Friday, June 21, 2013


Robert Stephen, Rebekah Rimsay, James Leja, Piotr Stanczyk

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
21 JUNE 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - Not many ballet dancers would trade toe shoes for cowboy boots, even to dance a ballet set to the music of the country master. But then, not many dancers have worked with a choreographer like James Kudelka, who has a proven gift for weaving music from any number of sources so organically into his balletic vision that he creates magic carpets to carry his audience to places we never realized we wanted to go. That’s what he’s accomplished in his elegantly heartfelt THE MAN IN BLACK, a work he created more than three years ago that is only now entering the repertoire of the National Ballet of Canada, where Kudelka once served as artistic director and resident choreographer.

TMIB had its company première Wednesday in an evening of mixed programming at the Four Seasons, teamed with a beautiful new duet choreographed by principal dancer Guillaume Côté, titled No. 24 and with Jorma Elo’s whimsical PUR TI MIRO and George Balanchine’s mint confection, THEME AND VARIATIONS, set to Tchaikovsky.

As its title implies, TMIB is set to the music of the legendary Johnny Cash — specifically, a handful of tunes recorded near the end of the singer’s life, when his voice seems all but rubbed raw from the savouring of the very richness of a life he’s preparing to leave. From six of Cash’s recordings — In My Life, Four Strong Winds, Sam Hall, If You Could Read My Mind, Hurt and the deeply touching Further On (Up the Road) — Kudelka creates a work for four dancers that celebrates the music, even while it is woven into a heart-wrenching study of love and loss that is deeply affecting but never maudlin.

His dancers — Rebekah Rimsay, Piotr Stanczyk, James Leja and Robert Stephen — are arrayed in full urban cowboy rig-out and, at least, initially, move with a swagger suggesting another night of two-steppin’ line dancing, but slowly, subtly, Kudelka weaves in just enough classical form to carry us to another plane as his talented quartet weaves its magic across a bare stage, lit with elegant simplicity by Trad A Burns. There is passion here, and deep sorrow, but there is also a sense of exultant celebration that is likely to leave you breathless, even while you wipe tears from your eyes.

For an audience already charmed by PUR TI MIRO’s heady blend of skill and archness and by the fluidity with which Elena Lobsanova washes up against the pure steel of Keiichi Hirano’s performance in No. 24, THE MAN IN BLACK could have been a perfect conclusion to a wonderful evening of dance. Which meant a further challenge to Greta Hodgkinson and Côte as they led us and their their castmates out of Kudelka’s living, breathing, bleeding world into the icy geometry of Balanchine at his best — and they succeeded impressively.
But it was still Cash, not Tchaikovsky, who played us home.

Monday, June 17, 2013


JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
16 JUNE 2013
R: 4/5

TORONTO - Critics — sometimes, there’s just no pleasing us. Let’s take the case of Ronnie Burkett, for example.

For the better part of 40 years, this particular critic has been watching the incredibly gifted performer and his coterie of puppets and marionettes run delightfully amok in everything from kids’ puppet shows to sophisticated, thoughtful fare like Tinka’s New Dress and Street of Blood. And always in the back of my mind, I’ve harboured a concern (perhaps too often expressed) that, in his efforts to take what has long been a ghetto for children’s entertainment into an arena rich with possibility for adult audiences as well, he would lose control and go too far over the edge of good taste even for an adult audience.

Then, Friday night, seated in the Berkeley Street Theatre, watching Luminato’s world première of the Ronnie Burkett Theatre of Marionettes’ new production of THE DAISY THEATRE, I found myself wishing he’d loosen up a bit and take things just a little further.

To explain: THE DAISY THEATRE is Burkett’s homage to the Czech puppeteers who rather famously used their art as a means of resistance during the Nazi’s Second World War occupation of their country, and though the format is similar to today’s late-night talk shows, it is also something more — or it should aim to be.

