Sunday 8 December 2013

Quartet aims at War Babies & Boomers

A slogan-pin popular with aging lotharios states : "The older I get the better I was." Or as the T-shirt on the octogenarian gentleman I see often at the gym proclaims : "Growing old ain't for sissies." Such as these might well be sub-texts behind the script of Quartet currently being performed by RAP Productions at the PAL Studio Theatre on Cordero Street.

Plot overview :  Like the Performing Arts Lodge (PAL) itself, the setting for Quartet is a retirement lodge. Designed to house musicians particularly, the fictional lodge focuses on four former opera soloists who a lifetime ago performed Giuseppi Verdi's "Rigoletto" together. Once again -- in their 8th decade of life -- through a combination of choice-&-chance they are thrown together anew. To honour Verdi, "the best composer for voice who ever lived", a gala is performed at the lodge on the anniversary of Verdi's birthday each October 10th. The dramatic tension in this comedy is whether the tenor, the baritone and the contralto from 30-years-back can convince the newest resident, the prima donna soprano, to join them in a reprise of the opera's 3rd act quartet at the upcoming gala. Along the way playwright Ronald Harwood has each of the characters reveal snippets of their long-ago selves, secrets and gossip, revelations of sexcapades both real and imagined from back in the day.

Character takes :  What gets the juice flowing in this script is the fact that prima donna soprano Jean (Yvonne Adalian) who's newly arrived was once married to the tenor Reg (Sean Allan) whom she divorced decades back in a nanosecond before wandering through 3-4 subsequent marriages. Reg is aghast that the lodge would take Jean in as a resident without consulting him first, given their history. He is apopleptic about her imminent arrival. His baritone buddy Wilf (David Petersen) is a widower -- a randy and priapic old lech. He poo-poos Reg's angst because he's too focus'd on wanting to mount the contralto Cissy (Wendy Morrow Donaldson) and/or any other female who comes to mind. 

When Jean arrives she delivers Reg a speech apologizing for ditching him shortly after their nuptials, asking that he treat her nice, and then promptly announces "There! I've done it. I've been practicing that for weeks!" Reg, who's a bookish art-nerd, finds the warmth of his enthusiasm for her apology is somewhat less than luke. The effervescent Cissy, meanwhile -- who avoids Wilf's droolish monologues toward her by donning earphones to listen to old opera CD's of them all -- emerges from one of these opera swoons to propose they re-mount the quartet for the Verdi gala. Jean is adamant. No! And that's final. Depressed at being at the lodge "on charity", she bivouacs in her apartment and weeps, rages and throws things for a couple of days. Reg softens. She is vulnerable after all, not just a heartless mannequin. He tells the other two only he might be able to coax Jean into being the 4th voice come October 10th.

First impressions : The Quartet script didn't get much pick-up after its 1999 initial production until Harwood re-jigged his book for a 2012 movie directed by Dustin Hoffman. In Hoffman's debut as a director (at age 75) the movie featured an all-star cast including Maggie Smith as Jean, Tom Courtenay as Reggie, and Billy Connolly as Wilf. In fact it was seeing the movie that prompted RAP Productions' Sean Allen and Camilla Ross, both PAL residents, to re-mount the original stage play version. One lesson that perhaps ought to have not been lost on RAP Director Matthew Bissett is that the Hoffman big screen show ran for 98 minutes, full-stop. That's some 25 or so minutes shorter than Mr. Bissett's Cordero Street stage version. Twenty-five minutes easily shaveable from the original script i.m.o. 

That said, the play is heartwarming and seasonal in its "all's well that ends well" plotline. Because both through their characters' lines and in real Vancouver life, too, the cast acts out this proposition : Life is not 'then'. Life is not 'when'. Life is now. And now is what you make of it. So get on with it. As Reg and Wilf and Cissy remind each other throughout : "NSP!" -- "no self-pity" permitted on the premises.

Jean isn't quite 'there' yet. She whines and whimpers and whinges in classic princess, prima donna mode : "I am a different person today than who I was -- that somebody shone in the firmament whose light is now extinguished!" Balderdash and bollix, Wilf says, commandingly. "No, you're not. Nor are we. We've aged, that's all. And it happened so fast we didn't have time to change. In spirit, I'm the same lovely lad I always was. I just happen to be trapped in a cage made of rusty iron bars."

Earlier, Reg tries to win Jean over to the quartet re-mount idea. "It's my opinion that performing again, albeit once a year, to an audience of our fellow residents, to members of staff, the odd visitors, is a way of reaffirming our existence."

The fun of it all : Most reviews focus on Jean's role in the piece and point to Cissy's part as "secondary" and even "least sympathetic". Not so in the RAP production. To this reviewer, Ms. Donaldson's Cissy is the glue that holds the production together. She has the brightest glint in her eye, she has the ginger snap in her lines, she has the gesticulations and blocking quick-step that make her character the most likeable and believable and rich. Aside from his "rusty iron bars" soliloquy that was grand, Mr. Petersen's Wilf character as drawn by Harwood is mostly a dowdy version of Artie Johnson the lech from t.v.'s Laugh-In days that Mr. Petersen does his damndest to flesh out. Reg is thoughtful to a fault, an impotent force when not in tenor mode, except for a seemingly odd-character lapse when he rages at one of the aides, repeatedly, for failing to give him marmalade for brekkie instead of jam. Sean Allen marks him well. As Jean, Ms. Adalian turns in a nuanced rendition of a somewhat crippled soul who finally grasps that "was" was then and except for a few CD re-mount sales, "was" don't matter no more to no one.

The Glenn MacDonald set of piano drawing room worked well, but even higher kudos to whoever chose the costumes from the stash provided to RAP by the United Players. Excellent throughout!

Who gonna like : This play is one we War Babies and the Boomers who followed us will appreciate for its insights into life after kids, the 'burbs, the careers, and the klieg lights. As a kind of play-within-a-play given the PAL connection of its cast, it proves the point of Wilf's soliloquy and does so touchingly. The characters offer insights into what last-chapter pages might read like for many of us if we're lucky enough to make it to the 8th and 9th decades of life or beyond. For that it's surely a "go". Despite its ploddy length particularly in the first act, the repartee between the characters is superb. The make-up scene prepping for the gala where they reveal their secrets and peccadilloes and truths from their pasts is where Harwood's script tickles and delights and the cast delivers very agreeably indeed. 


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