Reviewer: Jamie Portman

Jamie Portman
Jamie Portman has distinguished himself as one of the finest theatre critics in the country. He is presently a free lance critic , periodically writing reviews for theatre in Canada and in England for the Capitalcriticscircle and Postmedia-News (formerly CanWest). Jamie makes his home in Kanata.

OLT’s Mockingbird fails to make the grade

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Maria Vartanova

It doesn’t take long to realize that there’s something terribly wrong with Ottawa Little Theatre’s misbegotten production of To Kill A Mocking Bird.

It’s there in the forced, stilted acting, in the lack of fluidity in the staging, in the clumsy handling of the expository passages in Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel about a black man’s trial for rape in the small-town Alabama of more than 80 years ago.

John Collins’s direction is so flaccid and the performances so perfunctory that it takes a while even to be conscious of the hothouse emotional climate that is supposed to be taking hold of this racially-scarred community. Yet you keep hoping that matters will improve. Surely, you think, they won’t botch that first big dramatic moment when Atticus Finch, the accused’s gentle defence attorney, stations himself in front of the jail to stave off an attempted lynching by a blustering mob of rednecks.

But they do botch the scene, which is so badly executed that it becomes almost laughable in its unintentional parody.

To be sure, there are moments when the production does yank itself into some semblance of credibility. (more…)

Colony Of Unrequited Dreams: Less Than Meets The Eye

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Colin Furlong as Joey Smallwood. Credit: Paul Daly

One suspects that the National Arts Centre’s production of The Colony Of Unrequited Dreams will have its greatest success with those playgoers who haven’t read the Wayne Johnston novel that inspired it.

Playwright Robert Chafe’s earnest, well-intentioned adaptation frequently manages to engage the viewer — although on a somewhat brittle level. But it lacks the epic sweep and emotional resonance of Johnston’s fictional recreation of the early life of legendary Newfoundland Premier Joseph Smallwood and his campaign to bring a proud but troubled island nation into Canada in 1949. Indeed, Jillian Keiley’s production, although revelling in fancy visuals and clever bits of business, never really communicates the high stakes involved in the countdown to Confederation. Given that the turbulent referendum vote required a second run-off, such lack of tension is astonishing

Not just astonishing — also perplexing, given the drama that engulfed so much of Joey Smallwood’s life and career. But it’s also fair to suggest that it must have been  a daunting challenge for Chafe even to try to get into the maddening, calculating mind of this so-called “last father of Confederation.” Wayne Johnston’s original attempt to do so in the novel went on for more than 500 pages, many of them devoted to Joey’s own first-person narrative. As tends to be the case with this type of memoir, whether true or fictional, you keep wondering how reliable the narrator really is — or, in this instance, is intended to be. (more…)

OLT Scores With Other Desert Cities

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Photo: Maria Vartanova

It was Tolstoy who famously observed that all happy families resemble one another — but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

So keeping this in mind, what are we to make of the dysfunctional household on view in Ottawa Little Theatre’s sterling production of Jon Robin Baitz’s 2011 play, Other Desert Cities?

On the surface, things might seem okay when we’re first exposed to the Palm Springs home of Lyman and Polly Wyeth, with characters arriving through the French doors, cheerful and tired after tennis, and engaging in the kind of easy banter that you might expect with a Christmas family gathering. But there’s something not quite right about this Yuletide bonhomie. It’s a virtue of Geoff Gruson’s discerning production that you sense a forced artificiality in the things being said and you’re also aware of an underlying tension because of things left unsaid.

This is tricky to bring off, particularly with a script burdened with exposition challenges in its first section. But Gruson has a cast capable of facing these pitfalls as it proceeds to define characters who will increase in complexity as their worlds begin to unravel.

(more…)

Two Versions of A Christmas Carol in Ottawa: Jamie Portman confronts the NAC production with the production at The Gladstone. Much to contemplate!!!

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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Andy Jones as Scrooge at the  NAC.                   

