops, is the temporary home of Nico (played by Kawa Ada), a young man born in Bombay who has fled to Canada to study high finance and instead finds himself in the hospital, awaiting biopsy results from a tumour he has only recently had surgically removed. His self-diagnosed hypochondriacal reflections, however, are interrupted by the arrival of his beloved maternal Granny (gamely, if archly, played by Yolande Bavan), who has travelled from Mumbai to ensure all is well with the ailing youth. But, as the title implies, this is not your milk ’n’ cookies Granny, but rather one who eschews a view of the world through rose-coloured glasses in favour of the one through glasses of well-aged scotch. By her own confession, Granny drinks like a goldfish and she’s been happily plotzed for years.
As we meet Nico’s estranged parents in their rather squalid home in India — his father Dara, played by Sanjay Talwar and his mother Farzeen, played by Veena Sood — it is apparent Granny’s taste for the ‘water of life’ has been passed down to her daughter, who in turn, has shared it liberally with her husband, a book-maker.
Having thus established fertile dramatic ground, Irani fails to dissect his characters in ways that make us laugh or weep at the humanity he reveals — or, if he were really good at his craft, make us do both. Instead, he contents himself with crafting a series of loosely joined one-liners that might, with some effort, be cobbled into a good half-hour sitcom. But, sadly, this is a play that stretches — often painfully — over two hours, during which Irani fails to develop character, much less the kind of ties that would bind this lot into family unit.
From her director’s perch, Rosemary Dunsmore finds precious little she can add to the sprawl, so she simply contents herself with keeping things moving at a brisk clip and ensuring that the various glasses and flasks that drive the action are kept topped up at all times. Sadly, she gets scant help from her design team. John Thompson’s set is perhaps one of the most visually elegant to ever set down on the Factory stage, but it fails to function believably as either a hospital room or a Mumbai flat, and on the rare occasions that it is asked to be both simultaneously, it becomes utterly ridiculous.
In writing the play, Irani quite wisely recognized that family dysfunction is often the backbone of great theatre, but he has failed to take note of the fact that the families in question — whether they comprise the house of Atreus, the house of Weston or even the House of Bunker — are comprised of living, breathing three-dimensional characters, not strident caricatures like this.
Friday, March 23, 2012
BALLET REVIEW: THE SEAGULL
Special to TorSun
22 MAR 2012
Pictured: Sonia Rodriguez, Guillaume Côté
In worlds imagined by playwright Anton Chekhov, not a lot seems to happen — at least, not on the surface. As a dramatist, Chekhov concerned himself more with what was going on under the surface, building name and considerable reputation on his ability to get under the skins of his characters and reveal what was happening there.
And happily, that’s a talent the late Russian playwright shares with contemporary dancemaker John Neumeier, who, in transforming Chekhov’s vision of THE SEAGULL into a full-length ballet, has not only preserved that ability to paint subtext in its most subtle shades, but capitalized on it, underscoring the passions bubbling beneath the surface of a seemingly civilized world. Originally created for the Hamburg Ballet in 2002, his balletic take on THE SEAGULL was acquired by the National Ballet of Canada in ’08 and is now revived by it in a production that opened Wednesday at the Four Seasons Centre.
While this is still, on most levels, recognizably Chekhov’s masterful Seagull, there have been changes. As a man of the dramatic stage, Chekhov set The Seagull in a theatrical milieu, and, as a man of the dance world, Neumeier transports it to the world of dance, setting it down on the lakeside estate of Russian prima ballerina Irina Nikolaevna Arkadina (danced to utter perfection on opening night by Greta Hodgkinson) who visits only occasionally.
But, despite her absentee status, her young son, Konstantin (Guillaume Côté) makes it his home, as he dreams of making his own dances — which is precisely what he is doing when his mother arrives from Moscow, trailing her current lover, the choreographer Trigorin (Aleksandar Antonijevic), in her wake. And while neither Irina nor Trigorin are interested in Konstantin’s earnest ode to a seagull, Trigorin is intrigued by Nina (Sonia Rodriguez), the young woman Konstantin loves. Seduced by the urbane Trigorin, Nina falls in love with him, only to be destroyed by his careless use of her.
