Friday, 29 September 2017

Toronto Symphony 2017-18 # 1: In Honour of Glenn

On Friday I took in my first Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert of the season, a unique and impressive tribute to Glenn Gould.

The first work on the programme was a commissioned work given its world premiere, a work written in honour of Glenn by Kelly-Marie Murphy, one of the leading Canadian composers of the last two decades.  This was followed by the original chamber scoring of Wagner's Siegfried-Idyll, a work which Gould recorded in the final year of his life as he moved towards conducting as his new form of musical expression.

After the intermission, the Brahms Piano Concerto # 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, the work over which Gould and Leonard Bernstein so famously disagreed back in the day.  This was played by Canadian piano star Jan Lisiecki, and the entire programme was conducted by Peter Oundjian.

A little unusually, the concert also had a host: renowned Canadian actor Colm Feore.  Undoubtedly Feore was invited for this event because of one of his most famous and notable screen appearances, in Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. 

Murphy's work had what I consider a deliberately quirky title:  Curiosity, Genius, and the Search for Petula Clark.  It was inspired by a radio documentary in which Gould described a long drive to northern Ontario, and the intermittent appearance of relay radio stations on which he heard Clark's current hit, Who Am I?  Murphy's work began with a slower, questing section of uncertain harmonies which reflected that aspect of Gould's diverse mind, and then leaped into a much more energetic main portion, loaded with jazzy syncopations and cross-rhythms (the time signatures on this score must have been a sight!).  I personally enjoyed it very much, since I always like highly rhythmic music which reflects quirky imagination.  This work captured that very definite quality from both the composer and her subject.

The Wagner was treated to a gentle, reflective performance -- much as I imagine it would have been played at its famous premiere, with the musicians standing in the hall of Wagner's home.  In such a large space as Roy Thomson Hall, such a small ensemble inevitably sounds a bit more distant but all the music still came through clearly.  It's not often that the orchestra will perform such a small-scale work as part of a mainstage programme, but it was a real delight to the ear.

After the intermission, Feore introduced the concerto by giving us the famous Leonard Bernstein speech from New York played on the sound system.  The performance which had then followed back in 1962 had taken the entire first movement at a far slower tempo than normally heard.  

In actual fact, there is no clear indication of tempo.  The score simply states maestoso (majestically) which is not really a tempo.  What this does indicate, of course, is the character of the music.  Too fast and it will become playful.  Too slow and it will become funereal.  Among recorded performances, where playing times can be checked, there's actually a fairly wide range of timings for this movement.

Oundjian and Lisiecki opted for a tempo which was on the slower side of the average, paying due heed to the maestoso direction, but not ponderous.  What was perhaps more unusual was that this original tempo remained the centrepoint around which the entire movement revolved.  Many performers have a tendency to get faster as they go.

This interpretation of maestoso definitely worked in one most critical respect.  Brahms builds in tempo variations by subdividing his basic 6/4 beat into multiple shorter beats, and in particular triplet groups of notes in short values.  In a faster performance, many of these high-speed triplet passages become blurry.  The absolute clarity of every note from start to finish in the first movement was a key feature of this performance.

So too was the use of the widest possible range of dynamics.  Right from the outset, Oundjian actually observed the dynamic indication of forte or mezzo forte, with only the timpani rolls occasionally building up to fortissimo, "growing thunderously nearer" as Sir Donald Tovey so famously put it.  When Lisiecki entered with that almost mournful theme in parallel sixths this, too, was played gently. 

And so it went.  Quiet passages were truly quiet -- something that can't often be said in this concerto.  On the other end, the music never became truly thunderous until the enormous climax at the end of the development, leading into the recapitulation and the almost shocking appearance of the opening theme on the piano in E major -- Lisiecki's first truly big moment.  The final coda whipped up the highest level of excitement, power, punch, and volume without ever abandoning the basic tempo.  This was one of the very few times I have felt moved to join in applause after the first movement of a concerto, and my tribute was as much to the conductor as to the soloist.

The slow movement began very quietly and gently, and here the soloist's carefully-judged use of rubato reminded me of his playing of Chopin, a central composer of the piano repertoire and of Lisiecki's repertoire in particular.  The music built up unerringly to the climactic passage, which recalled the majestic quality of the first movement.  The ending died away at the quietest possible dynamic level.

