Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Irving's Owen Meany raises old grievances anew
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Popular American novelist John Irving's books are often described as storytelling that is Dickensian. Sprawling. Epic. I.e. not lending themselves to the reductions and redactions required of stage or film treatment (The 1999 Cider House Rules flik captured a few slices of the original novel mostly thanks to Michael Caine's superior turn as Dr. Wilbur Larch : one twinkle in Caine's eyes is worth a dozen Irving pages). 

For his part, British playwright Simon Bent took on the challenge of adapting A Prayer For Owen Meany to the stage because he himself prefers economy to embellishment. Crystallization rather than the full-on character elaboration Irving is famous for. Such challenge is what Director Ian Farthing's troupe the Ensemble Theatre Company currently faces at the chummy and intimate (and summery hot!) Jericho Arts Centre.

A show for our time ? In reviewing Irving's novel for the New York Times back in March of 1989, Alfred Kazin observed that "...some of our most talented novelists see the political condition of American society as a disaster, the temper of many Americans as correspondingly dangerous. In 'A Prayer for Owen Meany' John Irving makes it all too plain, and with positive rage, that in his eyes American society has been a moral disaster since the 1960's." Nigh unto 30 years back when Kazin wrote that descriptor.  Long! before any of Bill-&-Monica, WMD, 'Arab Spring' -or- The Donald. 

Important to note that the operative words in Kazin's piece are "moral disaster". JFK sleeping with Marilyn Monroe is pointed to as a cardinal example of such. This from a horny, priapic Owen who propositions a high school classmate's mother. 

Step-dad Dan gives son John (Anthony Santiago) a baseball glove that thrills Owen Meany (Chris Lam), too.
Photo by Javier R. Sotres
For its part, today's zeitgeist features a world whose antithetical religious faiths are openly at war not only with each other as usual, but sect-vs-sect as well. Given the seemingly amoral world that is now ours, then, remounting this script is apt and appropriate. Human reflections and age-old themes are resurrected anew. The Meany dialogue abounds with considerations such as fate-vs-free will; faith-vs-doubt; organized religion-vs-personal spirituality; loyalty-vs-identity; freedom-vs-duty.  Perhaps not simply a trip down memory lane to look at the post-WW II America of the 50's and 60's -- that was Irving's avowed purpose when he originally scripted his 637-page saga.

What the show brings to the stage : Two lifelong friends are the play's focus. They remain so, perhaps curiously, even after the age 11 soprano-voiced shrimp Owen Meany (Chris Lam) accidentally kills the mother of his friend John Wheelwright (Anthony Santiago). Just 39, Tabitha Wheelwright (Alexis Kellum-Creer) -- whom Owen loves desperately -- dies from a freak line-drive foul ball to the left temple Owen hits at the boys' weekly little league game. Her breathtaking death is what inspires Owen to think himself an "instrument of God", else why would God permit such a tragedy at his hand?

Happier times when Tabitha (Alexis Kellum-Creer) and Dan Needham (Adam Beauchesne) plan to wed.
Javier Sotre photo.
With the death of his single-mom mother -- the identity of his father remains a family mystery for years to come -- John is put through his paces on a host of religious and personal footings. Most of the action occurs in his home town somewhat archly named Gravesend, which can be given either atheist or Christian meanings. Competing theologies -- Catholic, Episcopalian, Congregational -- are visited and dissected, often with irony and comic flair. 

Along the way Owen is regularly bullied for his slight stature and skreaky voice, not to mention his fat intellect, his continuous disparagement of The System and this fixation of his that he is God's "instrument" -- a new Jesus, perhaps. He has dreams and visions, and imagines (correctly, it turns out) the precise day and time of his own death. 

He joins the U.S. Army, does service in Nam as a medic and comes home alive. After Owen's heroic death in Arizona at the hands of a messed up white trash teenager, his buddy Johnny hies himself off to Canada to teach at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. Shortly before, the ball that killed his mom is found so the final apocalyptic revelations of the plot are now all at hand. Johnny provides the show's denouement with a touching tribute that echoes the words of the quirky little fellow, his friend : he'll pray to God the rest of his days to Please! just bring him back!