Like a lot of late night fare, it features a skit or two — contemporary playwrights like Anusree Roy, Brad Fraser, Daniel MacIvor, Damien Atkins and others have authored skits Burkett and his marionettes will perform over the course of the run — plus a bit of singing and even a musical guest in the form of John Alcorn, who gets a credit for sound design too. It also features a bit of contemporary patter — references to the ongoing Ford pile-up and to a few other political sacred cows, many delivered by members of Burkett’s own stable of stars like Edna Rural, who drops by to talk about her new life in Toronto. There’s also a fair bit of audience participation, deftly handled and thoroughly enjoyable. In other words, it is typical Burkett fare, served up with the kind of irreverence and professional polish we’ve come to expect from this ‘kid’ from Medicine Hat. But, in the end, it all seems perhaps just a little too polished, overlaid with a sense of well-rehearsed improvisation, if you will.

For all its charm, what THE DAISY THEATRE needs — and what it will no doubt acquire over the length of its run — is the feeling that no one (including the master puppeteer himself) knows what is going to happen next; the feeling that the lunatics which Burkett has crafted with so much love and attention to detail over the years are not only capable of seizing their strings and taking this show into uncharted territory — but that they are about to do it. Truly, these are words I never dreamed I would ever use, but maybe it’s time to loosen up a bit, Ronnie.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Pictured: Ma-Anne Dionisio

Special to TorSun
13 JUNE 2013
R: 3.5/5

TORONTO - When it launched Toronto’s love affair with mega-musicals 28 years ago, it was all about the production — fitting, considering the broad expanse of the stage in the all-but derelict Elgin Theatre. Now, CATS has come back in a more intimate staging which opened Tuesday at the Panasonic, and this time out, the production takes a back seat to the players — good news for anyone who loves all the elements of musical theatre.

There are a few familiar faces — Marlene Smith returns as part of the producing team and Susan Cuthbert rejoins the ensemble — this intimate new take allows us to become invested in the individual players, revealing an admittedly sketchy storyline that, three decades ago, kept getting tangled up in Trevor Nunn’s staging. And while CATS has certainly used up more than its allotted nine lives on Toronto stages since it first opened, it now boasts an all-Canadian cast, demonstrating the depth of talent unleashed by that first long-ago production.

Principal amongst that talent, strutting its stuff under the direction of Dave Campbell, are performers like Ma-Anne Dionisio (who launched Toronto’s Miss Saigon before moving on to Maria in a Stratford’s West Side Story) as Grizabella, giving us a saccharine take on Memory, and Charles Azulay (familiar through Toronto productions of Rent, Les Miz and Ain’t Misbehavin’) elevated to the venerable role of Old Deuteronomy.

And while it is delightful (not to mention impressive) to see Cuthbert high-stepping still, what really delights throughout is the energy and commitment the entire cast brings. Michael Donald and Neesa Kenemy (as Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer), Cory O’Brien (teaming up with Cuthbert in Gus, the Theatre Cat), and Martin Samuel (part Jagger, part Liberace as Rum Tum Tugger), and Devon Tullock (electric as Mr. Mistoffelees) - this 20-plus member company is rich in talent and enthusiasm.

And while there are moments when Gino Berti’s choreographic recreation of Gillian Lynne’s Broadway steps feels like an attempt to answer that age old question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, the enforced intimacy of the production somehow brings the charm of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats more to the fore, making it more in tune, if you will, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ear-worm prone music.

Technically, however, it is all — you should pardon the expression — a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with costumes that already look a little road-weary and a set that forces perspective ’til its eyes cross. As for the almost religious elevation that used to end the show, it’s been replaced by a holographic projection that makes it look for all the world like they’ve drowned dear old Grizabella, stifling one last rendition of Memory with a burble. Still, if you’re one of those people who like shows where performance gets equal billing with technology, then this show is worth a look. It’s not your parents’ CATS — and, frankly, that’s the point.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


Pictured: Benedict Campbell

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
10 JUNE 2013
R: 3/5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — There are, no doubt, any number of reasons to pair the two one-act plays that represent the Shaw Festival’s lunchtime offering this season, not the least of which is the fact that each was authored by a playwright instrumental in the glory days of the seminal Provincetown Theatre. The first, titled TRIFLES — which fittingly shares its name with the double-bill that opened last weekend at the Court House — is authored by Susan Glaspell, an early feminist playwright who authored 11 plays for Provincetown, and the second, A WIFE FOR A LIFE, is an early work from Eugene O’Neill, who churned out 14 plays for the theatre.