Lisiecki instantly launched into the finale, again at a speed a little more moderate than sometimes heard.  And again, the slight slowing was all gain.  Although the piano passage work was again utterly clear, the advantage of the speed showed best in the orchestral fugato episode in the middle, with crisp and precise playing on each entry of the fugal version of the theme.  Again the final coda was judged to near perfection, setting the seal on an unusually clear and well-thought-out performance of Brahms' early masterpiece.

The instant standing ovation and cheers for the soloist were no surprise.  His encore, however, was a surprise -- and yet absolutely fitting in the context of a Glenn Gould tribute.  Lisiecki played the Aria from the Goldberg Variations by Bach -- that famous work with which Gould both began and ended his recording career.  It certainly wasn't a Gould-style performance.  Lisiecki's tempo was a little more wayward, in a Chopinesque kind of way.  I could imagine the Aria being played like this in the middle of the nineteenth century!  But the gentle, quiet ending set the perfect seal on the entire programme, reminding us all of the great musician to whom this performance was dedicated.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Stratford Festival 2017 # 5: Yet More Hypocrisy

It didn't strike me until I sat down to write this review that both plays I saw on my second full day at Stratford were comedies concerned with hypocrisy.  Moliere's Tartuffe is one of the great treasures of the world theatre, an evergreen comedic examination of hypocrisy, obsession, and the all-too-common human blind spot.  Ranjit Bolt's English translation, like most predecessors, sticks to the metre and rhyming couplets of the original text, but does so effectively and in a contemporary mode (there are a couple of f-bombs dropped).

Sadly, director Chris Abraham and his company developed a real blind spot when it came to the staging of this play.  The result was as close to a dud as any production I can ever recall seeing at Stratford.

Tartuffe is a tricky play in which comic elements are mingled with farcical.  Some directors choose to play it as a comedy with farcical moments.  Some choose to play it as a farce with more mannered comedic scenes.  There are multiple approaches that work very well.

What went wrong here?  Did the company fall prey to the old canard that more is better in farce?  I strongly suspect that is the case.  This production suffers from a severe case of overkill that knocks much of the humour right out of the show.

For one thing, the play is allowed to reach the apex of its fast-rising emotional temperature well before the intermission -- the show has already gone far over the top even before the famous seduction scene, normally the peak of the riotous farcical style.

In terms of individual performances, Graham Abbey's Orgon does the most to take the play there.  To see him leaping up and down in rage, actually dancing on the floor in anger, while his voice shoots up into a high-pitched squeal is funny -- for about 10 seconds.  Then what?  Like most toddler tantrums, this one quickly exhausts what little appeal it has.  And that's all by the midpoint of the first act.  Where is the play supposed to go after the intermission?

The saddest result of Abbey's overwrought performance is a distinct feeling that this Orgon deserves everything that he gets.  I'm dead certain that this was not Moliere's intention at all.

Emilio Viera as Damis also gets carried away, too far, too quickly, but at least stays there for only a few seconds at a time.

Maev Beaty's Elmire is much calmer at first, a different but very sophisticated and likable take on the character.  By the time we reach the seduction scene, though, even she lets herself be dragged down into the whirlpool of lunacy, as she becomes a jerky, almost robotic caricature of herself.  

It is Tartuffe himself (Tom Rooney in fine form) who resists the urge to go off the deep end for the most part and gives the play a solid centrepoint around which all the idiocy swirls.  His cold voice and eyes provide a most necessary antidote.  

Of all the household, Mariane (Mercedes Morris) is perhaps the most believably human.  It matters a great deal.  Even in farce, the characters have to remain human beings with whom the audience can identify.  

My personal favourite, and the one bright light in the show, is Anusree Roy in the show-stealing part of the maid, Dorine.  Moliere's plays contain several maids who are bright, pert, smart, sassy, and always ready to give their employers a piece of their mind (a most un-servant-like behaviour in any regulated society).  What makes Roy's Dorine so successful is the matching of her physicality to the sharp whip-crack of her voice.  Her characteristic stance, chin thrust forward, suits her cutting words to perfection.  Here is one character who trod the line between not enough and too much with success, never quite going over the top.