Indeed, THE SEAGULL fairly overflows with people in love with people who don’t love them, from the servant girl Masha (an impressive Chelsy Meiss in a breakout performance) who yearns for Konstantin despite the passion she inspires in the revolutionary teacher Medvedenko (Noah Long) through to Nina’s mother (Stephanie Hutchison), who is more than a little smitten with the local doctor (McGee Maddox), who is smitten with Irina.
It all unfolds in a series of vignettes, stretched over two acts and set to a pastiche of music drawn from the canons of Russia’s Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky and others, and bolstered by the very contemporary work of Evelyn Glennie.
To tell his tale, Neumeier uses a complex dance vocabulary and a slate of excellent dancers to underscore the fact that while, on the surface, things may be as calm as the lake that’s background to the tale, beneath that surface everyone is being pulled in all directions by unspoken currents of passion, class, art and desire. Côté’s Konstantin is achingly vulnerable in the self-absorption that seems to be his mother’s primary legacy, while Antonijevic hits all the sweet spots in his portrayal of the hedonistic Trigorin, and Rodriguez fairly wallows in the romantic vulnerability of Nina.
And, happily, all are beautifully served not only by Neumeier’s complex choreography but by the understated elegance of his sets, costumes and lighting as well — all of which, it must be added, came all but unhinged during a deeply affecting and delicate pas de deux between Long and Meiss, that in the hands of lesser artists would have been destroyed by the uncharacteristic racket raised by the amateur football team apparently brought in to shift the sets behind them. Hopefully, the regular NBOC backstage crew will return for the rest of the run.
Thursday, March 22, 2012
MUSICAL THEATRE REVIEW:
SHREK: THE MUSICAL
Special to TorSun
22 MAR 2012
Pictured: Lukas Poost as 'Shrek'
TORONTO - If you’ve ever found yourself thinking — and, truthfully, whom amongst us hasn’t? — that what modern musical theatre really needs is more fart jokes and the like, then take heart: Salvation is at hand. In fact, SHREK: THE MUSICAL (adapted for the stage from DreamWorks’ hit animated movie, Shrek, which was in turn based on William Steig’s kids’ book), there’s almost an entire scene devoted exclusively to the explosive release of noisome bodily gases from — er — both ends of the human continuum, if you will. SHREK: THE MUSICAL opened a limited two-week run Tuesday on the stage of the Toronto Centre for The Arts, the latest instalment in Dancap’s ongoing subscription season.
It is, by now, a familiar tale — the story of a chartreuse-hued ogre named Shrek (played by Lukas Poost) who simply wants nothing more than to be left alone in his smelly little corner of the swamp. But thanks to the malicious machinations of Lord Farquaad (Merritt David Janes) — a conniving sort, long on ambition and short on everything else — he finds himself instead teamed up with a talking donkey (André Jordan) and launched on a quest to rescue the beautiful Princess Fiona (Liz Shivener) from the clutches of a fire-breathing dragon (given glorious voice by Erin Edelle). But despite the fact that Farguaad has matrimonial designs on Fiona, she and Shrek find themselves oddly drawn to each other, perhaps because of the strange secret she’s been keeping, since the dragon first locked her away.
Adapted to the stage by lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire and boasting a slew of tunes from Jeanine Tesori, working from the same broad musical palette that informed Caroline, Or Change, SHREK tries mightily to preserve the charming counter-innocence that made the movie such a hit. But at the same time, it tries too hard to blend that innocence with a cutting edge sense of modern musical theatre cynicism — and the result is such high-camp it’s not likely to be bested ‘til the Girl Guides conquer Everest and establish a new cookie factory.
Under the direction of Stephen Sposito (after the original tour direction of Jason Moore and Rob Ashford) with choreography by Chris Bailey (after Josh Prince), the extensive cast expends a whole lot of energy and determination bringing not only the story, but some impressive puppetry, designed by Tim Hatley, to life.
But while Poost and Shivener prove more than adequate to their roles, lending a certain touching awkwardness to their love story, others in the cast seem determined to define the chasm that separates enthusiasm from finesse. As Farquaad, Janes displays a certain absence of malice that does absolutely nothing to further the plot, while as Shrek’s mouthy donkey sidekick, Jordan gets so caught up in playing Eddie Murphy that he simply forgets to make an ass of himself.
