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Harold Pinter’s unspoken menace: Stratford’s The Homecoming the only hit among August openings

Postmedia News August 17, 2011

STRATFORD, Ont. – “What have you done with the scissors?”

Why should this opening speech from Nobel laureate Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming set off a frisson of unease in an Avon Theatre audience?

Consider it an early signal that the Stratford Festival is firmly on course with its splendid revival of a landmark play.

Indeed, The Homecoming is the one triumph among a trio of August openings that also include a decorative but dull revival of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, and a bungled reading of Michel Tremblay’s Hosanna.

Pinter was a master of unspoken menace. For him, silence was as important a tool as his brilliant dialogue. So Jennifer Tarver’s admirable production begins in strangely ominous silence in the living room of an old North London house, a venue scrupulously designed by Leslie Frankish from the playwright’s own detailed production notes.

We’re given time to take in Lenny, one of the sons of this monstrous household, reading the paper. (We will later learn that Lenny, portrayed here with reptilian efficiency by Aaron Krohn, is a sleazy pimp with pretensions). His foul old father Max, played with malignant relish by Brian Dennehy, materializes to break the silence with that oddly threatening question about the scissors – a question met with more silence until Max repeats it and Lenny finally responds: “Why don’t you shut up, you daft prat?” We are witnessing the first of what will be many comically cruel power struggles.

The “homecoming” of the title refers to the return from American academia of son Teddy (Mike Shara) and his wife Ruth (Cara Ricketts) to the infernal bosom of a tribal household that also includes Max’s chauffeur brother Sam (a superb portrait of pathetic submissiveness from Stephen Ouimette) and a third son, the cement-brained Joey (played with slack-jawed credibility by Ian Lake).

Ruth is entering a jungle of predators who will ultimately take her away from Teddy and set her up as a dispenser of sexual favours, not just to her in- laws, but to Lenny’s clientele.

So what’s really happening here? Is The Homecoming domestic myth, social drama, black comedy or – dare one suggest – perverse feminist tract?

Many feminists hated the play when it was first produced, denouncing it as an appalling presentation of women as sexual objects. But this production and Ricketts’ tantalizingly manipulative performance suggest a more radical but still disconcerting scenario, with Ruth emerging fully in control of her destiny by rediscovering her true nature and escaping the academic and marital constraints of a husband who is driven by his homecoming into an emotional detachment that’s almost catatonic.

In contrast to the stellar achievement of Pinter’s play, something is terribly wrong with Stratford’s new production of Hosanna, Michel Tremblay’s groundbreaking piece about a Montreal drag queen and his biker lover.

The failings of the production at the Studio Theatre are particularly distressing, because the role of Hosanna, the flamboyant transvestite forced to come to terms with his own true identity in the course of one traumatizing Halloween night, was a major triumph for the late Richard Monette in the years before he became Stratford’s longest-serving artistic director.

Unfortunately, director Weyni Mengesha’s failure to establish a consistent style or vision offers little help to actors Gareth Potter, who plays the troubled drag queen of the title, or Oliver Becker as his leather lover.

Potter, a fine young actor, has trouble sorting out the various layers of a complicated character’s temperament. Flouncing and communicating a bitchy vulnerability aren’t really enough; furthermore, there is a difference between portraying a person who is a drag queen and turning proceedings into a drag act.

Hosanna is a play preoccupied with identity, and – not withstanding the political metaphors in the mind of the sovereigntist Tremblay when he wrote it nearly 40 years ago – it can still deliver bracing theatre.

But this Stratford revival keeps breaking down. Becker’s sheepish Cuirette seems to have drifted in from quite another kind of play. And the sturdy English translation by John Van Burek and Bill Glassco is lamentably ill-served.

In the case of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, we have a visually sumptuous misfire. If one were awarding points only on the basis of costume designer Robin Fraser Paye’s luscious creations and set designer John Lee Beatty’s opulent refitting of the Festival Theatre stage, the production would win, hands down.

But of course that’s not enough. Stratford’s Misanthrope is largely dull and uninvolving, stifled by the musty aroma of the museum. British director David Grindley’s approach concentrates on style at the expense of substance, and some actors seem so spooked by the rhyming couplets of Richard Wilbur’s celebrated translation that their characters remain undefined.

To be sure, Ben Carlson, in the crucial title role of Alceste, the professed moral purist and supreme egotist, is certainly at ease with the text, and does offer moments of pleasure as he unleashes his diatribes against the hypocrisy of a society that does not operate according to his maxim. Carlson has a facility for this kind of rhetoric (witness his magnificent John Tanner in Man and Superman at the Shaw Festival a few seasons ago) but here, he seems just a little too facile and too ready to strike postures.

Similarly, Sarah Topham is a ravishing portrait in pink as Celimene, the flirtatious object of Alceste’s love, but where is her sense of mischief in this arch and empty characterization? She’s essentially a clothes tree.

The most assured performance comes from Juan Chioran as Alceste’s amused and pragmatic friend. And Peter Hutt scores as the preening narcissist who writes awful sonnets to the objects of his love. The scene in which Alceste demolishes his ability as a poet is perhaps the most effective comic moment of a generally arid evening.

The Homecoming continues to Oct, 30, Hosanna to Sept. 24 and The Misanthrope to Oct. 29. For ticket information, call 1-800-567-1600 or visit

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