The stage of the Festival Theatre was given a spare but effective set, a stylish, modern house with the main entrance of the home on the upper level of a two-storey tall living room.  Costumes, too, were effective, modern and simple in design -- except for the Officer (E. B. Smith in full thunderous voice) who enters at the end as a deus ex machina to rescue Orgon from his plight in the name of the King.

It's sad to have to level such criticism against Abbey, Beaty, and director Abraham.  All of them have delivered far better work in the past, and will doubtless do so again.  But in theatre, as in all the creative arts, every artist -- no matter how masterful -- has off days and drops the ball on occasion, with a resounding thud.

Stratford Festival 2017 # 4: Scintillating Scandals

Of all the comedic plays written between the time of Shakespeare and the dawn of the twentieth century, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal must surely be among the most durable.  As the programme for the current Stratford production laconically states, it has never been out of print and never out of production either.  Some might argue for a neck-and-neck dead heat with Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, another fine product of the same golden age of the theatre.  I'd be willing to agree with that!

By the time Sheridan wrote Scandal, the riotous excesses of the Restoration theatre were but a memory.  Instead of the farcical, libidinous tone of, say, The Country Wife, we have instead a more restrained and genteel comedy of manners.  For all that, though, the play can certainly become very funny indeed, when it's done well.  

The biggest challenge to any staging of The School for Scandal is the fact that it's so damned well known.  I've never performed in or directed the play in my life, and yet I have whole pages of it almost completely off by heart.  I'm sure many other theatre buffs could recite it right along with me!

What, then, can anyone do to save the play from becoming a Pedestal Classic, revered and respected so much that any kind of tinkering is frowned upon with holy horror?

This production, directed by Antoni Cimolino (the Festival's Artistic Director) has engaged with the text of the play in a lightly witty and sparkling style that makes whole pages come up sounding and looking fresh and newly-minted.  It's a formidable achievement.

The entire text has been approached with an eye to finding new and different ways of nudging or emphasizing this word or that phrase.  Time and again, this company has found a unique and often surprising way to speak lines which too often seem to be cast in stone.  

The brightest light of the production in this respect was Geraint Wyn Davies in the key role of Sir Peter Teazle.  It's a rash statement to make of an actor who has distinguished himself in such a wide-ranging repertoire of roles, but I almost think Davies was born to play this part and breathe new and vivid life into it.  

The best of his interpretation is that Sir Peter now appears as much more a whole man, and much less a mere sour-tongued critic of society.  Frequently, his voice, temperament, and physicality reminded us that this "peevish old bachelor" had not forgotten his days as a dashing young rake.  Unusual, and very refreshing take on the character.

Another different and very winning take was that of Joseph Ziegler as Sir Oliver Surface.  This role can easily become just the "heavy" in the piece, but Ziegler similarly presented him as a true companion to Sir Peter -- in other words, another dashing young rake with just a few years added on. 

Among the members of the "scandalous college," pride of place goes to the maitresse of the circle, Lady Sneerwell, as played by Maev Beaty.  Beaty has formidable talents as a tragedian, frequently demonstrated to good effect at Stratford.  Here, she stakes an equal claim to comedic verve and flair, with impeccable timing of her ripostes and asides (a fair chunk of the role).  She also manages a style of movement in a giant hooped skirt and towering headdress which is itself hilarious -- not overdone or absurd, but definitely and uniquely hers.

The most conventional interpretation in this production was that of Joseph Surface as performed by Tyrone Savage.  Nothing wrong with that, as his role becomes that of the straight man whose job is to be zinged in the end by everyone else.  Savage brought a pleasantly conversational tone to the utterance of those absurdly over-wordy sentiments which comprise so much of the part.

Sébastien Heins, as his brother Charles, made a breezy and enjoyable rake.  In the famous auction scene, he managed for once to keep his character a little in hand and let his dissolute friends provide the over-the-top comic contrast.  It worked well, because it made his sudden affection for the portrait of his uncle much more believable -- important support for a key plot point which often seems to be stuck-on and improbable.

