Saturday, June 21, 2014

Edwardian Oddities

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The Charity That Began at Home
By St. John Hankin
2:00, Sunday, June 8, 2014
Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

The Charity That Began at Home is a discomforting Edwardian comedy. Lady Denison (Fiona Reid) has been advised that the best way to be charitable and coax better behaviour from others is by setting a good example. She embraces this notion by inviting a group of undesirable misfits to her country home, in the hope that by enjoying civilized company they may improve their own manners and hence their social prospects. The menagerie of boors and bores shows no signs of reform. So long as they are only boring, they present no imminent danger. That, however, changes.

One of the guests, Hugh Verreker (Martin Harper), is a disgraced army officer who was dismissed over having made a loan to himself from the regiment's cash. He makes a convincing argument about how he intended to pay back the money and had arranged for a loan from his uncle, but the repayment did not arrive before the cash was discovered to be missing. In discussing his case, Margery (Julia Course), Lady Denison's daughter, is told that Verreker might be a scoundrel but that under the influence of good people he could reform. Margery therefore concludes that the best way to reform him would be to marry him. This is when the notion of commitment to charity clashes with practicality.

Even the servant Soames has been engaged to work in the household as an opportunity to give him a second chance in life after having been dismissed from his last position. The outcome is that Soames rapes the maid Anson and leaves her pregnant. When he is confronted, he acknowledges his act and he is entirely unapologetic about it. He adds that he cannot possibly marry Anson because he is already married. The Edwardian audience would have been horrified that he will not give his victim the respectability of marriage, but the modern audience is relieved that the rape victim is not forced to enter a binding relationship with her abuser. It is also uncomfortable to note that Lady Denison is much more concerned that Soames should be given the opportunity to redeem his respectability, rather than ensuring that Anson will be able to lead a respectable life. By the mores of the times, she will not, she is "ruined."

When does selfless goodness stop being a good thing and start to be a clearly foolish endeavour? Does anyone really change? The social concerns may be different nowadays but the notion of world responsibility toward the less fortunate remains a concern. How personally should we take the notion of "charity?" To what extent should we open our hearts and our homes to a person who needs rescuing? It is not an easy question.

Hankin was criticized in his time because he failed to provide "satisfactory" endings to his plays. How can this be a comedy is Margery's heart is broken? Will Lady Denison and Margery continue to pursue this kind of charity? Should they do so? Are they right to flaunt social convention in the name of kindness or is their intention misguided and foolish? Should personal sacrifice extend to marrying someone to redeem them? There remains a wide gap between the romantic ideal and the practical reality, and Hankin's comedy is not as light as it would appear. I consider the fact that he does not provide facile resolution as a strength, rather than a weakness. This play was deeper and more relevant than it would appear at first glance.

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The Sea
By Edward Bond
8:00, Sunday, June 8, 2014
Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

It is 1907. A storm rages at sea. A young man is drowned. The Coast Guard is at arms because invaders may be attacking. The play was originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre on 22 May 1973. The director's notes in the programme refer to Margaret Thatcher, the IRA, Pink Floyd, Monty Python's Plying Circus, and the invasion of the body snatchers. The play looks Edwardian --it is set in Edwardian times-- but it has contemporary concerns.

The opening scene shows the wind machine, property of the East Anglia Theatre Company, on the beach at night. Like Brecht, Bond reminds us that this is a play, not real life (epic theatre convention). As the machine is set in motion, the "storm" rages and the story begins to unfold. A young man's boat overturns and he is killed, either by the storm or possibly by Hatch (Patrick Galligan) the maniacal leader of the Coast Guard who is convinced that aliens from outer space are attempting to land on England's shores. Hatch, the draper, a seller of yard goods, is a bona fide mad hatter. He, in turn, is terrorized by Lady Rafi (Fiona Reid), the town's matriarch, who orders goods and then will not accept them when they arrive. She maintains the social order and runs the local amateur theatre society in which she is the star. Willy (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) survives the shipwreck and must go speak to the deceased's fiancée Rose (Julia Course). Hatch presumes that Willy is an invading aliens and threatens his life. Evens (Peter Millard), the drunken hermit who lives in an abandoned boat on the beach, comforts Willy and tells him that Hatch is harmless.

