Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Winter's Tale / Twelfth Night

The Winter's Tale

I saw the third night's performance of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale on June 30 in Toronto's High Park (Dream in the Park). Director Estelle Shook hit the comedic notes but the drama fell flat.

The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's "problematic plays" in the sense that it neither fits well with the tragedies nor the comedies. The first part of the play relies heavily on psychological drama like the tragedies, uses a narrated bridge to explain that 16 years have gone by, and resumes as a romance about how thwarted love prevails. As far as theatrical devices go, this is classic Shakespeare, but the text is more disjointed than most. The Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's less frequently performed plays and it is apparent why.

Despite difficulties, there were some high notes. David Jansen as King Leontes gave a subtle and intimate performance. Nicole Robert playing Paulina is a powerful presence on the stage. She has some whopping long speeches, but she gets a handle on them and carries them off competently if not compellingly. Kelly McIntosh as Hermione was wonderful as the statue, which is probably not the highest praise that an actor could hope to receive for a performance. She looked awfully reminiscent of a Virgin Mary, in her body posture and draping white cloth, which was, no doubt, a directorial choice and not entirely her fault. Sean Dixon and George Masswohl as the shepherd son and father had great comedic rapport. It is too bad that the father and son appear to be the same age. The love story between Thomas Olajide (Florizel) and Perdita (Jasmine Chen) was not compelling; they established no sense of intimacy or connection between them.

The cheap and tatty Victorian costuming added nothing to the ambiance.

Overall, the play lacked dramatic tension and the ability to draw the audience into the story and get the public to care about the characters.

I had hoped for more from this production. Repercussion Theatre of Montreal put on an excellent performance of As You Like It in 2009, with the additional challenge that their shows are itinerant, performing in a different city park each night. That production proved that you don't need a big budget to bring Shakespeare to life with meaning and energy. Toronto's Canadian Stage company has been around for 24 years, performing Shakespeare on the permanent stage in High Park since 1987. The group might be small and low budget, but it is not inexperienced. This production, however, was strictly amateurish.

This Winter's Tale was still frozen and stilted. I am hoping it will have thawed and show some more signs of life by the time I come back and see it again with my boys in August.

Twelfth Night

I saw Twelfth Night at the Stratford (Ontario) main stage during the matinee performance on July 3. The show is in preview performances, with the official opening slated for July 15. This production, however, was far from half-baked.

Director Des McAnuff takes his cue from two themes in the text: music and making sport.

"If music be the food of love, play on!"
Music is the theme that holds this production together. With a nod to the vibrant Canadian folk rock scene, music is used to underscore the action, becoming a character in its own right in the way that Feste the fool serves as chorus or commentator on the action. Twelfth Night has a number of musical interludes written into the text. This production stays true to the spirit of the original, and pumps it up a notch –well, several notches– with no modification needed to the text with the exception of renaming the lute the Fender. The production is slick and sharp, with a light show, amped up sound, and glam costumes. The key question when you apply an off the wall interpretation to Shakespeare is: Does it work? It does. The cast and musicians pull it off beautifully. They rocked it!

Making sport was the other approach. Twelfth Night has a significant subplot in which Sir Toby, Maria, and Fabian make sport of Malvolio. Director McAnuff taken the metaphor of making sport and made it literal. He incorporates golf (Osorio's calculating finesse and willingness to pick up the ball and walk with it if actually play seems too challenging), baseball (Osorio's strength and Viola's aim), tennis (Olivia find herself facing off against a Malviolio in his "madness," channelling McEnroe perhaps?), fencing (an unwilling Viola as Cesario is forced to duel with the equally terrified Sir Andrew Aguecheek), and Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian plotting as they lounge in the sauna, the classic old boys' network. The metaphor works beautifully.

This production uses a mix of costuming styles. The costumes are predominantly lushly Victorian, but when Malvolio is instructed to appear in yellow stockings and cross gartered before his lady Olivia, he comes out in full Elizabethan regalia. Viola disguised as Cesario is in modern dress, specifically a white suit, looking the spitting image of Ellen. Her twin brother Sebastian was effeminately milquetoast in the exact same costume. The musicians, who also serve as the members of Duke Osorio's court, were bedecked in outfits that were both modern rock star, and reminiscent of court finery. The mix of styles defies expectations but it is harmonious rather than discordant.

Outstanding performances
The two characters to watch in this play are Sir Toby Belch (Brian Dennehy) and Feste the fool/jester (Ben Carlson). Each serve as commentators: Sir Toby representing the clash between the social classes and Feste commenting constantly on the ironies of human relations and what constitutes sensible/foolish behaviour, deception, and madness. Both delivered superb performances, with Feste appropriately also being the lead singer in the production.

As to the rest: sit back and enjoy.
Understudy Suzy Jane Hunt played the role of Viola/Cesario competently, although she could have used a bit more energy.
Stephen Ouimette as Sir Andrew Aguecheek was sweetly and poignantly pathetic. His timing was brilliant. He has raised the art of the pregnant pause to its highest form!
Tom Rooney as Malvolio was delightfully duped, but not as strong a portrayal as I have scene in other productions.
Mike Shara as Osorio was single-mindedly shallow in his rock star glitter and gold lame, dogged pursuit of Olivia, and indomitable conviction of the inferiority of the fairer sex.
Sara Topham as Olivia provided as suitable counterpart, proving his point as the woman sworn to mourning who fends off Osorio's advances, but who immediately embraces Cesario.

Director Des McAnuff nailed the characterizations, and has drawn very dynamic performances from the actors.

Was there any evidence of the fact that this show is still is dress rehearsals? We did have on onstage incident: Stephen Ouimette's towel slipped during the sauna scene, giving the audience a flash of Aguecheek's aged butt cheek.

Twelfth Night is a comedy: Comedy, music and sport all depend on timing, and this show didn't miss a beat. This is a production not to be missed.

1 comment:

Elle Dubya said...

Somehow all your punny wordplay works wonderfully well in your reviews. I agree with your analysis completely and definitely could not have said it better myself!