Shannon Taylor played a brightly engaging Lady Teazle, with the added benefit of her light-toned voice making her sound just like an indulgent parent with a difficult child in her arguments with Sir Peter.  Her change in tone after the screen was thrown down was excellent too, much more forceful and positive in presenting her feelings than one sometimes sees and hears.

The other scandal mongers added to the fun in various ways.  Anusree Roy made much of the small but important role of Snake (Mrs. Snake for this production).  Crabtree was played with an acid-drop tongue and matching face by Rod Beattie, while Tom Rooney performed Sir Benjamin Backbite with the customary degree of effete, effeminate zeal.  The "duet" as I think of it, in which these two tell the story of the duel between Sir Peter and Joseph, was played with great verve and pinpoint precision in the timing of the cut-offs and pay-offs.  A delightful sequence.

The honest Rowley, who helps to facilitate the happy ending, was given a perennially worried but genial face and similarly anxious voice by Brent Carver.

The one weak link in the cast was Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Candour.  Especially when seen against the relatively restrained work of the rest of the cast, her performance was simply overripe and overdone.  Plenty of good ideas and thoughts behind it, but all pushed much too far.

As befits a play of this period, and the use of the Avon Theatre with its proscenium stage, Julie Fox designed a handsome full-wall set which proved unexpectedly flexible in the ability of different segments to open and close in different directions.  Although no revolve was in use, the scene changes were accomplished as quickly and painlessly as if there had been a revolve -- no mean accomplishment considering the scale of the set.  Costumes were similarly striking, in sometimes unexpected colours that yet worked well with each other and with the set.

Although Stratford has staged The School for Scandal a number of times in the past, this production worthily takes its place among the best of its predecessors, and among Stratford's finest achievements in the classic English theatre after the time of Shakespeare.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Flair and Fire, Poetry and Passion

The title describes the only right way to perform the classical music from the great Spanish composers of the late 19th and early 20th century.  That is precisely the way the Cheng²Duo played throughout an evening of Spanish music for cello and piano on Saturday night.

It's hard to describe the characteristic Spanish sound that informs so much of this music without going into almost poetic overkill.  The popular image of proud posture, flashing eyes, stamping feet and whirling skirts in the famous flamenco is not far off the mark.  Neither is the image of a man strumming a guitar and singing a love song while a young woman blushes becomingly at the window, her face coyly hidden behind a black lace fan.  In more mundane terms, think of fingers plucking at a guitar and then listen; you will hear hints of that characteristic sound everywhere in these works.

Aside from sounding "Spanish," several of these composers went in for dense chromatic chording, and particularly for chording at the low end of the piano keyboard, which gives a characteristic rich sound that can easily become dense and congested if not handled with care.

This is also music of the Romantic era, music which requires the widest range of dynamics, and this we certainly got from the Cheng²Duo -- whisper-quiet yet perfectly audible pianissimos and emphatic but not congested or clangorous fortissimos.

The concert opened with the famous Intermezzo from the opera Goyescas, by Enrique Granados.  Although composed for orchestra, this piece transcribed well for the duo.

This popular lollipop was followed by a truly challenging work, the Malagueña from the two-book piano collection España by Isaac Albeniz.  España has been described with good reason as one of the hugest challenges ever presented to any pianist.  Transcribing the Malagueña for cello and piano didn't lessen any of the music's harmonic or rhythmic complexities, and the Cheng²Duo delivered a fiery performance that made it all sound easy.

Then Granados again -- the single most performed piece he ever wrote, the Andaluza (#5) from his twelve Danzas Españolas.  It's a perennial favourite of pianists and classical guitarists, many of whom believe it was actually written for the guitar!  Here, the Duo caught the ideal flexibility of tempo, the idea of a breathing pause, "a strongly presented moment" as Alicia de Larrocha once said, without ever overdoing it or breaking the essential flow of the piece.

The highlight of the first half was the piano-cello arrangement of the Seven Popular Spanish Songs by Manuel de Falla.  This cycle condenses a huge variety of moods, from passionate anger to gentle quietness, all into seven short movements.  I'm sure that I wasn't the only one holding my breath to avoid breaking the magical spell in the quiet, sustained melody of Nana, with Bryan Cheng's cello spinning out a mere thread of tone.  By contrast, the stabbing anger of the concluding Polo owed much of its power and volume to Silvie Cheng's emphatic delivery of the bass-heavy staccato chords low on the piano keyboard.

