Theatre in Canada

The Virgin Trial :Kate Hennig’s latest Tudor thriller is superior to the production it gets at Stratford.

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

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The Virgin Trial. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann

STRATFORD, Ont. — Tudor England in all its drama and turbulence continues to attract a huge following in today’s popular culture. From the reign of King Henry Vlll through to the Gloriana days of Elizabeth 1, we’ve had an unending cycle of popular and academic history, best-selling fiction, movies, television series and stage plays.

It’s inevitable that we often get more mythology than history and that the speculative often vies with the factual for our attention. Purists may harrumph about this — will we, for example, ever know for certain the truth about Elizabeth’s virginity? But can we deny that, even centuries afterwards, Tudor times remain urgently, irresistibly alive to us?

Part of the explanation must surely lie in the fact that we’re dealing with formidable personalities. A couple of years ago, dramatist Kate Hennig showed her awareness of this in her debut play, The Last Wife, which received a sterling production last season at Ottawa’s Great Canadian Theatre Company. It focussed on Catherine Parr, Henry Vlll’s last Queen and a lady who — given the history of her predecessors — showed an impressive capacity for survival. Hennig’s evocation of the dying days of a tyrant’s reign was aflame with dramatic tension, but it was the play’s status as a richly realized character piece that gave it the momentum it needed. And it compelled us to give our full attention to the complex personalities of the key players — not just Henry and Catherine, but also Henry’s two very bright but psychologically different daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, as well as that shady but charming opportunist Thomas Seymour who would marry the widowed Catherine and also pursue some kind of relationship with the young Elizabeth, a relationship whose very nature has kept us guessing for centuries.

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Stratford’s The Changeling: More Fizzle Than Sizzle

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

STRATFORD, Ont. — The Stratford Festival’s new production of The Changeling starts revealing its fault lines almost immediately.

On the one hand, we have the always dependable Mike Nadajewski, revelling in the small but important role of that sardonic whistle-blower, Jasperino, and delivering the play’s 17th Century dialogue with naturalistic ease. (more…)

Director Martha Henry delivers a thoughtful, compelling Twelfth Night at Stratford

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

STRATFORD, Ont. —  A pair of metallic trees dominate the Festival Theatre stage at the beginning of Twelfth Night. They suggest a world going sterile — a mood not really softened when Brent Carver’s muted Feste sings  to the rueful strains of composer Rena Jacobs’s music. And is there any emotion beyond languor when E.B. Smith’s Duke Orsino speaks those famous lines — “if music be the food of love play on?” (more…)

Stratford’s Guys And Dolls offers a visual and choreographic feast

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: by Cylla von Tiedemann

STRATFORD, Ont. —   When it comes to choreography and visuals, the Stratford Festival’s latest production of Guys And Dolls consistently hits the jackpot.

To be sure the Broadway it offers remains a  place of the imagination: initially the imagination of Damon Runyon, whose short stories about lovable low-lifers provided the impetus for a show that in turn would brilliantly showcase the inventive genius of composer-lyricist Frank Loesser and book writers Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling. (more…)

Stratford delivers a stylish School For Scandal

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photograp: Cylla von Tiedemann

STRATFORD, Ont. — “Tale-bearers are as bad as the tale-makers.”

So speaks the aptly named Mrs. Candour in the Stratford Festival’s stylish and enjoyable production of  School For Scandal. Brigit Wilson’s engaging portrayal of this good lady may seem all fuss and fluff, with the comedy of her hairpiece furthering our enjoyment of presence here, but she’s also a character who, in her own inimitable way, injects a measure of common sense into the culture of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s evergreen comedy about gossip, greed and hypocrisy in 18th Century London. (more…)

Stratford’s Timon of Athens probes a cankered heart

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

STRATFORD, Ont. —  It’s 13 years since Stephen Ouimette took on the hazardous task of directing Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, a play that is a mess both structurally and psychologically.

But Ouimette’s production, which starred the late Peter Donaldson as the Athenian nobleman whose misplaced generosity destroys him and turns him into a raving lunatic, did exert a compelling power. It also, with its modern setting, was an indictment of big business and a ruthless board-room mentality ready to turn on its own kind when expedient. (more…)

La fureur de ce que je pense : An extraordinary theatrical experience

Reviewed by Jane Baldwin

Phtoto: Caroline Laberge

Seeing La fureur de ce que je pense was my first experience of Nelly Arcan’s writing, far less known in the English-speaking world than in the French where her work has been nominated for several prestigious awards. Before attaining fame as an author, she worked as a sex escort. At 36 years of age, she hanged herself in her Montreal apartment.

La fureur de ce que je pense, presented in Ottawa, as part of the French language programme of the NAC,   was assembled by the director Marie Brassard from Arcan’s works, which although they are largely autobiographical, are representative of the anxieties and stress of many women. This may be the reason that the single character is enacted by six different actresses. Before the show begins, the audience sees what appear to be two levels of mirrors stretching across the stage with blinding lights above them. The effect is that the audience members view themselves reflected, thus making them part of the world of the play. The lights go down slowly. Voices are heard speaking in unison as in a Greek tragedy. There are six extraordinary actresses, all of whom play the same character, but every one of them recounts incidents or aspects of the character’s life through a series of monologues. In addition, there is a small graceful dancer who does not seem to be part of the same world. Does she symbolize Arcan as an innocent child? She enters and leaves the stage seemingly at will. (more…)

Stratford strikes gold with Treasure Island

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

There are times, watching the Stratford Festival’s robust production of Treasure Island, when we might be forgiven for thinking that a lithe-limbed aerial contortionist named named Katelyn McCulloch is the star of the show.

After all, we’re constantly catching our breath as her spandex-clad body does unbelievable things high above the Avon Theatre stage. She’s a chattering tree creature with a penchant for cheese and a suspicion of earth-bound humans — although she is prepared to make an exception for the story’s young hero, Jim Hawkins. (more…)

Stratford’s HM Pinafore is waterlogged by the direction

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

STRATFORD, Ont. — Midway through the Stratford Festival’s production of HMS Pinafore, a character upchucks into a bucket.

Welcome to Gilbert and Sullivan — 2017 style.

The moment is unfunny — and therefore typical of the mindless bits of business that afflict Lezlie Wade’s unfortunate  production. Yet, the tragedy is that there are some good performers on stage. (more…)

Romeo And Juliet a shining triumph at Stratford

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

STRATFORD, Ont. — By the time we get to the balcony scene, we know just how well the Stratford Festival’s new production of Romeo And Juliet is working.

From the beginning, we’ve sensed that it is firmly on the side of youth — which is exactly as things should be in Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-crossed young lovers. We’ve already seen it in the beautifully executed ballroom scene when Antoine Yared’s Romeo, his simmering romanticism just waiting for release, sets eyes on Sarah Farb’s Juliet, a vivacious 14-year-old primed to yield to the first flickers of adolescent yearning. (more…)

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