But, in the final analysis, perhaps SHREK’s biggest problem is that, as a musical, it gets so caught up in trying to be all things to all people that it fails to be anything meaningful to anyone, instead exhibiting all the symptoms of the musical theatre equivalent of attention-deficit disorder, as it wanders off in pursuit of any and every laugh that crosses Lindsay-Abaire’s mind. And while some of those side-excursions prove delightful — a tap routine featuring Fiona and a brace of dancing rats is particularly blissful -- in the end, all of those little inside-Broadway references and all the sly double entendres, amusing as they may be, serve only to slow things down, lending the whole telling of the Shrek story (which, after all, is the reason we are here), a distinctly perfunctory air.
Monday, March 12, 2012
Special to TorSun
12 MAR 2012
Pictured: Heather Ogden
TORONTO - Think of it as a family heirloom of sorts — a balletic jewel from another time, worn by our homegrown Cinderella (to mix a metaphairytale or two) when she was invited to the Prince’s fancy dress ball and ended up with the whole world at her feet.
Because, finally, it is the memories of that ball, one suspects, as much as the enduring magic that legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev managed to pack into his homage to Marius Petipa and the glorious tradition of the Russian Imperial Ballet when he choreographed The National Ballet of Canada’s seemingly timeless production of The Sleeping Beauty that accounts for the work’s popularity with today’s audiences.
And that popularity shows no signs of diminishing, judging from the reaction of an opening night audience Saturday at the Four Seasons Centre, where The Sleeping Beauty’s lovely Princess Aurora (danced this time around by Heather Ogden) and her dashing Prince Florimund (Ogden’s real-life husband, Guillaume Côté) found true love and happiness once again, despite the best efforts of the evil fairy Carabosse (Rebekah Rimsay), and together danced off into the sunset on the next leg of their happily-ever-after world tour.
By now, that whole fairytale story has become a familiar one to audiences who have been enthralled with the work since its company première in 1972, when Veronica Tennant danced Aurora to Nureyev’s Prince. They were, of course, the first of many artists in many performances as The Sleeping Beauty was transformed into an international calling card for a company that found itself suddenly and quite happily in the centre of the international spotlight.
And even though it’s subsequently been tweaked — lovingly altered by artistic director Karen Kain, herself one of the most memorable Auroras in her own or any time — to address some of the more egregious excesses of Nicholas Georgiadis’ over-wrought and over-upholstered ’70s design, its power to captivate remains undiminished. Both in the simple story it tells with such precise grace and in the exquisite dance it uses to tell it, it remains a work that fairly shimmers with magic, despite the lingering fuss and feathers of Georgiadis’s dated designs. It is a work that has always provided a magnificent showcase for a company at the top of its form and the National Ballet remains at that peak, it seems.
While Côté may lack the hauteur of Nureyev in his prime (and, indeed, who doesn’t?), he’s still a formidable and dashing romantic leading man, particularly when he’s paired with the highly talented Ogden who tosses off demanding choreography like the Rose Adagio with an artistry that is thrilling. And while Rimsay’s Carabosse fairly crackles with evil, she’s well matched against the gliding goodness and grace of Lise-Marie Jourdain’s Lilac Fairy, as together they drive the plot forward.
In Nureyev’s vision, The Sleeping Beauty is as much about dance as it is about plot, so the fine dancing doesn’t stop with the leading lovers. Rex Harrington (as King Florestan) and Joanna Ivey (as his Queen) hold court over an impressive and precise corps that includes the likes of Stephanie Hutchinson, Tina Pereira, Chelsy Meiss and Tiffany Mosher, together representing a king’s ransom in jewels and precious metals, Naoya Ebe and Elena Lobsanova, scoring maximum points as the perennially popular Bluebird and Princess Florine respectively, and Shino Mori and Robert Stephan as a pair of scene-stealing Pussycats.
And finally, with David Briskin marshalling the impressive musicality of the NBOC Orchestra as they tear into Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s purpose-built score, it completes the kind of package that deserves not only the hallowed place it holds in the company’s 60-year history, but the affection it still commands in the heart of its audience as well.