The same composer's Danza Española from the one-act opera La Vida Breve brought the first half to a suitably rousing conclusion.

So far, we might have been listening to a "greatest Spanish classical hits" compilation.  But in the second half, we came to some less familiar -- but no less rewarding -- music.  Silvie Cheng came first to perform the first of the three Danzas fantasticas, "Exaltacion", Op. 22 No. 1 by Joaquin Turina.  This piece was notable for the complex textures which she made completely clear throughout.  I'm only sorry that the programme didn't allow enough time for her to perform all three of these pieces. 

Bryan Cheng then joined her for a piece entitled Requiebros ("Compliments"), by cellist/composer Gaspar Cassado, dedicated to his mentor, Pablo Casals.  Here we heard the classic Spanish sounds again, but updated with some more advanced harmonies.

The great reward of the second half for me was the Suite for Solo Cello by Cassado.  It's hard to escape the feeling that Bach went to Spain for a holiday, since the uniquely human sound of the solo cello is so strongly identified with Bach's famous suites for that instrument.  Here, though, we have the idiomatic sounds of Spanish dance rather than the classic courtly dances of the Baroque.  Bryan Cheng played with great feeling, ranging from the rather inward, meditative sounds of the Preludio-Fantasia to the more playful Sardana, and then the fiery Intermezzo e Danza Finale.  He also solved the technical challenge of maintaining the rhythmic through line of the dance while necessarily being held up to play arpeggio chords across the strings.  A fascinating performance of a rarely-heard work.

The programme closed with a musical bonbon which, in this context, was a kind of impostor.  Pablo de Sarasate may have been Spanish by ancestry, but the violinist-virtuoso-composer's famous Ziguenerweisen lives entirely in the mittel-Europa gypsy tradition.  Nor is this surprising, because that was Sarasate's musical world, the world of Liszt and other contemporary virtuosi -- the great flowering of Spanish classical music represented by Granados, Albeniz, and de Falla was just gathering speed as Sarasate died in 1908.

Anyway, Ziguenerweisen is a famous and well-loved showpiece for the violin.  I've heard it before many times, but never played on a cello.  Bryan Cheng's fingers were definitely flying as he had to stretch twice as far as a violinist to perform the same high-speed extensions.  The casual aplomb with which the tossed off Sarasate's virtuoso fireworks was a sight to behold.  

The rightly-earned standing ovation then brought forth a single encore -- but what an encore!  Manuel de Falla's famous Ritual Fire Dance from El amor brujo ("Spell-Bound Love") ended the evening on a resounding note of triumph.  This piece famously includes passages where a thrumming rhythm is played very softly and then instantly leaps to a fortissimo.  These dynamics were stretched right to the limit in both directions, adding to the excitement of the music, and the accelerating conclusion flew right off into space at blinding speed.

I'd be perfectly happy to sit down and listen to this magical programme of Spanish music from the Cheng²Duo again.  Lucky for us, the Duo will soon be taking this music into the recording studio and the CD version will be available next year.  Based on last night's concert, this should be a powerful, energetic, and gripping recording.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Stratford Festival 2017 # 3: The Lords of Misrule

It's an intriguing contrast to leap, across a 3-hour dinner break, from one of Shakespeare's greatest rarities to one of his most popular comedies, Twelfth Night.  Any kind of detailed commentary on such a well-known script being superfluous, I will simply state that this is the Shakespeare play which I have seen staged more often than any other.  Even so, I will gladly sit down to yet another production of Twelfth Night where such other staples as A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It have long since worn out their welcome with me.

And with that, let us get right to the current production, directed by Martha Henry.

Henry has nicely accomplished the essential directorial balancing act in this play: the need to restrain and orchestrate the shenanigans of the merry lords of misrule so that they don't run away with the entire play.  The best productions of Twelfth Night are those in which the company motto becomes "Everything to excess -- in moderation."  This moderation matters because it isn't fair to the actors in the romantic roles if they are continually to be upstaged by the absurdities of the comics.  With one exception, the actors framed their own personal performances in line with that basic style.

