Wanderlust, Aug 4th, ’12

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This new musical is another world premiere at the Stratford Festival and it’s living up to the town’s theatre’s high reputation – not least thanks to the skills of Tom Rooney, who plays Robert Service with all the passion and desperation this character deserves.

It’s about Robert W Service, a British bank clerk who by emigrating from his native England to Canada follows his heart and his “wanderlust” he portraits in many poems. Dubbed as the Canadian Kipling in real life, he goes from job to job, closing in to the wide planes of the yukon territory that call to him whenever he’s bound to a desk job to earn some money. He died with 84, famous and hopefully after a happy and fulfilled and successful life as a writer of both poetry and novels, having it make to the Yukon as well as having travelled through America, Canada, even Russia.

Our musical starts while he is employed at the Canadian bank of commerce branch in Victoria,  British Columbia, – two years before they actually did send him to the Yukon branch. While he is in Victoria though, he writes poems full of longing about the life of a free man, digging gold, being a cowboy. Yet he cannot make up his mind to leave the security of the bank for good: He is in love with his beautiful coworker Luise, even though she is engaged to his boss, aptly named Dan McGrew. Luise is flattered by his attention and encourages his infatuation – dangling the carrot of a life together and casually mentioning a ploy to embezzle money easily from the bank. Robert is too smitten to resist. He takes the money to have a chance of a life of adventure –  only to discover that dearest Luise wanted the fortune for herself alone, leaving him with fraud charges at the bank.

But then it is she who is duped: as a test Robert had filled a bag with his clothes and not with money, on the contrary, he had returned the embezzled money back into the correct accounts, now able to claim he was just executing a test to prove how easily money would be vanishing. As he attributes the test to his boss Dan McGrew he ensures that McGrew is sent to the Yukon branch to build the new bank there. He, Robert, is going to stay in Victoria. Because only there, the owner of the bank tells him, he could do what he’s best at: to dream.

The play itself is moving and the crime plot interesting enough to capture its audience. Unfortunately the music is fun, but not extraordinary even tho they used the ballads “The shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee “, both fabulous examples of his poetic skills.

Thanks to Tom Rooney, Dan Chameroy as Dan McGrew and Randy Hughson as the bank owner (and the brilliant Lucy Peacock as shady Mrs Munsch) the play is fun to watch and left me with a smile!

Much Ado about Nothing, Aug 3rd, ’12

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A war – we hear the distant drums right at the beginning – is over and the victors come to the conquered as friends – the friends they were before the war started. So it is of no surprise that Claudio soon finds love for Hero (Tyrone Savage, Bethany Jillard) who in turn when Don Pedro woos in lieu of Claudio  is only too happy to marry him. And while their wedding is planned, Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Deborah Hay) finds a different kind of emotion: spite – for Claudio’s best friend and best man to be Benedick (Ben Carlson). An emotion Benedick only too happily shares with her. The two – who’d make a lovely couple – hate each other, it seems, and cannot stand to be in the same room for more than a few winks.

Therefore and with Don Pedro’s planning, Hero and Claudio find the time between kissing and planning a future to think of a prank, a way how to get these two into the wedding spirit. Hero tells her maids how fabulously in love Benedick is with Beatrice and only too shy to confide in her – as she is always so ill tempered and harsh towards him. And all the while the girls know that Beatrice is eavesdropping behind the stairs, trying desperately to hear each and every word her friends utter.

The same goes for Claudio – he is discussing Beatrice’s love for Benedick with their generous general, while Benedick squeezes himself into the tiniest nooks to hear everything. Never in his life had Benedick thought that Beatrice’s sharp tongue covered deep feelings for him – he definitely must approach her much more friendly in the future.

So while the two couples are thoroughly and very happily distracted by their feelings, and their host Leonardo is happily arranging family ties with the victors, one is not so happy. Don Pedro’s brother John, obviously the loser in this past war, cannot stand to see the happy faces of his victors. With the help of maid Margaret (Claire Lautier) he slanders Hero’s impeccable reputation by bragging that he had slept with her the night before her wedding – and he does so at her wedding. Claudio believes the vile story and calls off the wedding, when Hero is not able to defend herself properly. He storms off  and Hero, shamed to death by the wrongful accusations, collapses into a catatonic state.