Production values that shine through :  Having read Meany years ago, I for one might agree that at first blush it appears unfit for conversion to a stage play. But Simon Bent -- except for a hopelessly didactic soliloquy by Owen at play's end -- does a clever turn pulling the best bits from Irving's layered story and making a watchable comic soap opera with serious ethical underpinnings out of it all.

Staging (blocking, actor placement & stage business) by Director Ian Farthing was extremely effective on the "thrust" stage -- audience on three sides. Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston's ginormous wooden armchair for pint-sized Owen was perfect. His accompanying side-piece living room for Owen's dour Irish parents next door to dad's quarry worked well for contrast.  Costumes, lighting and sound spots contributed to a rich outing. That the script was cut down by a 1/2-hour and compressed into two acts instead of three as performed elsewhere previously was certainly a wise dramatic decision. 

Angry brother (Francis Winter) rants at Owen Meany over his brother's futile VietNam War death.
Javier Sotre photo.
Acting pin-spots : Kudos to Chris Lam for maintaining his high-pitched nerdish performance the night long as God's tormented agent Owen Meany. As one steeped in Christian theology for most of my seven decades, the thrust-&-parry of the religious arguments resonated well. Opposite, Anthony Santiago as Johnny worked hard to act the part of Owen's grammar school chum.

The nascent lovers Tabitha (Ms. Kellum-Creer) and Dan Needham (Adam Beauchesne) were touching, lit.-&-fig. Their wedding \ funeral staging piece was clever and well-executed. As the Jarvitt family's 15-year-old psycho son, Francis Winter was chilling. Of the dozen other actors on stage, special shout-outs to Sue Sparlin as Grandma Wheelwright and to her sardonic cook and helpmeet Lydia played by Lindsay Nelson. Both choice bits of acting. But strong performances by everyone in the show, no question.

Who gonna like :  It certainly helps to know the Irving novel, its context, its Christian religious nuances from back-in-the-day, why the VietNam war was such a turning point for America at the time, all that. But even the middle-age woman behind me who had to ask what Episcopalian and Congregational church affiliations were all about -- Canadian equivalents being the Anglican and United Church groups, I advised her -- even she and her entourage enthused over the performances Ensemble Theatre Company put forth. 

Easy to kvetch over the usual overemphasis on the eff-word that Vancouver actors are famous for. And, as mentioned, the final Meany soliloquy was painful -- patronizing, pontifical and redundant -- but that is adaptor Simon Bent's "my bad", not the fault of the ETC company : and besides it's over in a few scant minutes. 

In this social media universe that consumes us, visiting ideas that require considerably more contemplation than a mere 140 characters on Twitter or the immediacy of an Instagram msg. is time well-invested for a summer night's divertissement out at Jericho Beach. 

Particulars : Produced by Ensemble Theatre Company.  At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  On until August 18.  Tickets & schedule from the company website  Run-time 140 minutes, including two intermissions.

Production team : Script by Simon Bent, adapted from the novel by John Irving. Director Ian Farthing.  Assistant Director Adam Beauchesne.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Lighting Designer Patrick Smith.  Costume Designer Julie White.  Sound Designer Karina Pry.  Stage Manager Sammie Hatch. 

Performers :  Mariam Barry (Girl/Sam White/Jarvitt).  Adam Beauchesne (Dan Needham).  Sue Sparlin (Grandma). Gabriel Carter (Dr. Dolder/Mr. Meany).  James Gill (Rev. Wiggins/Rawls).  Alysson Hall (Mary Beth).  Simon Hayama (Mr. Fish/Randy White/Jarvitt Father).  Alexis Kellum-Creer (Tabitha Wheelwright).  Chris Lam (Owen Meany).  Lindsay Nelson (Lydia).  Connor Parnall (Harold/Larry/Coach Chickering).  Christine Reinfort (Mrs. Lish).  Anthony Santiago (John Wheelwright).  Kim Steger (Mrs. Meany).  David Wallace (Rev. Merrill).  Rebecca Walters (Barb Wiggins/Jarvitt Mother).  Francis Winter (Boy/Chief Pike/Jarvitt Son). 