Key to her vision of the play is the "framing" of the action by the songs -- at beginning, at end, and at numerous points throughout the show.  This framing role in the text was beautifully counterpointed by the visual metaphor of glass bowls placed at key points around the stage perimeter.  At the very outset of the show, and in several later numbers, Feste (the fool, who does the singing) moved from bowl to bowl, gently striking them or rubbing the rims to produce musical tones.  This kind of glass-bowl music produces sounds both ethereal and alien.  Considered as both sound and vision, it was evocative of the exotic, topsy-turvy world of Illyria.

Equally important to this framing effect was the subtle, gently modulated Feste of Brent Carver.  Right from the first note I was captivated by his approach to this role.  Carver sang not so much to us, nor to others on stage, but to himself.  This quiet, inward singing became more overt in a few key places only.  His approach to the dialogue of the character was of a piece, again relying on subtlety and gentle nudging of vocal tones rather than on overt verbal cues-to-laugh.  It was a fine example of classic theatrical clown work (not to be confused with horror-movie clowns, by the way), which always has to understand and live out the sadness found at the heart of life's jokes.  In such an interpretation, Carver's highly expressive face proved a key asset.

At the polar opposite extreme was the performance of Tom Rooney as Sir Andrew Aguecheek.  Yes, it's a role which contains verbal silliness by the mile, and is often taken as a cue for parallel physical silliness.  Rooney delivered that in spades.  But the kind of physical overkill he poured out was so far out of key with the rest of the production that it quickly became embarrassing, and then tedious -- and, for the most part, distinctly un-funny.  Worse still, he indulged in the kind of overt signalling for laughs that I thought had gone out of style at Stratford 20 years ago.  Rooney's excesses were thrown into sharp relief by the more moderate performance of Sir Toby Belch by Geraint Wyn Davies -- unexpectedly moderate, considering some of Davies' past excesses in other roles.

Lucy Peacock, celebrating her thirtieth season at Stratford, gave a vigorous, energetic performance as Maria.  It's a piece of casting made in heaven, because a role like this one -- a comedic spinner of plots and weaver of webs -- is ideal for an actor with Peacock's expressive face and wide-ranging repertoire of vocal tones.

The comic honours of the evening, for me, went to the stuffy, pompous, self-aware Malvolio of Rod Beattie.  This Malvolio never simply spoke -- he orated throughout the play.  Every time he opened his mouth, he spoke as if he were addressing a meeting or conference.  In his final scene, his tone became that of a counsel for the defence addressing the court.  And the results were hilarious.

Speaking of casting choices, the selection of E. B. Smith for the role of Orsino certainly gave a unique slant to his scenes.  Smith has enormous presence on stage, both vocally and physically.  It's impossible to ignore the man when he walks on or speaks.  With that commanding voice and manner, the lovestruck and lovesick Orsino remained partially hidden behind Orsino the ruler.  As just one example, take the way (in the opening scene) he barked out the line, "ENOUGH!  No more!"

Shannon Taylor also took an unusual and different tack with Olivia.  While her appearance in mourning was stately in a traditional way, she fell apart when struck by love, and bleated and yammered at times almost as frantically and incompetently as a female Bertie Wooster.

Michael Blake made much of his limited opportunities as Sebastian.

Centring the entire play was the delightful Viola/Cesario of Sarah Afful.  It's the finest performance I have seen her give.  Without any excess, she captured all the diverse moods and emotions of a character who is buffeted this way and that, without warning at times, by the bewildering romantic emotions of others and by her own conflicted feelings.

To conclude, I want to mention an unusual and striking tribute.  In her Director's Notes in the programme, Martha Henry spoke of the influence of Robin Phillips (to whose memory the production was dedicated) and of the collaborative nature of the production and rehearsal process.  In doing so, she mentioned by name a member of the Festival's properties department, Ken Dubblestyne -- naming him as the craftsman who created the beautifully curved swirling silver trees that hedged around the stage balcony.  Those trees proved to be versatile set pieces, not just ornaments, and added so much to the sparkling appearance of the stage -- appropriate for a festivity in the twelve days of Christmas, which is what the name Twelfth Night evokes.