Friday, March 9, 2012
THE SMALL ROOM
AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS
Special to TorSun
09 MAR 2012
Pictured: Nicole Underhay, Rick Roberts
In revisiting Charles Perrault’s horrific folk tale Bluebeard, playwright Carole Frechette unearths much of the same knowledge that many other dramatic archeologists have already discovered in previous digs. But finally it’s not so much what she unearths as what she does with it. For, in a world filled with senseless violence, Frechette has recognized that it is not so much the notion that old Bluebeard kept the bodies of his murdered wives in a single locked room that holds people spellbound as it is the mere existence of that single mysterious room, full of forbidden secrets.
In a metaphorical sense, at least, our world is filled with people who keep their deepest, darkest secrets under lock and key, in a room marked “No Trespassing!” And in THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS, which opened at the Tarragon earlier this week, Frechette sets out to explore just what such a room might hold in this very modern world, far removed from the feudal days of Bluebeard and his ilk.
In an elegantly poetic translation from Frechette’s native French by John Murrell, THE SMALL ROOM... tells the story of the beautiful but flawed Grace (Nicole Underhay), swept up in a whirlwind romance with a fabulously wealthy man. The object of her affection however, is no bearded monster, but rather a modern day Mitt Romney clone (Rick Roberts) — wonderfully smooth of tongue, expertly but carelessly coiffed and finely tailored — in the process.
Ensconced in Henry’s sprawling 28-room mansion after their marriage, cast as the ultimate fashionable accessory, Grace is given the run of the place, save for the small room at the top of the stairs, where she must never, ever trespass, according to the dictates of her mysterious husband. And of course, the minute Henry is called away, Grace finds herself standing in front of the door to that room, arguing with her conscience, which speaks in the voice of her romantically pragmatic mother (the always impressive Sarah Dodd) and her tomboy sister, Anne (another fine turn by Claire Calnan). Despite her family’s best advice, imagined though it may be, Grace cracks open the door and enters forbidden territory.
What she discovers is not the bodies of Henry’s ex-wives, but rather the broken body of a mysterious man who she tries to help. And of course, she is caught red-handed when Henry returns, and while he is outraged that his privacy has been invaded and his sanctum violated, he nonetheless denies all knowledge of and even the existence of the man who Grace has found. While Henry begs her to pretend that she has ever been in the room, Grace persists, leading them both to a deeper understanding of each other and the role such a sealed-off “room” can play in a relationship.
On a richly stark and minimalist stage created by Astrid Janson, and given a high-gloss sheen by Bonnie Beecher’s lighting, director Weyni Mengesha brings her cast of thoroughbreds together in such a way as to milk maximum tension and compassion from Frechette’s tale, using the insinuating subtlety of Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design to maximum effect.
And while she makes the most of accomplished performers like Roberts, Dodd and Calnan, it is in Underhay’s utterly compelling transformation, as she moves deftly from Hitchcock cliché to modern heroine, that Mengesha scores her greatest triumph. In the face of such finely-orchestrated performances, it is finally small wonder that Raquel Duffy’s turn as the mysterious maid, Jenny, all but disappears, easily dismissed as the kind of dramatic over-gilding that can occasionally overtake even the finest playwrights.
By turns tense, thought-provoking and downright bewildering, THE SMALL ROOM AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS definitely bears a bit of exploration, regardless of who tells you not to bother.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
THE HAPPY WOMAN
Special to TorSun
07 MAR 2012
Pictured: Maria Vacratsis, Maev Beaty
If one puts a pricetag on happiness, what price is considered simply too much to pay That’s the knotty — and sometimes naughty — question raised in playwright Rose Cullis’ THE HAPPY WOMAN, a new work that had its world première on the Berkeley Street Theatre’s mainstage in a Nightwood Theatre production Wednesday. And one suspects it is no accident that it opened on the eve of the annual celebration of International Women’s Day, for the lives it examines are, in the main, those of women in today’s modern and ever-evolving world.
In the course of the play, the four women involved — the relentlessly cheery Margaret (Barbara Gordon), her tough but fragile daughter Cassie (Maev Beaty), her frantically timid daughter-in-law, Stasia (Ingrid Rae Doucet) and her pragmatic and ever watchful neighbour, BellaDonna (Maria Vacratsis) — all find a level of happiness, even while their audience is left to wonder if each of them hasn’t paid too high a price for it.