Addendum :  Ensemble Theatre Company, in its fifth Vancouver summer repertory season, describes itself thus : "Vancouver-based Ensemble Theatre Company is dedicated to producing accessible and relevant theatre. The company sees theatre as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on current issues, and takes artistically innovative approaches to classics as well as mounting challenging modern and contemporary plays. The non-profit arts organization is devoted to nurturing both artists and audiences, creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas and dialogue."

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Verona's Two Gents amusing & lite with a twist
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : My favourite author Nobel laureate Alice Munro titled her 10th short story collection (2002) Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. Whether on the mark in the least or not, it is certainly arguable that Munro chanced upon her title as a prim precis of Wm Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona. (To flesh out this drift a few additional nuance-words such as "ambition", "lust", "hypocrisy", "betrayal" &c. would be in order as well).

Written as a 20-something when WS was first starting out -- many historians think it his first play, perhaps -- four centuries of critics agree on one thing at least : the play presents little by way of true substance. 

Still, T2GoV clearly captures some of the exquisite pangs-&-pain that Spring fever produces in hot young bloods. And does so with vintage Billy Bard finesse. Says the duplicitous protagonist Proteus early on, "O, how this spring of love resembleth / The uncertain glory of an April day / Which now shows all the beauty of the sun / And by and by a cloud takes all away!"

A touch between Silvia (Adele Nironha) and Valentine (Nadeem Phillip) is all it takes.
David Blue photo.

How it's all put together :  Proteus and Valentine are gentry'd buddies who've grown up together. Their camaraderie is a fraternal love bond : they are tight as mates, "two brothers from a different mother". Proteus however has fallen arse-over-teakettle in love with the fair Julia. Valentine sniggers that love is "but a folly bought with wit / Or else a wit by folly vanquished." So Valentine heads 30 leagues west for gentlemanly grooming in the Duke of Milan's entourage. In leaving he predicts his pal Proteus will just continue to loll around Verona "living dully sluggariz'd at home" and "wear out thy youth with shapeless idleness".

But not quite so. Promptly after exchanging engagement rings and a mouthful of sweet nothings with Julia, Proteus is peremptorily ordered by Dad to join Valentine at the Duke's. Maybe some noble grace will rub off on him, too. Julia is heartsick. Despite a swack of skepticism from her maid Lucetta, she decides to don a disguise as "Sebastian", a page, and pursue Proteus to Milan to swoon anew in his arms.

In Greek mythology Proteus was the elder son of Poseiden known by some as the "god of elusive sea change", a character "mutable". For its part the name Valentine stems from the Latin meaning "strong and worthy". These WS characters quite follow suit. 

Almost instantly upon arrival, the love-skeptic Valentine is smitten by the Duke's daughter Silvia. She snatches his "strong and worthy" heart 100%. When he shows up soon thereafter, meanwhile, the "mutable" Proteus decides he wants Silvia for himself : his betrothed Julia is now "dead" to him. Without a soupcon of guilt or conscience he quickly betrays the young about-to-elope couple to the Duke. 

Manservant Launce (Andrew Cownden) with dog Crab (Gertie the Basset Hound) in an animated moment.
David Blue photo.
His bosom buddy Valentine is promptly banished, thus Proteus is free to pursue his quarry. And pursue he does, even after admitting to himself that "Sylvia is too fair, too true, too holy / To be corrupted with my worthless gifts." She is / She isn't. But not for want of trying : he even elects to force himself on her in a controversial attempted rape scene for which Valentine, not Silvia, presumes to forgive him.

Some reflection on the script : Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse, among others, opines that WS's ending to T2GoV was written all in a rush and/or was dictated by the actors in the troupe Lord Chamberlain's Men that included some fellows named Crosse, Slye & Poope (sic). Methinks must needs be so. Because ne'r was "a happy ending for all" less likely or warranted by its preceding plot sequences and character faults. But thankfully not so simple an ending to come on this night.

Director Scott Bellis rationalizes the original plot-&-dialogue this way : "This play rarely gets a professional staging nowadays...yet it is popular with high school and college drama programs. Like most of his comedies, it centres on themes familiar to the young : friendship, fidelity and love. Perhaps it is fitting that young people gravitate toward it...Like the Romantic poets of early 19th century Europe...these characters are expressing and acting on their emotional impulses, risking it all to ride those waves of feeling wherever they lead." To reveal the contemporized Bellis Ending in 2017 to this 1589 script would do neither him nor his troupe justice, so I shan't.