Beatrice, already considering Benedick her future husband, wants him to kill  Claudio as she is convinced that Hero is not guilty – even more so as Don John is nowhere to be found when they try to clear up his story. And the immediate family declares Hero dead and brings her to the family tomb – a suggestion of the household’s priest who this way wants to prove that Claudio still loves Hero.

Claudio indeed is devastated by the news that his love has died because he believed in lies – as lies it is: a group of – let’s call them thieves has aggravated the magistrates and has been brought to Don Pedro to be convicted. But they confess to hearing Don John talking to his servant that he is going to slander Hero’s reputation to put an end to this bond with his enemy. Claudio offers his life, but Leonardo orders him to marry his “niece”, who looks an awful lot like Hero herself. But – it’s a new Hero for a new life – and finally the two lovers are reunited and able to start a life where trust hopefully is established more convincingly.

Benedick and Beatrice have also found their true feelings – they do love each other after all, and now that Benedick is no longer obligated to kill Claudio in a duel, their wedding is on too.  Don John, it is reported, has escaped to another country and won’t bother them any longer. The only one still alone after all these twists and turns is the General, Don Pedro, to whom Benedick finally wisely cracks: Get thee a wife, Don Pedro, get thee a wife.

I admit, it’s not my most favorite Shakespearean play – too many of the concepts are out of time now. But it wasn’t just about Shakespeare in this one:  for me Benedick and Beatrice stole the show – married in real life, Ben Carlson and Deborah Hay had the bickering, the sharp repartees down perfectly – but the loving gestures, the glances, and finally the all encompassing kiss too. It is always a joy to see Shakespeare come to life through great actors who revel in the chance of just having FUN – in capital letters – on stage. Therefore both Hay and Carlson dipped into slapstick as they were trying to listen into their friends’ conversations. There was a lot of brilliant physical comedy when Hay actually slipped down a couple of steps on the beautiful staircase and Carlson almost broke a piece of furniture in  his attempt to hide. The contrast to their intense scene where Beatrice orders Benedick to exact revenge on Hero’s behalf was all the more stark and equally convincing. I loved the way they played off each other.

And even though I do realise that it’s highly unlikely for them to be on the same stage next year, I want to see these two  in next year’s playbill – please!

42nd Street, Aug 2nd, ’12

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Mh. What to say. It was good, don’t get me wrong. The precision of the dancers was amazing, their stamina made me breathless, for sure. The costumes were sufficiently sparkly (and I would KILL for that flimsy black see through coat Cynthia Dale as Dorothy Brock wore in one scene).

But.

What made Singin’ in the Rain so absolutely adorably marvellous – its staying true to the movie-original – does not work with 42nd street. I kept having flashbacks to both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as well as Gene Kelly who I think did a version of  lullaby of broadway in a way that is still unprecedented.

It’s not that the actors weren’t good – they were and they gave their all. But the story of the underdog winning everyone’s heart and making it big on Broadway despite the odds just didn’t ring true. Too many skimpy outfits (Zigfield girls anyone?) and not enough real acting made for a fun evening that even got a standing ovation at last. Or was it that the audience was just eager to get out of only a half full theatre? No, now I’m being mean. But I had heard so many good things about this show and  felt all I was getting was a series of great dance  numbers that were strung together a bit disjointedly.

Certainly not something I’d want to watch again.

The Matchmaker, Aug 2nd, ’12

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This play by Thornton Wilder is a hell of a ride and a laugh a minute. It also shows a sequence of characters archetypical in theatre as well as in life. There is the rich grumpy father who hates to spend his money, his naive little daughter who is in love for the first time, the aspiring artist who loves her back, the young employer, who wants to experience an “adventure”, the big hearted aunt with the shady past and finally the matchmaker, Dolly, who by looking for husbands and brides for others is always on the hunt for a husband of her own.