It opens as Margaret cheerily greets another day, fairly babbling with happiness. Certainly, she may be a widow, but it’s a lovely day and she’s got her memories, her two healthy, happy grown children and a grandchild on the way, fathered by her eldest, Christian, played by Martin Happer. But after a brief game of half-empty vs. half-full with her watchful neighbour Bella Donna, the cracks in Margaret’s glass begin to show. Turns out her late husband was not the saint she so resolutely recalls, and further, that the couple’s two children are not the paragons their mother makes them out to be. Cassie, for her part, seems to be a bit of a sexual loose cannon trying to work out her problems through stripping as a performance artist, while Christian’s wife, Stasia, seems to be losing her tenuous grip on reality at the same time as he is running out of patience as her pregnancy progresses.
Through subsequent scenes, as we meet and get to know all of the characters involved, it turns out that Margaret has sacrificed much for her happiness, building a wall that obscures familial flaws that have all but destroyed the children she so deeply loves. But while Christian appears to be more than willing to share his mother’s fantasy of the perfect family, Cassie rebels and threatens to destroy them all.
Director Kelly Thornton conspires with designers Denyse Karn (sets and costumes) and Kimberley Purtell (lighting) to create the two distinct worlds of the play, painting Margaret and her family in almost lurid primary colours while rendering BellaDonna’s corner of the stage in more anchored, earthy shades. But while the two distinct physical realities of the show are delineated, Thornton finds little to aid her or her actors in the human switches between the two worlds.
Not only is Gordon’s relentless chirpiness allowed to spill over into something approaching high camp, thus robbing her character of much-needed sympathy, Beaty’s often raw and courageous performance pieces lack the simple vulnerability to make them truly touching. Doucet, for her part, makes the most of a role that is little more than an unanchored victim, and while Happer and Vacratsis both do good work, they are finally simply the points on which the drama pivots and not the drama itself.
For all its comic book colours and chirpy cheerfulness, THE HAPPY WOMAN tackles tough and deeply disturbing subject matter — and in the end, says a lot about not only the price of happiness, but what makes for a happy life as well. But it is often said in ways that are either over or underwritten, by characters who, as written, come up short of three dimensions.
Friday, March 2, 2012
BALLET REVIEW: LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE
JOHN COULBOURN - Special to TorSun
01 MAR 2012
Pictured: Piotr Stanczyk
Outside, it may seem that spring is caught up in a never-ending game of cat and mouse with the winter that never was, but inside — on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre, at least — the season we are all yearning for by this time of year seems to be busting out all over, to borrow a phrase.
For even though the bucolic setting of Sir Frederick Ashton’s enduring ballet, LA FILLE MAL GARDÉE is all tied up with harvest celebrations, it also fairly bristles with signs of spring, not the least of which is a dazzling dance around a Maypole. And just how much fun can be had around a Maypole became wonderfully evident when, after having left it on the shelf for a decade, The National Ballet of Canada shook the dust and cobwebs off this balletic confection and trotted it out for the pleasure of its audience Wednesday.
In the process, they proved that Ashton’s timeless tale is, well, sort of timeless, in a truly delightful sort of way, a notion supported by Sir Osbert Lancaster’s sets and costumes, both of which have passed the stage of appearing simply dated, and moved, with an enviable grace, into the realm of the delightfully old-fashioned. Which is as good a description as any for the ballet itself, a tale of ardent young love that refuses to be thwarted, regardless of what is thrown in its way.
As the title implies, it centres around Lise, a beautiful young maiden danced by Sonia Rodriguez, who is intended, at least in the mind of her guardian, the Widow Simone (played in every sense of the word by Matjash Mrozewski), for great things, at least on the matrimonial front. But while Simone sees Lise as a mate worthy of someone wealthy like Alain (Skylar Campbell), the simple son of a wealthy neighbour, Lise has other ideas, all of them involving Colas, a lusty young farmer, joyously danced by Piotr Stanczyk.
And despite the best efforts of the determined Simone and Alain’s equally bullheaded father (Kevin D. Bowles), young love proves, in the course of this two hour romp, that it will not be denied. And along the way, Ashton pulls one choreographic delight after another from his balletic bag of tricks, combining everything from a delightfully off-the-wall chicken dance in classical style to the aforementioned Maypole, throwing in yards of extraneous ribbon, a live horse pulling a cunning little cart and a wonderful red umbrella, all to maximum effect.