Surprisingly, TRIFLES is the better play, despite the fact the O’Neill is today the better known playwright. It’s sort of a prairie gothic murder mystery — imagine Gwen Pharis Ringwood’s Still Stands the House, once studied in Canadian high school, given an obvious feminist twist — that involves a murder investigation by a patronizing county attorney (Jeff Irving) and his assistant (Graeme Somerville), thwarted by the sheriff’s naive wife (Kaylee Harwood) and a canny neighbour woman (Julain Molnar).

There’s interesting work here from all, but the two most impressive performances director Meg Roe draws from her ensemble come from the angular Molnar, creating a character full of grit, and Benedict Campbell, all but disappearing into a small but pivotal role.

Campbell falls back on his celebrated vocal technique in his casting as the veteran prospector in A WIFE FOR A LIFE, however, playing opposite Irving, cast as a younger, more romantic gold-chaser who has, with Campbell, struck it rich. Somerville has a fine cameo as a ne’er-do-well neighbour, burned out by gold fever. But in the final analysis, it bears remembering that this is a play O’Neill attempted to destroy — and with good reason, for it is everything his later plays never were: utterly predictable, unbelievably trite and laughably melodramatic.

Both dramas are set on the same ramshackle set, drawn more, one suspects, from designer Camellia Koo’s fevered imagination than anything ever inhabited by hardscrabble farmers or prospectors. The former would have surely frozen to death here and the latter would have been forced to give up, either after burning their hands to stumps on hot stove lifters, or being laughed out of town for panning gold in the sink of their miner’s shack.

To bridge the two worlds, director Roe enlists the aid of sound designer Alessandro Juliani who, despite fires that roar but don’t crackle, gives us some lovely choral work from the cast — work that underlines the fact that while there may be any number of reasons to harness two old work-horses like these to the same plow, the very fact one of the playwrights wanted the work in question destroyed should have mitigated against attempting to break new ground with such a dull blade.

Pictured: Martin Happer, Tara Rosling

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
10 JUNE 2013
R: 5/5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Director Peter Hinton and his design team tackle the Shaw Festival’s production Oscar Wilde’s comedy, LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN: A PLAY ABOUT A GOOD WOMAN, with such spit, polish and enthusiasm they earn the trust they need to pull it off in style.

Indeed, as Hinton’s shifting tableau of Victorian women flirting with fans gives way to the opening scene on the Festival Theatre stage, glimpsed through the aperture curtain developed by Hal Prince in Kiss Of the Spider Woman, this is a feast — flawlessly crafted characters, beautifully costumed by William Schmuck, each living an illusion of a wonderful life while speaking wonderful witty lines, brought together to underscore Wilde’s indulgent affection for the foibles of the human race as represented by Victorian society.

Marla McLean is the Lady of title, although whether she is the ‘Good Woman’ is open to debate. Married to the wealthy Lord Windermere (a letter-perfect Martin Happer), with whom she has a six-month old child, she is celebrating her 21st birthday as the show begins, playing with the fan her husband has given her and playing at being a grande dame too. But, while she is entertaining a fan of another sort — Gray Powell’s edgy, seductive Lord Darlington — the Duchess of Berwick (Corrine Koslo, auditioning for Lady Bracknell in subsequent productions of Wilde’s Earnest) drops by with news that Lord Windermere has not only been keeping company with the mysterious Mrs. Erlynne (Tara Rosling) but perhaps has been supplying the continental lady of mystery with money, too. Reeling from these revelations, Lady Windermere is driven to despair when her husband demands Mrs. Erlynne be invited to the birthday celebration planned for the evening.