Directed as the farce it was intended to be, The Matchmaker is a fast paced fun play that works with stereotypes that were the cause of much laughter since Einen Jux will er sich machen by Johann Nestroy (1842) – a play that at times seems to go along the same lines of plot and moral – both plays end with the realisation that adventures are great, just as long as they are not too much of an adventure – and that it’s best to have “the right amount” of sitting at home and having an adventure in ones life.
It’s all about the fantastic actors, though: Seana McKenna is absolutely outstanding as Dolly. A wink here, a half smile there and the audience is enslaved by her skills. She had  me laughing so loud, she actually was looking my way: when Dolly finally accepts the marriage proposal she had been working towards to for months – the mock weary “I’ll try” with just the right amount of being worn down was absolutely priceless.

Add to that the grand Tom McCamus as Horace Vandergelder whose first and foremost reason to live is to be rich and not spending a bit is an ironic, fun and true depiction of someone with not much joy in said life. His dialogues with Dolly are hilarious, the way his blustering ego is outnumbered by the woman a lesson in acting.

And then there’s of course Geraint Wyn Davies as Malachi Stack who is “trying out Vandergelder as new employer”. Hilarious and drawing from previous comedic parts he is a joy to watch in his quest to find … well, whiskey and happiness, because, look you – there’s only ONE vice at a time! LOL

Also breathtakingly hilarious the crazy aunt Miss Flora Van Huysen – Nora McLellan –  in kimono like garb, with a misplaced love for opera and a blind spot for life, but well meaningly recognising everyone’s problems with “This is my life!”

All in all this Thornton Wilder classic is an audience favorite in its own right (even made into musical Hello, Dolly at one point), but when gifted with actors like the above mentioned it’s truly a treat. I had a great evening and am looking forward to seeing it a second time. 😉

 

 

A Word or Two, Aug 1st, ’12

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Simply amazing. For 90 minutes Christopher Plummer has the audience in his palm, directs them to laughter, smiles, applause and wistful memories. By quoting famous authors he spans his life story from his birth on a cold and grey winter night in … only that it wasn’t there, it was somewhere else… through his rebellious years till adolescence to lust and laughter and sorrow to thoughts of demise and death – and I’m scared, I’m scared shitless. It could be his life, but not necessarily has to be. There are almost no anecdotes behind the scenes of his vast theatre or filming life, no sexy tell alls about his private endeavours.

It’s all about the magic of words, of language – and a bit of a farewell to it, too, in this 140 clicks twitter age of ours. It is about the beauty of a phrase, the precise hit of a sarcastic bonmot, the lush drowning in a sequence of melodious patterns that make you feel uplifted, sad, inspired or helpless – just as the author wanted you to.

It was a woman who brought me to drink – and I never had the decency to thank her.

Some say Bacon topped Shakespeare. I say Shakespeare ATE bacon…

It’s incredibly sad that I can’t remember much more of what Plummer used, other than there was Shakespeare, Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Dylan Thomas – whom he knew personally; he was a bystander when Thomas and Richard Burton, another Welsh great, drank and talked away the nights in New York -, all referenced and lovingly quoted and brought together in a symphonic celebration of life and death and living and loving. I wish they’d tape it.

I wish I could see it once more.

PS: fun detail: there was a tiny bat circling the stage – I think it got attracted by Plummer’s incredible voice just like everybody else in the audience! 🙂

PPS: At opening night Val Kilmer was in the audience. Geraint Wyn Davies hosted the after show party. And I was at 42nd Street. not a happy camper 😉

Henry V, Aug 1st, ’12

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Henry V – it’s all about the war to end all wars and the ppl touched by it in various ways. and noone wins.

I wasn’t really captured by the play. Now, that was definitely not the fault of the actors, tho. I love Ben Carlson, he can’t do wrong even when he tries on a funny not quite right Welsh accent. and he was one of the highlights in this production and stole the show whenever he was on stage.

But despite the theatrics with thunder, lightning, fire and fighting the play itself was directed to seem lifeless, one dimensional, even though the actors ran through the rows of the audience at times. I blame Des McAnuff, who also directed a Macbeth I found less than engaging. It’s his last season at the festival though – he leaves a year early – and I wish him all the best for his further undertakings. Just hopefully not at the Stratford Festival.