                                                                        John D. Huston as Dickens

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There’s no doubt that the National Arts Centre has unleashed an intriguing production of something this Yuletide season. And yes, it purports to be A Christmas Carol —   indeed the printed program tells us that  the Dickens classic has been adapted and directed by Jillian Keiley, the NAC’s restlessly inventive head of English theatre.
Before traditionalists go into meltdown over what’s taking place at the NAC Theatre, they may find comfort in the fact  that the arts centre doesn’t hold the  corner on the Scrooge market in Ottawa this December — not with John D. Huston holding court a few kilometres away at the Gladstone with his one-man version of A Christmas Carol. The two shows present a sharp contrast — with Huston unrepentantly drenched in tradition and the arts centre taking, shall we say, a more cavalier approach.

(more…)

Maltese Falcon has a happy rebirth at The Gladstone

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

The annual Radio Show at the Gladstone is comfort food for the holidays, and the people at Plosive Productions realize that part of its appeal is the easy, unpretentious familiarity of the entertainment that greets us every December.

The current show, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, continues the happy tradition. There is the row of microphones lining the front of the stage. There is a suave announcer recalling for the oldest among us the glory days of the Lux Radio Theatre and host Cecil B. De Mille. There are the seated actors waiting their turn before the microphone. And there are the singing Gladstone Sisters, an important and indispensable fixture of this Ottawa Yuletide event.

The Sisters — Robin Guy, Robin Hodge and Nicola Milne — are in exuberant form this year as they not only disinter such forgotten oldies from the past as Pistol Packin’ Mama but also give a nod to the old advertising jingles that used to entice listeners into buying Lux Soap Flakes and other products of the Forties. Robin Guy is responsible for their vocal arrangements, and the dazzling harmonics are an ongoing delight.

(more…)

OLT’s Three Musketeers: More Than Its Share Of Rousing Moments

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Ottawa Little Theatre’s production of The Three Musketeers begins on a
burst of energy — a  sword battle that pursues its merry way both on
and off stage.
It’s an engaging beginning, and a nifty way of introducing us to
D’Artagnan, the aspiring Musketeer who’s getting a final tutoring in
swordplay from his swashbuckling dad before leaving for Paris to
fulfill his ambition.
These moments also provide a sound demonstration of the production’s
strengths. Director Stavros Sakiadis’s robust, slightly
tongue-in-cheek approach reflects the sensibility of Ken Ludwig’s
cheeky dramatization of the Alexandre Dumas novel. We’re also getting
our first glimpse of Graham Price’s splendid multi-level set, which
evokes enough of the past to take us back to 17th Century France while
also having enough flexibility to keep rearranging itself into new and
different venues during the show’s adroitly managed scene breaks.
Price is also responsible for the atmospheric lighting, while Glynis
Ellens provides outstanding period costuming which perhaps reaches its
zenith during the masked costume ball that is an undoubted highlight
of the evening.

(more…)

Equivocation: Solid production of a problematic play

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Image courtesy of Kanata Theatre

Image courtesy of Kanata Theatre

Equivocation by Bill Cain
Kanata Theatre
Directed by Alain Chamsi

Kanata Theatre’s production of Equivocation contains so many fine moments that you’re left saddened by the fact that it ultimately doesn’t work.

Director Alain Chamsi and his colleagues have worked with diligence and discernment to bring shape and substance to a play that uses an imagined crisis in Shakespeare’s life as a platform for an examination of the fragility of truth in a hothouse political climate.

But ultimately the centre does not hold. Playwright Bill Cain, a Jesuit priest whose moonlighting activities including scripting an episode of House of Cards, has solid credentials, and this 2009 play has been acclaimed in many quarters. But it’s overly ambitious in scope, thematically cluttered, structurally uncertain and at times painfully glib and facile.

Furthermore, when it comes to tone, it attempts to have it both ways — expecting the audience to go along with moments of serious drama, which include a pair of gruesome public hangings, while also expecting them to revel in episodes of comic buffoonery as well as bits of more subtle satire. It’s an uneasy fusion. (more…)

Imaginary Lines isn’t as clever as it thinks

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo courtesy of Linden House Theatre Company

Photo courtesy of Linden House Theatre Company

Imaginary Lines by Reggie Oliver

A Linden House Theatre production

Directed by Robin Bowditch

The premise of Reggie Oliver’s comedy, Imaginary Lines sounds promising. It proposes to explore the often turbulent waters of personal relationships by examining  two layers of communication. The first exposes us to what people are saying out loud to each other. The second lets us in on what they’re actually thinking — or, more specifically what they wish they had said in attempting to find empathy with a member of the opposite sex.