I felt like I was at sea for most of the first act. I could make no sense of this play until I latched onto the notion that the main characters are all Shakespearean fools. Lady Rafi is the tyrannical fool. Hatch is the mad fool. Evens is the wise fool. Once this became clear, the whole play started to make more sense. In the end each of the fools tells the young people to leave this place: Lady Rafi and Evens tell them to get away for their own good and Hatch tells them to get out. Staying would only lead to madness.

Several elements did not hold together. Hatch the draper was unconvincing in his over the top lunacy. It is hard to see how he could hold down any sort of job at all, much less run a store and serve as the head of the coast guard. The scene in which Lady Rafi is declaiming her lines in the theatre society rehearsal as Orpheus, asking a stalwart Rose as Eurydice to come back from the dead, is a moment of high irony, but not believable. The vocal battle and the tussle over the ashes at the funeral were delightfully uproarious but blatantly silly. There were moments of levity and seriousness, but overall, I am not convinced that this play manages to make enough sense of the madness. Also, the Shaw Festival could use a bit of work on its wigs. The wig lines were visible on every character in both productions and it is disconcerting.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Stratford 1: Nothing Was What I Expected

Crazy for You
2:00 Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Festival Theatre

I suppose I had better 'fess up and admit that I chose this show based on a misunderstanding: I thought that Crazy for You was by George and Ira Gershwin. What I found out was that although the music in it is theirs, the play is not. Ken Ludwig wrote the script, strung along a series of Gershwin songs. Sometimes the music hangs together and contributes to the rather thin plot and sometimes it is a non-sequitur. Director and choreographer Donna Feore whipped the dancers into a high energy show and Natalie Daradich as Polly Baker sang her heart out. There was great singing and dancing, but being a musical is no excuse for a lack of depth and a contrived plot.

Mother Courage and Her Children
2:00 Thursday, June 12, 2014
Tom Patterson Theatre

This is the first time I have seen a performance at the Tom Patterson Theatre, the smallest and most intimate of the three festival theatres, named after the festival's founder. I had also never seen Mother Courage and Her Children. I was aware that Bertolt Brecht is big with leftists, and I could see why. The main character Anna Fierling, Mother Courage, is reviled for her commitment to commerce and for sacrificing her children to war. Written in 1939 but set during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Courage and her three children have a caravan that they drag around to the battle front, seeing an opportunity for survival by selling to the soldiers: Buy cheap, sell dear, that is the capitalist mantra. There is always profit to be made in war and peace is not good for business. Mother Courage is not sentimental about war. She sees in it a way to keep herself and her family alive.

But war always exacts a dear price. Against his mother's wishes, first son Eilif leaves and joins the army. He ends up being executed for killing peasants, the same act for which he had previously been rewarded when he was plundering farms so that the army could feed itself. Second son, Swiss Cheese, becomes an army paymaster. He hides the regiment's paybox from invading soldiers but he is captured while attempting to return the paybox. Mother Courage attempts to negotiate with the soldiers to free him, but she haggles too long over the price and Swiss Cheese is killed. Suspecting that she may be an accomplice, the soldiers bring his body to her in the expectation that she will break down, but she steels herself and does not acknowledge that he is her son. It is a heart-rending moment. Later in the story, mute daughter Kattrin is raped and disfigured by an army clerk. Courage's old love interest, the Cook, reappears. He has inherited his mother's inn and he wants Courage to come with him to run the inn, but there would be no room for Kattrin. Courage refuses to leave her mute and disfigured daughter. Ultimately Kattrin meets her end when she sacrifices herself by warning the town of imminent attack, while her mother is in the town, trying to broker a deal to sell her goods.

We had lively discussion over the play. Did Courage recklessly endanger her children with her desire to make a living? Would they have been better off staying in one place and eking a living from the earth? Would that have saved her sons from conscription, her family from starvation, her daughter from rape and murder? It is debatable. Being useful is a way of staying alive, but is it reckless? Certainly many innocent farmers died or were killed in the course of war with no second thoughts given to them. Mother Courage's character is widely condemned for her "adoration of capitalism" and she is dubbed the "hyena of the battlefield," but she did not abandon her daughter when she could have had a comfortable life with her lover. The inexorable machinery of war is what decides outcomes, regardless of whether you decide to confront it or hide from it.