Other than that – the story is gory enough: to gain more power and money, Henry V, young and mostly untried, is advised to go for french provinces as he is the legal heir to them as long as the french king is unable to produce a male successor. So the british – oh, Welsh, indeed – king rides into battle and even though the odds are severely against him, finally wins the fight for domination.

In his moment of glory he shows royal thinking and marries the defeated king’s daughter Catherine to further strengthen the bonds between the two domaines. What was forged to sustain for centuries does not live for even two generations, though. In the end, all the fighting is in vain, the war between France and Britain will not be over for centuries.

In this production a couple of things are truly remarkable: first of all the speech with which young Harry rallies his troups, ending with : “We’ll be a band of brothers” – a quote used by Churchill in his famous radio speech during WWII. And they included a usually cut scene in which the heroic flawless british king Henry orders to kill all captives (while it was customary to release captured enemies in exchange of money) – they are set afire in their dungeon. Thus showing a side of Henry that makes him a ruthless and determined leader.

All in all I was very impressed by the skills of the actors who were trying to escape the too tight leash of their director, first and foremost Aaron Krohn who shone whenever he was allowed to show a little bit of passion. Also Lucy Peacock and Tom Rooney, two favorites with an amazing range of theatric skills. And last, but certainly not least Ben Carlson as the proud Welshman whose beard should get a mention in the program, too. 😉

Sadly the production itself left me not too impressed, flat and almost ifeless, although the last gag was certainly designed to make the audience smile: the blue/gold french flag is torn down to be replaced by the british white and red crossed flag, only to be exchanged with a Canadian flag in the end. A nice idea, but it didn’t make up for the rather drab directing.

Cymbeline, July 31st, ’12

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This was the first play I saw during this stay and the last one too – and I’m glad I organised myself like that. This is this season’s one Shakespeare play everyone should see, the one I’m most happy to have seen. Which has to do with Geraint Wyn Davies as the King and Graham Abbey as Posthumus – both actors absolutely brilliant in their performance and a joy to watch. But it also has to do with the fact that it was a “new” play for me, as it is rarely brought to life on stage although I cannot fathom why: it is a fairy tale, and a beautiful one at that, and I (and the rest of the audience) enjoyed it thoroughly.

A fairy tale this is, indeed, or a dream that dreams of rewriting history so that you can wake up in the morning for a fresh start. With an evil stepmother, a test of trust, a conspirator and finally, during the last battle, a turn of tables, a growing up of all participants and a glowing happy end it draws you into a world of noblemen and -women and of war and peace.

At Cymbeline’s (Geraint Wyn Davies) court young Posthumus (Graham Abbey) grew up as the best friend of princess Innogen (Cara Rickets) – and the friendship of the two children grew into the love of two adolescents. For Posthumus it is as if he just found the holy grail – he not only has gained a lover, but also a family as he was born after his father had died (hence his name) and his mother didn’t live long either. To him, sweet Innogen who adores her hero is his queen and he needs nothing more. The two get married as soon as the princess is of age, but Cymbeline is not happy: prodded on by his cunnng wife (the amazing Yanna Macintosh) and aware he is too late to prevent the marriage he exiles Posthumus. Devastated the young lovers exchange gifts – a diamond ring for him, his gold bangle for her. And then he’s off to Rome, narrowly avoiding an attack of boarish Cloten who – as Innogen’s stepbrother – has hoped to marry the princess to strengthen his claims on the throne.

Meanwhile Roman general Caius Lucius (Nigel Bennett) arrives at court to collect the tribute Cymbeline hadn’t paid in a while – thanks to his meddling wife and his stupid stepson. A Roman invasion is soon to start.