The honest Valentine (Nadeem Phillip) has to cope with his disloyal comrade Proteus (Charlie Gallant).
David Blue photo.
T2GoV as written demonstrates key Billy Bard comedy components that he will hone and perfect as time goes by : the men tend to be gullible, somewhat shallow nits, while thru their moxie-&-courage the women stand and deliver the best lines by far. As well, the comic relief of the manservant clowns Speed (Chirag Naik) and Launce (Andrew Cownden) along-side his pissy dog Crab was spot on, some of the best such stuff WS ever wrote i.m.o. (The latter two are show stealers for sure.)

Production values that shine through : Three primary values drive this production. Director Scott Bellis's decision to take Billy Bard's original romantic comedy and : do it up as modern farce-&-slapstick; interject present day laugh lines; hyperbolize Proteus's numerous innate character flaws; insert ironic cross-dressing of the outlaws into this male-only Elizabethan script. All of it served his unquestionably welcome feminist spin on the show. 

Second was the engagement of Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg to choreograph Bellis's interpretation. Her various dance routines across the night were manic and chipper additions that replaced chunks of dialogue (including some quoted at the top of this piece). It hi-lited the strong backslapping huggy bromance leitmotif WS intended regardless how blatantly sexist such frat-boy stuff appears to today's eye.

Third was the decision of Bellis and Costume Designer Mara Gottler to outfit the cast in Romantic 19th century threads. From the rich and sumptuous to the funky and earthy, they all worked wonderfully well. Piss, dirt, booze, perfume -- we smelled it all just by looking.

Footnote kudos as well to Sound Designer Julie Casselman whose romantic violins & cellos & string bass percussion enriched the visuals on stage nicely.

Acting pin-spots : Nadeem Phillip's Valentine was impassioned joy and hurt both, while opposite Charlie Gallant's at times shouty Proteus was a cleverly-projected pathetic character throughout. The byplay between Kate Besworth as the "jiltee" Julia with her maidservant Lucetta (Carmela Sison) was swell stuff. But it was Adele Noronha's Silvia that to this viewer married the original WS character with the contemporary version everso smartly. Her endless dripping sarcasm at Proteus was priceless. Typically for Bard shows, not a weak performance anywhere -- too many pin-spots to index each and every one individually.

Who gonna like : As with Taming of the Shrew, our more egalitarian sensibilities now than back-in-the-day make the subject matter of T2GoV difficult to embrace freely. But Billy Bard's plot twists and character manipulations and "stupid human tricks" demonstrate that in our 1st world enclave it truly is a case of plus ca change, plus c'est meme chose on so many levels. 

As usual, the Howard Family Stage is a welcome place to be embraced by the magic the Bard troupes regularly conjure. No question this a slickly delivered show with visual and audial richness that found the opening night crowd laughing out loud throughout and giving up many a hearty Huzzah! at curtain. 

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 35 shows between now and the September 20th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.orgRun-time 120 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Scott Bellis. Costume Designer Mara Gottler.  Scenery Designer Marshall McMahen.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews. Choreographer Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Sound Designer Julie Casselman.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn. Apprentice Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart.  Directing Apprentice Kayla Dunbar. Costume Design Apprentices Hannah Case, Alex Kirkpatrick.

Performers :  Kate Besworth (Julia).  Andrew Cownden (Launce). Paul Moniz de Sa (Antonio; Eglamour).  Edward Foy (Duke of Milan). Charlie Gallant (Proteus).  Gertie the Basset Hound (Crab). Olivia Hutt (Hostess).  Luisa Jojic (Pantina). Chirag Naik (Speed).  Adele Noronha (Silvia).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Turio).  Nadeem Phillip (Valentine).  Carmela Sison (Lucetta). 

Friday, 7 July 2017

As time does not permit a 2nd look at this show, I submit it anew as originally reviewed back in February in full faith it retains its original qualities.  \ B

Bittergirl a madcap Sex & the City musical romp
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights :  On Friday, September 14, 2001 my wife and I frantically searched for something to watch on t.v. to escape visions of the unspeakable events from 9/11 three days previously. With more pain than vehemence I announced : "I can't imagine bringing myself to watch Sex And the City ever again...". And since that day I haven't. Not a moment's urge to take in even one re-run episode.