Featuring an elaborate, melodramatic plot almost impossible to discuss without spoiling the fun, this is a Wilde play that offers a stable of wild characters that Hinton serves up with relish — dissolutes like Patrick McManus’s Mr. Dumby, faded beauties like Sharry Flett’s Lady Plymdale, timid ingenues like Kate Besworth’s Lady Carlisle and delightful dolts like Jim Mezon’s Lord Lorton, even the by-now-obligatory Wilde stand-in (a page-bouyed Kyle Blair as Cecil Graham, dropping bon mottes like fairy dust). They inhabit a series of sets pieces, wistfully inspired by great artists of the period — Whistler, Gaugin, Boldini and Cassatt , all evoked in breathtaking fashion by designers Teresa Przybylski (sets) and Louise Guinand (lighting) — before blossoming into a complete own world as the story closes.

Hinton’s inspiration is not purely historical either, and while he marks everything with a theatrical Victorian reserve that borders on the stilted, he livens things up with contemporary musical references ranging from Rufus Wainwright to Katy Perry with a few classical stops in between. In what amounts to a flawless production, Hinton’s only misstep is his failure to trust his audience (or perhaps his playwright) sufficiently and his series of often fuzzy projected Wildean epigrams adds up to little more (and a lot less) than gilding on a lily that is already golden.

Monday, June 10, 2013


Pictured: Neil Barclay

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
09 JUNE 2013
R: 2.5/5

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE — Some masterpieces exist for all time, some simply for their time — and while Bernard Shaw’s GENEVA is something far less than a masterpiece, it is, nonetheless, a work for its time. Set in the city of title, GENEVA is Shaw’s ill-fated attempt to awaken the world (and the now defunct League of Nations) before it was plunged into global conflict in the Second World War.
When GENEVA premiered in Warsaw in 1938, Czechoslovakia had fallen to Hitler and Poland was in his sights — and it was daring indeed to mount a play which saw ill-disguised send-ups of the Führer of the Third Reich and his nasty friends called to task, even fictitiously, for their growing list of outrages.

Problem was, no one had any idea of the extent of those outrages. Within mere months of GENEVA’s première, Hitler and the gang established that what they were up to was no laughing matter and GENEVA was deservedly branded a problem play and consigned to the dustbin. Even an attempt to revive it here at the Shaw Festival, where the Shavian flame burns brightest, proved less than successful in 1988. But today, with Jackie Maxwell at the helm, some of Shaw’s more problematic works are getting a second chance, as modern-day playwrights ‘collaborate posthumously’ with the late and now cooperative playwright in an attempt to make some of his plays more palatable to modern audiences. Under Maxwell’s auspices, playwright John Murrell has re-worked GENEVA, rechristened it PEACE IN OUR TIME: A COMEDY and offered it up on the stage of the Court House Theatre, where it opened Friday under the brisk direction of Blair Williams, working with a cast that is nothing if not enthusiastic.

Murrell maintains the Shavian conceit that sets the action in the court of the League of Nations, headquartered in Geneva, where a group of the world’s unhappy dispossessed — a Spanish widow (Claire Jullien), a German Jew (Charlie Gallant), an Anglican Bishop (Michael Ball), a British diplomat (Patrick Galligan) and a Soviet Commissar (Moya O’Connell) are joined by an American ingenue (Diana Donnelly) and a disgruntled Canadian conservative (Andrew Bunker) in an attempt to force Il Duce (Neil Barclay), Der Führer (Ric Reid) and El Generalisimo (Lorne Kennedy) to answer for the outrages they have committed. Jeff Meadows, Kevin McGarry and Sanjay Talwar round out the cast.

Problem is, those outrages were far more than even Shaw could appreciate. When GENEVA was written, it thumbed its nose at men who threatened world peace and made them look like fools. Today, regardless of how it is rewritten, it thumbs its nose at men who did more than threaten the world — men who plunged the world into a global conflict and unleashed a genocide all but unparalleled in the civilized world.

