The launch of Ottawa’s new theatre season started for me on Friday night at the National Arts Centre, with a great deal of anticipation, excitement and angst. Opening night brings out the eager cheerleaders for the arts and live
performance: people like me.
This year the renovations and restoration of the N.A.C. are complete making the journey easier, now bereft of the obstructions and detours that we have had to sidestep for months. The complex is beautiful and easier to navigate.
As you enter the newly christened Babs Asper Theatre, Denyse Karn’s set design takes you to a huge Russian country house with mile high windows. Books and vodka bottles are spread about the mantles and the large limbs of grand powerful trees reach across from either side of stage evoking a feeling of nature’s Gothic arch. It sets a mood of an aristocratic country estate as a retreat and a temple.
Shortly after taking our seats, the energetic and amiable cast enter through the house welcoming the audience engaging in friendly banter and saying hello to as many as they can. After the cast and musicians make their way to the stage, they introduce their characters and enter into a high spirited drinking game about love.
The audience seems instantly captured by the infectious number which launches the tale. Unfortunately the play itself did not work for me.
The story of Evgeny Onegin is based on a 19th century poem by Alexander Pushkin and the subsequent opera by Tchaikovsky. This production does not advance or flesh out the original piece in a way that kept me engaged. The main reason is that the title character has no substance.
Onegin is a spoiled playboy who does not care how the world views him. He has no time to invest in anything except what pleases him at the moment. Daren A. Herbert plays Evgeny Onegin with a lazy boredom. He is handsome and masculine but is completely disconnected from the other actors and the audience.
This seems to be a conscious choice of the creative team of director Amiel Gladstone and Musical supervisor Veda Hille who also collaborated to write the story. It is not inappropriate for a Russian landholder to be bored. Russianplays are riddled with hilarious or painful studies of people utterly bored with there own leisure or uninspired bytheir own creations. Had the play taken some time to examine why Onegin is Onegin I would have understood the journey better. If I had seen that he was abused or brought up in a sterileenvironment or seen something that
exposed his central core, I would have cared about whatever catharsis or epiphany fell upon him. All the other characters are interesting and multi-dimensional.
Josh Epstein plays Vladimir Lensky with heart onhis sleeve abandon. He is a poet and a lover and it shows in his performance. Everything about his being is defined
by his love and so you care profoundly about what happens to him. Hailey Gillis is equally impressive in her role as Tatyana Larin. She has a breathy excitement in her playing of obsessive infatuation that stirs your whole body and makes you laugh at the same time. The supporting cast also is terrific.
I also really enjoyed the band being visible on stage. Chris Tsijiuchi plays piano and keyboard while musically directing Barry Mirochnick on drums and guitar and Erika Nielsen who provides exquisite cello lines. The design elements of this musical were spot on and the performances by in large were exceptional, where it fell short for me was in the adaptation which started with a bang but things carried on too long after the 2nd act climax and the play faded where there should have been a crescendo.
Reviewed by Jim Murchison Photo courtesy of the NAC English Theatre