It intrigues me that every production of this play I see leaves different visual elements and different characters firmly lodged in my memory.  From this one, I will certainly take away and treasure the memory of Rod Beattie's pompous oratory, Brent Carver's gently inward singing, and the vivid expressions playing across Sarah Afful's face as the situation become more and more tangled about her.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Stratford Festival 2017 # 2: Timon the Great

There's a reason why rarely-performed works are rarely performed.  It's usually because they are, to put it bluntly, clunkers.  Certainly Timon of Athens is one of the clunkier plays in the Shakespearean canon.  It ends very unpleasantly and bitterly, leaves ample numbers of loose ends in its wake, and contains an uncomfortable conjunction of different writing styles.  These difficulties are usually interpreted as proof of a dual authorship, with Thomas Middleton the most likely candidate.

Then why perform it at all?  Some parts are undoubtedly Shakespearean.  The rest, although different  in style, is by no means inconsiderable.  And in a world full of rapacious gold-diggers, the scenario of a philanthropist giving his considerable wealth all away to demanding and ungrateful "friends" most certainly strikes a chord with me.  Rare it will no doubt remain, but it's still worth performing and worth seeing.  And therefore I'm all the more grateful to Stratford for giving it one of its infrequent outings this season.

Rarer still was the privilege, which I discovered by looking around after I was seated, of being in attendance as a live stage production was filmed for later showing in Cineplex theatres, on CBC, and (I hope) as a DVD release.  I can honestly say that once the lights went down and the play began, I forgot all about the cameras as there were no distractions from moving camera rigs -- just five operators on five fixed stations.

Director Stephen Ouimette has presented a gripping production.  Timon is a play that has to crackle with extremes of emotion if it isn't going to fall flat.  This performance certainly did.  Only in a few moments of soliloquy was I conscious of an actor twisting and turning about to face all four sides of the audience in turn, an easy trap to fall into.  Although Ouimette laudably set out to change genders of some of the characters in an almost all-male script, he didn't venture into major character territory in doing so -- a pity, as this play offers more flexibility than many scripts for that kind of recasting.

Dana Osborne's modern designs bring Timon squarely into our own times, but subtly and with only the most minimal touches of set pieces and costumes.  Particularly intriguing were the clear see-through chairs in the dinner party sequences, a little subconscious hint that Timon's wealth and benevolence were to prove as ephemeral as his friends' loyalty.

Characters in Timon of Athens tend to revolve on and off stage in groups -- with no one individual in any particular group standing out more than the others.  Thus, it is truly a "company play" and the depth of the Stratford company is amply illustrated by the overall strength of performances in these groups.  Effete artists, over-grateful friends, politically savvy senators, sensuous dancers, demanding servants of creditors -- all leaped to life in turn, never deteriorating into mere talking heads.  The depth of the production in this respect was notable.

Of all the characters in the entire play, the one who most shows genuine care and concern for others is Timon's Steward, here played by Michael Spencer-Davis.   Without being in the least imposing or dominating in any physical way, this Steward yet drew all attention to himself by the merits of his warm, true, and real personality.  A finely shaded portrayal of an extraordinary "ordinary man."

The play as a whole stands or falls by three particular characters: Alcibiades (the military officer), Apemantus (the cynical philosopher), and Timon himself.

Tim Campbell gave us an Alcibiades of high-strength steel, a man of power and determination raised to the nth degree when crossed.  His most powerful moment came in the final scene when he led his soldiers in an assault on his home state of Athens.  Standing alone in an aisle, stock still, without any reaction at all, he watched as war and tumult roiled all across the stage in front of and below him.  A frightening and gripping image.

Ben Carlson's Apemantus was a fine portrait of sardonic cynicism writ large.  In the first act, he aptly portrayed the polar opposite of Timon's open-handed generosity and kindness.  In the second act I hoped for a little more intensity in his last confrontation with Timon.  Carlson's great strength is his ability to be heard in all parts of the audience, no matter which way he happens to be facing.

Joseph Ziegler's Timon was a more nuanced portrayal than I have seen before.  If his open-handed philanthropist in the early scenes was a little too goody-two-shoes to be believable, all was redeemed and more than redeemed as the play unfolded.

The scene in which the Steward brings him to realize that he has given away his entire fortune was a virtuoso demonstration of awareness dawning by degrees, line by line and moment by moment.  Even better was the turn-on-a-dime explosion of rage in his final dinner party.