And any attempt to make these monsters look like mere fools, diminishes not only their evil but the courage it took to topple them as well. This is one dog that should have been left to doze.

Pictured: Greta Hodgkinson

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
09 JUNE 2013
R: 3/5

Perhaps no literary heroine has benefited more from the unfolding feminist movement than the one who gave her name to Prosper Mérimée's novella, CARMEN. Born as the quintessential temptress whose beauty drives poor innocent men to their doom, the sexually voracious cigar girl has been transformed, as much by changing mores as by the opera of the same name composed by Georges Bizet or the countless ballets she has spawned, into the prototype of the liberated woman.

The latest retelling of her story opened at the Four Seasons Centre this week, with the National Ballet of Canada revisiting choreographer Davide Bombana's modernist take on the tale, following up their presentation in 2009, of his 2006 one-act adaptation, with his two act take, set to an exhilarating score that blends Bizet's iconic compositions with a slew of contemporary references.

As story ballets go, the end product here, frankly owes far more to Bombana's interpretation of Mérimée's tale than it does to Mérimée, as the choreographer strips away everything from the original, and from Bizet's opera, that doesn't serve his vision of a freedom-loving young beauty (superbly danced at Thursday evening's performance by the seemingly perennial Greta Hodgkinson), and her ill-fated mutual attraction to the policeman Don José. In the latter role, Piotr Stanczyk underscores yet again just how thrilling it can be when ballet breaks with its long tradition of sending a boy to do a man's job and sends a man instead.

In 11 scenes, showcasing choreography so demanding one suspects Bombana has aspirations to choreograph for Cirque du Soleil, a new — if not terribly satisfying — version of the tale of Don José and Carmen comes to life, transforming the character of Michaela (a flawless Stephanie Hutchison) from Mérimée's personification of feminine innocence to something far more pedestrian in the process. It also draws thrilling performances from Keiichi Hirano (as the bandit leader Garcia) and Rebekah Rimsay (as an aged version of the temptress of title) along the way.

And while it's hard to warm up to Dorin Gal's scenic design, intended, one suspects, to evoke a bullring in a country that doesn't know from hockey rinks, it still makes for often compelling viewing, carried along more on the combined strength of the demanding choreography and its exuberant execution, than by Bombana's rather pedestrian hormone-drenched adaptation. But not even the skills of Jiří Jelinek prove sufficient to carry the penultimate scene that sees Jelinek as the matador Escamillo transformed into a bull who ruts with Carmen while four 'toreadors' in comedic butch drag sing and do a mash-up version of the fandango in the background.

So, in the end, if its fine dancing and exacting choreography that sets your heart to soaring in the waning days of spring, this CARMEN may be just the ticket. But if you're looking for a CARMEN for the ages — or even just a memorable facsimile of same —  then you might want to take a pass and wait, with fingers crossed, 'til the opera comes around again.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Pictured: Susie Burnett, Seana McKenna

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
04 JUNE 2013
R: 4.5/5

STRATFORD — The Stratford Festival closed out an opening week best charitably described as a very mixed bag on a positive note Saturday, opening its latest production of Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT on the Avon Stage. Once again, it’s a hit and not surprisingly, it has Brian Bedford’s fingerprints all over it, as so many of Stratford assignations with Coward do.

But this time out, Bedford, who’s carved an impressive career for himself as a leading man in the Coward canon, both here and elsewhere, has opted to work his magic behind the scenes, stepping in to direct and proving, in the process, that he knows his way around a good Coward comedy regardless of the role he plays. And when it comes to Coward comedies, BLITHE SPIRIT is certainly one of the best — a simple, silly tale of a successful writer who finds himself in a state of spiritual bigamy when a seance he’s arranged to research an upcoming novel goes horribly awry and lumbers him not only with his current wife but with his first wife as well, despite the fact she’s been dead for seven years or so.

In casting SPIRIT, Bedford has a few aces up his sleeve, not the least of which is the rock-solid Ben Carlson in the role of Charles, in whose luxurious home — take a bow, designers Simon Higlett (sets), Katherine Lubienski (costumes) and Paul Miller (lights) — the entire play is set. In Carlson, Bedford could have hoped to land only one leading man more capable of perfect pitch in the role — and he was busy directing the play, it seems.