But then 16 years later along comes Bittergirl, ACT's current On Tour musical show (that will play Granville Island June 15-July 29). It forces viewers to flip back in time pre-9/11 to a simpler and more simplistic epoch. Bubba was Prez, like him the economy was tumescent. That S&TC time "when girls were girls and men were men", assuming the very notion itself doesn't make you gag on four or five levels. 

Bittergirl is gags all right. Put to song-&-dance. To a swack of 60's girl band riffs, three friends commiserate how they each got dumped by their man. How they moped and wept and stewed and fretted, and then coped, antically, frantically, trying to make lemonade from the lemons they'd been handed. Mostly how, as women, they were socially and culturally conditioned : to over-analyze the krap out of their miseries and fill the airwaves about it all ad nauseam.

How it's all put together : This is musical comedy that is fetching and magnetic and enticing because it conjures those pre-cynical times, as unliberated and unliberating as they might have been. The actors are given letters instead of names : the "dumpee" women called A, B and C. An everyman character, D, plays each of the women's ex's. This, presumably, to point to some sort of universality of the first-world Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus experiences many of us in North America had back in the day.

As co-author Alison Lawrence told Richard Ouzounian in 2014, "You have to turn your tragedies into funny stories. You tell them so often that you can make people at cocktail parties laugh over what once made you cry." And cocktails are gulped down just that much more gustily with the aid of catchy tunes from the Detroit of Boomer daze : The Ronnettes ("Be My Baby"), The Crystals ("And Then He Kissed Me"), The Three Degrees ("When Will I See You Again?") or Ashford & Simpson ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough").  It's as if Bittergirl was written to put all the song lyrics into a story decades after the fact.

What the show brings to the stage : Campy, kitschy satire is surely the result in today's world from a script first launched in 1999. What else to do with the dialogue of D (Josh Epstein) when he utters such groaners as "It's not us, it's me!" (a line I used back in '62 in Grade 11). That one is almost always twinned with "I can't give you what you need...".  What about the existential angst approach : "I've lost my drive, my passion, my magic..." or "I love you, but I'm not in love with you." But, best for last, this screecher : "This is hard for me you know...I'm going to be the bad guy here," D says in a tone of mock self-flagellation and projected pain. To show his empathy right up front, don't you know.

Break-ups, particularly in our junior grown-up years, basically sucked. There was usually no mutuality involved. A "do-er" dumped a "do-ee". After the shock, the Kubler-Ross formula DANDA kicked in big-time : denial, anger, negotiation, depression, acceptance. Then came the manic phase every 30-something I ever knew (self-included) went through : such things as ditch the sensible sedan & buy a snazzy sportscar; dress up in designer duds, start working out; eat-binge; drink-binge; sex-binge if you get lucky; either go bohemian or anal-retentive immaculate -- the variations on a theme are almost endless. But mostly a self-indulgent, self-pitying schtick that lasts as long as you let it.

Production values that shine through : There is no narrative or dramatic arc here. Just a sequence of songs (see Addendum) that the women sing in trio, spoken lines in unison, a stream of musical moments that bring to life and provide a kind of storyline to the lyrics of the tunes they sing.  Tight, tight, tight! harmonies among the three all night long. Slick stuff indeed. 

Clever LBD costumes for all three women atop their Ron Zalko fitness shorts. Interlacing the three women's experiences -- the abandoned married mom who supported her grad school husband; the long-term live-in who was jilted her on "marriage proposal evening"; the short-term hot-to-trot gal whose lover lost his "magic" -- all the frantic spinnery of the three as stitched together by Director / Choreographer Easton was really quite priceless.  

A wee quibble about the band : while obviously capable and competent, their style was a bit too prosaic to this ear. It was if they needed a wee bit of Blood, Sweat & Tears interpolation to jazz them up a bit.

Acting pin-spots : Lauren Bowler never fails to zap this viewer's senses with her spunk, her command, her zing and crisp delivery. And in this role she showed she could clean your house as efficiently as she'd clean your clock if you crossed her. But also good punchy delivery from both Cailin Stadnyk and Katrina Reynolds as well, Stadnyk crescendoing nicely into the show's final numbers. Josh Epstein as Everyman Dork was nimble and fun as the x3 Jilter -- and probably the best vocal power among the troupe.