Ziegler's finest moments came in the second act.  It's an almost insurmountable challenge for any actor to play an hour-long litany of hate and disgust without becoming boring.  Ziegler more than met the challenge.  With flexible nuances of voice and manner, with unexpected grace notes of a sigh here and a chuckle there, Ziegler kept us engrossed and involved in the continuing downfall of the man.  It's customary to refer to Timon as a man whose life comes crashing to a halt, but Ziegler persuaded me, for one, that Timon still had important discoveries to make and conclusions to reach in the final days of his time on earth.

Thus, when the Steward bluntly announced, in the final scene, "Timon is dead," it came not so much as a tragic end but as a fulfilment and culmination of a life.  And that change of tone had everything to do with Ziegler's uniquely multi-faceted performance in the title role of the play.

PS  If you do go to see the show at the Cineplex, I'm in the top row of seats -- and I am not waving a sign that says, "Hi, Mom!"

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Stratford Festival 2017 # 1: Crapshoot

Anyone who has even glanced over the Stratford playbill for this season knows which show I went to first!  I think this marks the fifth different production of Guys and Dolls that I've seen -- or is it the sixth?  I've always found it a very entertaining show, although I tend to shy away from rhetorical assertions that it is "the greatest" or even "one of the greatest" of Broadway musicals.  Others have stated that, and continue to do so.

One element that draws me back to this show again and again is an element which it shares with Kiss Me, Kate and a handful of other shows: the clever and witty lyrics of the songs -- with Adelaide's Lament as the prime example.

Another is the interesting gender dynamics.  People who describe the show as "sexist" haven't looked much deeper than the persistent use of the word "doll" to describe a young woman.  But among the leading characters, it is the two female leads -- Adelaide and Sarah -- who show signs of growth and development, of willingness to progress and willingness to learn. 

Their male counterparts, Nathan Detroit and Sky Masterson, spend all their lives trying their damnedest not to change, and have to be dragged kicking and screaming (metaphorically) into the future by Adelaide and Sarah.  Indeed, it's the women who call all the important shots in these relationships.

The third key element for me is the demand of the show for half a dozen major production dance numbers, several of them choreographed at the highest level of athleticism.

Director/choreographer Donna Feore has once again demonstrated her mastery of staging musicals in the Stratford Festival's classic Festival theatre, a rather small thrust stage which at first glance doesn't seem overly friendly to the idea of large-scale production numbers.

The energy and momentum of the dances are dazzling.  As men did repeated backflips, I caught myself thinking that one miscalculation would send them flying off the stage -- and a second later, one did slide off the edge, rolling over onto his face in the same smooth movement which made it plain that the slide was intentional.  The Hot Box Girls were polished and professional in their set numbers, where some productions will make them a little clumsy as if they are in the lowest tier of the nightclub business.  This Hot Box plainly lived in the top drawer.

When it comes to the major characters of the show, the honours of the night definitely went to Sean Arbuckle as Nathan Detroit, and to Bonnie Jordan, subbing into the role of Miss Adelaide.  Each one had great solo moments, in both dialogue and singing, but the interplay between the two in their shared scenes that was hilarious.

Jordan was most memorable in one of the highly amusing numbers of the show, Take Back Your Mink, a song-and-dance where choreography, staging, costuming, and singing intersected to near perfection.

Where the show went slightly flat was with the other lead couple of Evan Buliung as Sky Masterson and Alexis Gordon as Sarah Brown.  Both are good singers and dancers, but their performances lacked a little zip and go, and their interactions didn't seem to generate much chemistry.  What I felt was especially lacking was any sense of how hard the two of them try to fight against the magnetism that is drawing them towards each other.

Among the supporting cast there were a few standouts too.  Laurie Murdoch, in a Stratford debut role, found some lovely understated moments of human connection as Arvide Abernathy.  Steve Ross scored some good moments as Nicely Nicely Johnson, especially in the classic eleven o'clock number, Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat.  Beau Dixon absolutely dominated the stage in the crap game scene as Big Jule.

In sum: an entertaining evening of theatre, some fantastic dancing, great singing, and plenty of amusing comedy, albeit with a few slacker moments.