Bedford also scored big when he landed Seana McKenna as the dippy Madame Arcati, the rumpled medium-at-large responsible for unleashing the spiritual tempest in Charles’ particular teapot. Meanwhile, as the two wives, past and present, Bedford was handed a bag of mixed blessings of which he makes the most.

In the role of Ruth, Charles’ present wife, Sara Topham certainly has the comedic chops, but this season, first as Juliet and now in SPIRIT, she demonstrates a tendency to stridency that is tiresome. Meanwhile, as Elvira, the late wife, late to the party, Michelle Giroux establishes once again that she can drain every single ounce of energy from a scene by simply making an appearance, but happily Bedford is polished enough as a director that he is able to restore both pace and actress and soon has things ticking along like clockwork once again. In supporting roles, his cast is rounded out by fine performances from Wendy Thatcher and James Blendick, as the visiting Bradmans, and from Susie Burnett, mining maximum laughs from her role as Edith, the awkward maid-in-training.

Save for being permeated with a certain earnestness at odds with the SPIRIT of title, this is a fine production, proving once again that the best way to get out of a mixed bag of an opening week is to follow Brian Bedford’s lead and take the Coward’s way out.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Pictured: Jonathan Goad, Graham Abbey, Mike Shara, Luke Humphrey

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to LFPress
03 JUNE 2013
R: 1.5/5

STRATFORD - It’s something most of us don’t want to see on a highway, let alone in a theatre. But if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like sit in a theatre and watch the effect of a slow leak on a perfectly good tire, you might want to consider the Stratford Festival’s production of THE THREE MUSKETEERS, which opened in the Festival Theatre Saturday.

And yes, that would be Peter Raby’s adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel of the same name, an adaptation which has graced this stage in triumph on three previous occasions — premiering in 1968, and reprised in 1988 and most recently in 2000. And, under the direction of Miles Potter, it starts out this time in pretty smashing fashion, too, with a swashbuckling sword fight between the young D’Artagnan (an easygoing Luke Humphrey) and his father (Wayne Best) as the former, an aspiring musketeer, prepares to leave, with his father’s blessing, to seek fame, fortune and adventure in Paris. But the trip is barely underway and young D’Artagnan’s voyage begins to lose steam as Potter struggles to keep the theatrical action-adventure ball in the air and all eyes upon it.

Problems are evident almost from the get-go, as young D’Artagnan encounters the evil Comte de Rocheford (Michael Blake), lieutenant to the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Steven Sutcliffe). It’s a chance encounter meant to set up a long-running feud, but Potter and fight director John Stead serve up a particularly savage beating instead, setting the tone for a violent production which frankly, would fare better propelled by more derring-do than brute force.

Recovered and finally in Paris, young D’Artagnan finds himself in the midst of a ill-conceived theatrical funhouse, largely inhabited by cartoon characters like Louis XIII (Keith Dinicol), his apparently bone-headed queen (Nehassaiu deGannes) and, most particularly, by the evil Milady De Winter (the usually-watchable Deborah Hay in what one can only hope will be the worst performance of her career).

He also falls in with the three musketeers of title — the vain Porthos (Jonathan Goad in a too-obvious fat suit), the aesthete Aramis (the always-watchable Mike Shara) and the world-weary Athos (Graham Abbey, who played D’Artagnan in the 2000 production.) And though the four of them act and interact well, Potter fails to forge them into a force powerful enough to carry the episodic tale, instead allowing his production to bog down on Douglas Paraschuk’s overly-elaborate set, squandering virtually all the promise of the Festival’s newly-restored thrust stage.