Favourites : "Anyone Who Ever Loved" -- best of the night -- tears came big. Stadnyk's Barbie / Ken doll sequence sparring with RCMP-wannabe hubby. The "Love Hurts" cell phone bit to kick off Act 2 that was pure unadulterated ROTFLMFAO. And, of course, the Tequila shooter scene that morphed from "orange is the new black" to glittery sequin'd magic at show's end. 

Who gonna like : Full-immersion girl-group sing-along. The lyrics of those long-ago achy-breaky songs brought to life. This is life in the time of Archie and Edith Bunker writ large through music. Whatever relationship it had with the real lives of the playwrights is purely incidental at the hands of she-who-can-do-no-wrong-in-my-mind Valerie Easton. Fun, silly, musicky, lyrical stuff that manages to draw out a few tears of sentiment along with all the laugh lines from songs and times we Boomers cherish. 

Some complain the script is too "untimely" in an age when women's breakthroughs of ceilings high-&-low are demanded. But as much fun and purpose in Bittergirl as in a re-mount of West Side Story or Mama Mia! or ACT's incomparable Black & Gold Revue that rocked Vancouver some 30 summers back. The question is not "Why?" but "Why not!

Almost to a person in an almost full-house, the Surrey Arts Centre audience gave a rousing & robust & lengthy standing-o at last night's performance. And no wonder.

Particulars :  Written by Annabelle Griffiths Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence, Mary Francis Moore. Produced by Arts Club Theatre.  Run-time 85 minutes with one intermission.  At the following venues, dates and Ticket Information phone numbers as noted :
>  Surrey Arts Centre, now until March 4th, 604.501.5566.  
>  Clarke Theatre, Mission, March 5th, 1.877.299.1644.  
>  Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam, March 7-11, 604.927.6555.  
>  ACT Arts Centre, Maple Ridge, March 12th, 60.476.2787.  
>  Shadbolt Centre for the Arts, Burnaby, March 14-15, 604.205.3000.  

Production team :  Director / Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Music Director Diane Lines. Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Lighting Designer Robert Sondergaard.  Lighting Designer (select venues) Ken Reckahn.  Sound Designer Bradley Danyluk.  Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre.  Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager April Starr Land.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.  Running crew : Alberto White, Head Tour Technician.  Darren John, Tour Technician.

The Band : Diane Lines (Piano).  Madeleine Elkins (Guitar).  Niko Friesen (Drums).  Linda Kidder (Bass). 

Performers :  A = Lauren Bowler.  B = Katrina Reynolds.  C = Cailin Stadnyk.  D = Josh Epstein.

Addendum, Song List :
There's No Other Like My Baby (written by Phil Spector & Leroy Bates)

Opening Medley:
    I Hear a Symphony (Holland-Dozier-Holland)
    And Then He Kissed Me (written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry)
     He's a Rebel (written by Gene Pitney)

Where Did Our Love Go (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland)
If I Can Dream (written by Earl Brown)
Mama Said (written by Luther Dixon & Willie Denson)
Anyone Who Had A Heart (written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David)

Fitness Medley:
     I'm Gonna Make You Love Me (written by Kenneth Gamble & Jerry Ross)
     Ain't No Mountain High Enough (written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson)
     Hot stuff (written by Peter Bellotte, Harold Faltermeyer & Keith Forsey)

When Will I See You Again (written by Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff)
Always Something There To Remind Me (written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David)
Tell Him (written by Bert Berns)
Be My Baby (written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich & Jeff Barry)
Love Hurts (written by Boudreaux Bryant)
Think (written by Aretha Franklin & Ted White)
Yesterday Man (written by Chris Andres)

Jail Cell Medley:
     This Is My Life (written by Bruno Canfora with English lyrics by Norman Newell)
     Keep Me Hangin' On (written by Holland-Dozier-Holland)
     I Will Survive (written by Dino George Freaks & Freddie Perren, immortalized by Gloria Gaynor)

Megamix Finale:
     Too Many Fish In The Sea (written by Norman Whitfield & Eddie Holland)
    Mama Said -- Ain't No Mountain High Enough -- I Will Survive -- Hot Stuff -- Keep Me Hangin' 
     On -- Think -- This Is My Life

Merchant of Venice is a memorable fairy tale
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & 
those costumes & the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Filthy lucre. Bonds. Blood money. Given the average Canadian carries nearly $1.70 in consumer debt for every after-tax dollar earned, Shakepeare's The Merchant of Venice is less a tale from Italy 400 years back than life in real time Canada.