But finally, that all proves mere setting and, it is in the performances that this work truly shines. With David Briskin in firm control of the NBOC Orchestra, serving up all the delight of Ferdinand Hérold’s score like so much fine champagne, Stanczyk and Rodriguez are the epitome of young lovers, drunk on the delight they find in each other, although, on occasion, one might wish for just a touch more joyful intoxication from the latter. Meanwhile, Mrozewksi and Campbell mine pure comedic gold, the former proving he could give most panto dames a run for their crinolines, the latter, enriching Alain’s simplicity with such sweetness, that he becomes simply adorable.
Which is not to say that it is all sweetness and light. Choreographed more than half a century ago, the work embraces a few social anachronisms that sit a little awkwardly on a modern stage. And while the comedic depictions of corporal punishment Ashton wove into the tale don’t render it unstageable in a modern world, they do require a second or two of adjustment in a world where such behaviour is considered largely unacceptable. Still, when a bowl of cherries is this sweet, it’s churlish to complain about even a few pits.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
THEATRE REVIEW: WAR HORSE
JOHN COULBOURN - QMI Agency
29 FEB 2012
Pictured: Puppeteer James Retter, and 'Joey'
TORONTO - Amongst a host of other things, some best forgotten, the ’60s gave birth to a poster that read: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.”
It’s a notion reborn and given flesh in WAR HORSE, Nick Stafford’s much-heralded stage adaptation of the novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. A presentation of the National Theatre of Great Britain, where the show first saw the light of day, WAR HORSE opened in its Canadian première Tuesday night at the Princess of Wales, featuring an all-Canadian cast.
The story, however, remains true Brit — a sort of equine retelling of Oliver Twist, in which a well-born steed (a hunter, no less) is torn from his natural milieu of grace and privilege and forced to endure unimaginable deprivation, surviving only through his own in-born nobility and the kindness of the British yeomanry, made manifest here in the person of a single-minded boy . It all starts on a farm in Devon in the days leading up to the Great War, when the drunken Ted Narracott (Brad Rudy) is goaded into buying a colt named Joey at auction — a colt subsequently raised up and trained, after a tongue lashing from Ted’s long-suffering wife (Tamara Bernier-Evans), by the couple’s young son, Albert (played by Alex Furber).
But no sooner has Joey matured and proved his worth than the war to end all wars breaks out, allowing Ted to sell the horse to the cavalry at a substantial profit, but without his son’s knowledge, opening up a major rift between father and son. Joey is shipped off to France, where he is soon caught up in the full horrors of war, and young Albert follows, lying about his age to enlist, convinced he will eventually find and save the horse he has grown to love.
And thanks to the genius of the folks at South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, Joey is a horse you will no doubt come to love as well, thanks to a series of near-miraculous puppets that not only trace Joey’s progress from a leggy colt to a full grown steed, but surround him in the process with an entire herd of lesser beasts, along with geese, crows and larks to enliven the story. As for the settings — from the bucolic simplicity of rural Devon through to the full horror of the front — it is all beautifully and simply evoked on a massive swatch of paper suspended over the stage echoing a partial page torn from a copy book, on which Joey was often sketched.
For the rest, adaptor Stafford and directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris (whose work is recreated on the Toronto stage by Alex Sims) drive the action forward through a series of often powerful dramatic vignettes, strung like narrative beads on the cord of Adrian Sutton’s Celtic-influenced music, hauntingly served up by Melanie Doane and others.
Staged with a deep commitment, WAR HORSE features some compelling performances, too, not the least of which is Furber’s , as he transforms himself from boy to man. Add in quality work from a score of puppeteers and from the likes of Bernier-Evans, young Addison Holley, Richard McMillan, Geoffrey Pounsett and Dylan Roberts, and it is almost possible to overlook the parade of ever-shifting bad accents — some, like Patrick Galligan’s (who lately seems to have a Shaw Festival stuck in his throat), in a single performance.
But for all its excellence, WAR HORSE drags in a second act that sets out to prove once again that war is hell, and while it avoids the one-damn-thing-after-another progression that turned Steven Spielberg’s movie into such a dolorous affair, it still feels highly manipulative. Which makes it, in the end, one suspects, a production destined to separate the romantics in the audience from the pragmatists — by a veritable river of tears shed by the former, no doubt.