With most of the performances hitting the stage DOA, and only Gillian Gallow’s costumes and Michael Walton’s superb lighting to enliven it, the first act feels interminable, its brevity only obvious in the wasteland that Potter allows the second act to become. Working with an impressive cast and a problematic script, which has proven nonetheless to be wonderfully stageable, Potter cobbles together a show which is, at its best, utterly forgettable. And sadly, it starts with its best — and goes downhill from there.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


Pictured: Seana McKenna, Lucy Peacock

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
03 JUNE 2013
R: 5/5

STRATFORD - History records that, although their stories are almost inextricably intertwined four centuries after their deaths, the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, and her nemesis, Queen Elizabeth I of England, never actually met. And frankly, after watching the Stratford Festival’s production of MARY STUART that opened on the Tom Patterson stage on Friday, one is likely to feel that history is the poorer for it, for the two of them come together fictionally here in a way that echoes through the ages.

Part of that, of course, is credit to the play itself, a masterwork of the late 18th century, authored by Friedrich Schiller and almost flawlessly adapted for the modern stage in 2005 by Peter Oswald. Thanks to Oswald’s adaptation, it emerges as a compelling piece of contemporary theatre that offers touching human insight into the myriad ways power can corrupt those who seek it and wield it, even while it destroys those who lose it.

But playwright and adaptor can take only part of the credit for the triumph that is this production, for in bringing it to life, Antoni Cimolino (who also serves as the Fest’s artistic director), collaborates with an impressive design team led with understated elegance by Eo Sharp and a truly magnificent cast, led by Lucy Peacock as Mary and Seana McKenna as Elizabeth, to bring the script to riveting life.

The story starts in the final days of Mary’s life in England, held in close captivity by Amias Paulet (James Blendick) and convicted of conspiring to kill Elizabeth and claim her throne. But while Mary’s supporters, led by the Earl of Leicester (Geraint Wyn Davies) and the Earl of Shrewsbury (Brian Dennehy) conspire to win a reprieve for the beleaguered Scottish monarch, an opposing faction, led by Lord Burleigh (Ben Carlson) urge the grasping Tudor Queen to action, demanding the removal of a threat to the Tudor throne along with a Stuart head.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Cimolino draws fine performances from his two principals and from seasoned actors like Carlson, Wyn Davies and a host of others, capturing all of these hugely talented players in a state of delicate balance that serves his story to near perfection. But the final measure of both this production’s strength and its excellence (and its director’s) can be taken finally in the way Cimolino takes less-seasoned performers like Christopher Prentice (as the zealot Drury) and Dylan Trowbridge (as the clerkish William Davison) and allows them to shine every bit as brightly as their more tempered cast mates.

At the same time, he takes others (best left nameless) who have been gnawing on scenery for so long they’ve been written off as theatrical beavers and returns them to the fold, demonstrating that they are still capable of touching, quality work. Finally, he ties it all up in an impressive elegant maze that serves to remind us all that politics is still a blood sport, in a production that most definitely puts the class back in classical theatre.

31 MAY 2013
R: 4.5/5

STRATFORD - In the Stratford Festival’s all-new production of TOMMY, Robert Markus may play the title role, but he is not the star of the show — anymore than Jeremy Kushnier, Paul Nolan, Steve Ross or any other member of the hard-working cast. In revisiting his 1993 stage treatment of The Who’s 1969 rock opera, director Des McAnuff (who also collaborated with composer lyricist Pete Townshend on TOMMY’s book) shows those who suggest he’s a slave to the latest in modern theatrical technology his middle Cana-digit and makes technology star of his show.

From a purely technical point of view, his new TOMMY is to his Tony-winning 1993 version what a modern Mustang is to a Model A Ford. From the tsunami of sound that launches the show to the final curtain, McAnuff and a team led by designer John Arnone, never miss an opportunity to up the technical ante, filling Avon Theatre’s stage with such an impressive, dizzying array of video effects and technical wizardry that local drugstores will be doing a brisk trade in motion sickness medication — and yes, that’s a warning.

This may be a simple (or at least simplistic) tale — a young boy retreats into an autistic state after he watches his father (the always-watchable Kushnier) murder his mother’s lover, and then endures abuse from his alcoholic uncle (Ross) and his rocker cousin (Nolan, putting JC Superstar far behind him), before finally finding redemption through his skills as a pinball player — but there is nothing simple in its staging.