Seana McKenna gave a great performance as Mother Courage, a performance only a mother could give.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
2:00 Friday, June 13, 2014
Festival Theatre

I hadn't planned on seeing A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford. Or rather I hadn't planned on seeing this version; I thought I was buying tickets to see the Chamber version, which I have never seen. That being said, I have no regrets about having seen this Midsummer, even though I have seen this particular play umpteen times. Director Chris Abraham faces the same problem: How to make a production that people know too well, fresh.

His hook was to make it modern through a gender-bending approach. He created a new prologue as an overlay to introduce the performance: A backyard barbecue party in celebration of a gay wedding between two men. What sort of entertainment shall we have? A play! Another wedding, another play within the play, and thus the first act is launched.

In keeping with the gay theme, Lysander, Hermia's love interest is played by and as a woman. In this day and age, we can roll with it. It works well as a dramatic argument too: Egeus doesn’t want his daughter to marry her gay lover. Chick Reid is cast as a female Puck but there is nothing special about that switch-up, and her portrayal was pretty nondescript. The gasp moment came when Titania appeared on stage. Evan Buliung and Jonathan Goad play Oberon and Titania, and the two of them take turns playing each other's characters in alternate performances. Titania is usually portrayed as a woman of strength, titanium-strength, but to take the idea one step further and put a well-muscled man with a booming voice into sweeping cocktail dress brings a whole new perspective to the Queen of the Fairies. Oberon was duly manly, a burly Elrond with ram's horns. Rounding out this production was a chorus of children who double as both the wedding guests and the fairies and sing a charmingly thin but heartfelt version of Bruno Mars "Grenade." Later, as all of the lovers are duly married and a dance is called for, the fab disco classic "Bizarre Love Triangle" could not have been a better choice. I was ready to buy the gay pretext. Why not? The suggestive elements have been there since Shakespeare's time when women weren't allowed on the stage and the audience was always aware that they were seeing men kissing other men who were pretending to be women. Even the other play-within-the-play, the tale of Thisbe and Pyramus by the "rude mechanicals" plays on this idea; Abraham just takes it that much further.

This play lends itself to slapstick, and Abraham milked it to the max, by the time the characters were squishing the icing from the wedding cupcakes into each other's faces, the kids were still laughing but I wasn't. A few other directorial misteps: a mute Egeus using sign language. This character ultimately does not get his way, but that does not mean that he has no voice. Liisa Repo-Martell as Helena, dressed in a dowdy Alice in Wonderland style, whined her way through all of her lines. Was she really that bad or was this a deliberate directorial choice? Given the level of competence at Stratford, my inclination is to blame the director. The Flamenco-themed music as Puck is leading the lovers astray in the woods was odd too, seeing as there was no other Spanish motif in the production. In contrast, the backyard barbecue set that becomes the Athenian forest, the twinkling wedding lights, the children running around with fairy wings, all made perfect logical sense as they crossed over between the respective story lines. The bouquets decorating each row of seats for the audience were a nice touch, reminding us that we are also part of this and the story is as contemporary as it is old. The use of water was very good, as a backyard water feature, a forest stream, and with great comic potential for falling into and splashing around. I also had a giggle over the faint sound of swans/geese in the background as Theseus and Hippolyta sipped their champagne by the (Avon) river. Mention should be made of Stratford veteran Stephen Ouimette who was delightful as Bottom, which has got to be one of most all-time fun roles to play.

The matinee performance was full of high school kids. Frankly it made a nice change from the geriatric crowd that has been at the other plays we have attended. The kids loved the rollicking production. They probably found it edgy and could hoot along with the slapstick humor. The cast was dead on with its timing and focus. They brought Shakespeare to life for an audience that might otherwise walk away and say, what does this have to do with anything? I admire the production for its seductive qualities even if I felt it was a bit too over the top. If you want to get the kids to come back, the performance has to speak to their lives, and I could see them telling their friends that they went to Stratford to see Shakespeare and it wasn't lame, it was pretty cool. I don't think that Chris Abraham's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is going to become a definitive interpretation, but it was a lot of fun and it is certainly one I will remember.