Unfortunately, the Linden House Theatre Company’s production fails to find justification for the play’s surprising popularity among community theatre groups. Despite a strong cast and an excellent set design from Rachel Hauraney, Imaginary Lines seems no more than a feeble attempt on this playwright’s part to emulate the audacious structural  mind games for which his  mentor, Alan Ayckbourn, is renowned.

Indeed, the script is not even consistent in allowing us into the repressed thoughts of every character. This may partially explain why director Robin Bowditch has difficulty in establishing a sustained comic rhythm for this play. It keeps disconnecting. (more…)

Burn: Promising situation but problems in making it work

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: John Muggleton

Photo: John Muggleton

Burn

Written and directed by John Muggleton

Avalon Studio to Nov. 13

There’s a certain type of thriller that makes its impact by bringing in a character whose very presence generates apprehension and unease both on and off stage.

That’s the task of actress Megan Carty who is very good at cranking up the tension in John Muggleton’s new play, Burn, at the Avalon Studio.

She plays a young woman named Eve whose initial flakiness slides into something more tenacious and sinister once she starts playing mind games with a trio of literary types named Robert, Samira and David.

The latter, still recovering from the death in another city of an old friend named Paul,  have received a mysterious summons. That’s why they are together this evening, wine and other booze in plentiful supply, to await the daughter of Paul’s daughter, Eve.

So what’s it all about? It might seem we have a typical Agatha Christie situation here — but Burn has more provocative concerns in mind than such Christieland items as A Murder Has Been Announced or And Then There Were None. (more…)

The Last Wife: One for the memory book

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Emily Cooper

Photo: Emily Cooper

The Last Wife

By Kate Hennig

A CGCT/Victoria Belfry co-production

Directed by Esther Jun

GCTC to Nov. 20

It’s rare to encounter as outstanding a fusion of creativity and on-stage talent as that now on display at GCTC. But this production of Kate Hennig’s mesmerizing play, The Last Wife, is definitely one for the memory books.

We’re in the turbulent world of Tudor England here — but again we’re not. This examination of the dying days of King Henry Vlll’s reign — and in particular the last of his marriages to the remarkable Catherine Parr  — is set in modern dress. It’s an  audacious move, but it brings into bolder relief issues that never really go away    issues having to do with the elusive dynamics of personal relationships as well the ravaged reality of power politics, both global and domestic

Given that the high drama of the Tudor era has long been of consuming  interest in popular culture, the play’s modern setting also proves to be liberating. We can escape all those defining images from cinema and television. We can shove aside Charles Laughton, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Cate Blanchett, Stewart Granger, Jean Simmons and those other star-driven celluloid symbols of Tudor times  and instead get closer to the more immediate emotional and moral truths surrounding the last of Henry’s wives and her marriage to a tyrant capable of ordering her beheading in a sudden whiplash of anger.

Hennig’s play — witty, psychologically astute and at times intensely moving — premiered to great acclaim at the Stratford Festival in 2015. We’re now seeing it in a beautifully mounted co-production from GCTC and Victoria’s enterprising Belfry Theatre. At their best, such partnerships provide a great service to Canadian theatre by allowing individual companies to pool resources for productions that otherwise might prove too costly to mount. On this occasion, the collaboration has given us a director of authority and sensitivity in Esther Jun. And it has introduced Ottawa audiences to a sterling designer in the person of Shannon Lea Doyle: she delivers a quietly brilliant set that manages to frame the drama superbly without evoking too specific a time and place, and has created costumes capable of meeting that trickiest of requirements — defining temperament. The result is that an accomplished production team ensures an exemplary cast the security to  give full and exciting utterance to Hennig’s text. (more…)