All the while in Rome Posthumus comes across Iachimo (Tom McCamus) with whom he shares an old feud – about whose country has the looser women. And because Iachimo knows how to push the Brit’s buttons Posthumus agrees to a bet: 10.000 pieces of gold or the diamond ring, if Iachimo is able to seduce Innogen. And Iachimo wins the bet – of course through a plot – he sneaks into the chaste woman’s bedroom in a “treasure chest” and steals her golden bangle to brag with it back in Rome. A devastated Posthumus who has lost everything – his love, his faith, his queen, his trust, his family, his life – sends his servant to kill Innogen and volunteers for the upcoming fight in Britain.

In Britain the evil queen is trying out poisons she begged off the court’s medic. To see if it works she hands the vial to Posthumus’ servant hoping he would consume it. But seeing how desperate Innogen is when receiving her husband’s letter, he not only is unable to kill her as ordered, but he also gives her the vial – as he assumes a strengthening tonic is in it. Innogen’s only way out is to dress as a boy and flee into the woods, because Posthumus is there, waiting for battle. In the forest she meets an old man with his two sons – and while she waits for them to return she drinks the potion in the vial, and apparently dies.

On their way to hunt the three men meet Cloten – who is his usual charming self and manages to aggravate them so much that the older son beheads him not knowing who it is he taught final manners. They decide to join the battle but when they come back to their hide out, the boy/princess seems dead and they leave her there, next to Cloten’s headless body, covered in leaves.

The battle ensues. Just when it seems the Roman army is winning Posthumus rips off his armor (yes, on stage. yes, graham abbey is half naked through most of the second part and yes, he is dirty and sweaty) and fights for his king who had raised and nursed him through his childhood. The old man and his two sons join too and the British win.

When counting their losses they find Cloten and the dead boy/princess, some captives – amongst them Posthumus and Iachimo – with them. It is then Cymbeline learns that his queen, thinking he lost, has killed herself, but that his daughter isn’t dead at all as the poison the court’s medic has given the queen would not kill, only incapacitate. Tormented by his conscience Iachimo finally apologises and admits that Innogen had sent him packing but that he had stolen her bangle and betrayed her trust. She is the chaste wife Posthumus has been bragging about. It is then that she opens her eyes and the pair is finally reunited in love. And when Cymbeline asks who the bravest fighter for them was, he finds it was Posthumus – and the two young strangers. But they aren’t strangers after all. They are his two sons who had been abducted by a general who had been – falsely? – accused of treason and sent into exile. He had brought them up and returns them to their rightful station now.

Cymbeline, feeling as if the dark clouds of a nightmare have been lifted from his shoulders, pardons the general and his son who’d killed Cloten, and Iachimo and – as his sons are back and will succeed him on his throne – finally blesses his daughter’s marriage with Posthumus (who is still half naked). He even grants Caius Lucius a pardon and even though the British army has won the battle he accepts to pay the tribute to Rome.

So was all this a dream? A chimaera to rewrite history to gain peace and rid themselves of all evil that had befallen the court? Or had all that truly happened so that true heroes were able to rise from the ashes of a battlefield and create a better future? It’s up to everyone’s interpretation and it certainly is food for thought. But even if you don’t want to analyse / over-analyse the play, it is a wonderful piece, incredibly modern and full of “action”, with tender moments as well as violent ones (the “stealing of a bangle/belt etc was synonymous for rape since the medieval ages – remember Siegfried and Brunhilde in Nibelungenlied and I think  Tristan/Tantris and the wife of the knight).

Also, Stratford’s supply of fantastic actors is amazing – Graham Abbey better be in next year’s playbill, too – he was truly magnificent and not because he lacked clothing  (but he was half naked for most of the second half; thank you, wardrobe department, I owe you chocolate!) – his ability to make the audience sniffle is definitely a bonus. Tom McCamus is his suave self once again, making the seducer believable and even likeable (almost) and Queen Yanna McIntosh scared the bejeesus out of me. Add to that Geraint Wyn Davies who starts and ends the play sleeping, dreaming, or is he?, and it’s the perfect set up for an enjoyable evening in which great actors obviously have fun being mean, or in love, charming or rough and finally just on stage to give the audience a brilliant time.

All in all I wish I hadn’t been so damn tired both times I saw it – this stagedoor would have been an amazing treat!