The ever-popular play is called a "comedy". It is more accurately a "dramedy" or another WS "problem play". Because though it ends with three marriages, it is the socially-shunned Jew Shylock, a loan shark, whose rage and revenge-motives against his righteous Christian Venetian clientele that the play really is all about. An examination of the how & why Xians manage to provoke such rabid emotions in him. 

The love stories of the script are relatively wimpy but fun feminist-lite stuff compared to WS's disquisition about how true the trite biblical invocation was, is, and forever will be : "The love of money is the root of all evil."

Plot quicky to reflect on : Bassanio is a likeable lordly layabout -- a 16th century frat-boy. He drools over Portia who lives from away in idyllic Belmont (the good mountain). Dad has died, leaving her a fat estate. But also conditions on who she can marry. Prospective hubby must first pass an honesty / loyalty test involving a choice among three urns each inscribed with a zen-like koan

Nine suitors originally line up. Six opt out. It is obvious Bassanio will prevail over the slick brocaded Moroccan Moor and the portly puffy Prince Aragon (short for arrogant). But not all will end well until after his buddy and mentor, the ship's merchant Antonio, answers a death warrant in the Duke's court. The famous phrase "a pound of flesh" has been the agreed-to penalty if Antonio defaults on repaying Shylock's 3,000 ducat loan in precisely 90 days. (Antonio has taken out the "merry loan" so spendthrift, broke Bassanio has sufficient funds to travel the 20 miles out to Belmont, there to woo Portia properly.)

While critics over the years have debated how the script is a study in bigotry, greed and vindictive retribution, a kindlier take is that it's more a fairy-tale in the Hansel & Gretel mode. The theme, as noted, is money : whether 'tis a means to an end or an end in itself. Put another way : think love, loyalty and self-actualization of the heart compared to acquired wealth, obedience to custom, and repression of all lyrical impulses such as music, merriment and social intercourse.

Shylock (Warren Kimmel) contemplates his soliloquy to the Duke of Venice at Antonio's trial.
David Blue photo. 
Show themes hi-lited : Director Nigel Shawn Williams makes no bones about his take on the script : "Our world is turning too much of a blind eye upon intolerance, lies, misogyny, human indignities and religious persecution; and now is championing capitalism, charlatans, corruption and chaos... TMoV to me is not a comedy at all but a warning of our impending collective tragedy if we don't awaken." His direction to his cast is to drive home these points. 

In this week's New Yorker magazine, coincidentally, long-time Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt -- himself a Jew and now 70-something nearing retirement -- sums up his views of WS's purposes and/or achievements in this play in an article entitled "Shakespeare's Cure for Xenophobia". They are three, and I found each of them compelling : 

(1) "Shakespeare managed to register Shylock's mordant sense of humor, the pain that shadowed his malevolence, his pride in his intelligence, his little household economies, his loneliness. We come to know these qualities for ourselves, not as mere concepts but as elements of our own experience. There's good reason that most people think the Venetian merchant in the play's title is the Jew." [N.B. Conversely, in 19th century England the play was often billed as "The Jew of Venice".]

(2) "What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious."

(3) "Even now, more than four centuries later, the unsettling that the play provokes remains a beautiful and disturbing experience...Shakespeare's works are a living model not because they offer practical solutions to the dilemmas they so brilliantly explore but because they awaken our awareness of the human lives that are at stake."

Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) and Antonio (Edward Foy) plus entourage are intent at court.
David Blue photo.
Production values that shine : Long a fan of floor-level surround staging -- whether horseshoe as here or fully in-the-round -- I found Director Williams' blocking of the cast exploited the full potential of the room, all entrances / exits employed gamely. The use of shoe-shine-size cremation urns rather than full "caskets" as we normally think of them was of course just right, each placed on a communion-style pedestal. 