McAnuff conspires with designer Arnone and choreographer Wayne Cilento to create a live show that’s equal parts rock video and colour drenched roller-coaster ride — all action, all the time. Impressively, in the face of this all out technical barrage, McAnuff has been able to recruit a cast more than capable of holding its own in this battle of men and machines.

As Tommy restored, Markus may lack a bit of lithe grace, and certainly, as Tommy’s long-suffering mother, the exotically beautiful Kira Guloien should have been encouraged to dig deeper than her admittedly impressive cheekbones, but in the main, this fine cast stands up impressively against to the technical barrage their director unleashes against them.

But while the production is often thunderously thrilling — Has McAnuff turned down the volume or are we simply now accustomed to music so loud it turns the rib-cage into a tuning fork? — one leaves the theatre with Shakespeare’s view of life as a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing, ringing in one’s ears. TOMMY’s plaintive “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me,” is still deeply affecting — and thanks to McAnuff’s technological obsession, we can see him and hear him more clearly than ever before as he makes his way to healing. Sadly, that same technology conspires to keeps him from touching us on any human level — and that’s what theatre is all about finally.

Pictured: Carmen Grant, Tom Rooney

JOHN COULBOURN, Special to LFPress
30 MAY 2013
R: 3/5

STRATFORD - Half horror story, half fairy tale — taking the measure of Shakespeare’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE has never been easy. In fact, it’s would seem to be increasingly more difficult in the face of evolving social and sexual mores. And sadly, the production that opened on the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre Wednesday doesn’t shed much new light on the tough topics Shakespeare tackles.

Director Martha Henry, the former Grand Theatre artistic director, struggles to avoid the social pitfalls hidden in the script while embracing its pratfalls in the apparent faint hope that they might serve to mitigate any social offence which might be given in the playing. Most of that offence can be found in the relationship between Angelo (Tom Rooney), lieutenant to Vienna’s masquerading and peripatetic Duke Vincento (Geraint Wyn Davies).

A smitten Angelo uses his master’s power to forcibly seduce — rape, by today’s standards — Isabella (Carmen Grant), a crime rendered all the more reprehensible by the fact that she has just entered a convent and is preparing to take her vows when she discovers her brother Claudio (Christopher Prentice) about to be executed at Angelo’s hand for immoral behaviour — unless, ironically, she succumbs to his captor’s demands.

By today’s lights, it all adds up to a shocking bit of misogyny, buried here under a bushel of black comedy, but rendered even more offensively creepy by the fact that Rooney, in a from-the-neck-up performance, appears to be just about as attracted to Grant as Romeo is to Juliet in the oddly sexless production of R&J which launched the season earlier this week. Stratford’s Shakespeare this season appears to be most assuredly unmanned.

In the role of the Duke, Wyn Davies does his best to redeem the gender, playing his role with a familiar puckish charm — a seeming innocent abroad in high heels and cassock in the dark and steamy underbelly of Vienna, as painted by designer John Pennoyer in often lurid shades seemingly borrowed from a colourized film noir. And while there a re some truly fine performances — Stephen Ouimette takes a graceful comedic turn as the opportunistic Lucio while Randy Hughson politely dines out on the scenery as the amoral Pompey in work reflected in polished performances from Peter Hutt, Nigel Bennett, Stephen Russell and the aforementioned Prentice.

But Henry nonetheless establishes herself as just a director who can’t say no, allowing Brian Tree and Patricia Collins to run seriously amok. Tree’s Elbow is more marionette than martinet, while Collins’ Mistress Overdone would more accurately be named Mistress Overacted and they both get in the way of the tale without furthering it.

In the end, Henry at least does a credible job of finding a through line and following it from beginning to end. But though she manages to find certain lovely (if not always appropriate) notes of whimsy along the way, she fails to find a heart beating at the core of the story. And finally it is only by that heart that success can be measured.