Use of the McMahen fixed sets was nicely enhanced by projections and light show effects, and the Pennefather soundscape was mostly punchy & quick, appropriately so.

Drew Facey's costumes were nonpareil. Business suits. Lacey layered elegant dress for Portia. Hooded shrouds for the masque sequence. Chippy just-this-side of slutty threads for the gentlewomen.

Couple of notes on interpretive staging : One problem directors and actors of Shakespeare in modern times face is voice modulation. Whether as actors they believe Billy Bard won't be understood unless their delivery of his Elizabethan diction is Shouty!  -- or whether they are coached to do so -- it's an unfortunate habit worn by many in this production. Some on occasion, some ad nauseam.

Another feature to note goes back to Director Williams' intents in his staging. Just about the only laughter that occurs across the night among the actors -- except for the clown Lancelet -- is when the frat-boys and their "gentlewomen" friends are pounding back shooters in the bar. That and when these same gentlewomen Saleria (Adele Noronha) and Solania (Kate Besworth) mock Shylock who publicly rants about his runaway daughter and her theft of his money & jewels. Mimicking dogs humping in the street is cleverly executed sardonic stuff, but not a wit blithe or risible.

Acting pin-spots : No question the night belongs mostly to Warren Kimmel as Shylock. The "shouty" critique above notwithstanding, Mr. Kimmel's seething, barely controlled rages at the grievances he suffers from the Xians is tour de force acting. His discovery of daughter Jessica's abscondment with not only a Xian but with his jewels and ducats and late wife's gifted turquoise ring made the evening by itself. 

Shylock is stuck, he says, on "justice" and "the law" -- mercy has no play in his life. The 3,000 ducat loan to Antonio generated a "bond" -- the pound-of-flesh debt that he demands be paid literally by cutting out Antonio's heart. "I'll have my bond!" he insists at court -- that single word bond repeated 31 times across the night by Shylock and others. (No accident, this : WS knew a slew of synonyms but liked the pound-pound-pound effect of using this single word over-&-over-&-over.)

As Portia, Olivia Hutt (grandniece of celebrated Canadian actor the late William Hutt) turns in a choice and crafted and nuanced performance. She is poised (directing her staff) and angst-ridden (the urn scene) and righteous (the final ring scene) and calculating (her courtroom turn as Balthazar). Opposite her Luisa Jojic as Nerissa was a terrific confidante and co-conspiritor and schemer.

Charlie Gallant as Bassanio and Kamyar Pazandeh as Gratiano were perfectly cast for their roles : terrific fun to watch each play off one another and their chums.

Bassanio (Charlie Gallant) chases Portia (Olivia Hutt) so long she finally catches him. Or him her. Or both.
David Blue photo
And not to forget Andrew Cownden as the clown Lancelet : he had a series of delightful pirouettes and verbal nonsense sequences that provided precisely the soup├žon of comic relief that Billy Bard knew the groundlings out front required. Particularly given the "messaging" assigned to this version otherwise.

Who gonna like : As most traditional theatre historians aver, originally Merchant was thought to be taken by Elizabethan audiences as almost pure comedy. Shylock was to be laughed at for all his peccadilloes and hang-ups. I don't buy it in the least. 

I find Shylock one of the richest characters ever devised by WS. That said, while Director Nigel Shawn Williams has put together an emphatic and impassioned interpretation of the piece, methinks he could have lightened things up just a bit, particularly the final "ring revelation" scene preceding the characters' nuptials. Then again were I more Justin Trudeau's age than Stephen Greenblatt's, I would no doubt shout out a big Huzzah! to Williams for his consistency and honesty of interpretation on his terms in 2017. 

The contemporary staging replete with iPhones works smartly. But in the end, it is the work of Warren Kimmel particularly that generates the necessary "bond" by Bard that makes this presentation so welcoming and rewarding and necessary a summer stock theatre piece to seek out and just sink into, like one would a Kits Beach gentle wave just a coupla blocks away.

Particulars : Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Artistic Director Christopher Gaze. At the Howard Family stage, Vanier Park. Performances : 41 shows between now and the September 16th closer. Schedule & ticket information @ bardonthebeach.orgRun-time 120 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Nigel Shawn Williams. Costume Designer Drew Facey.  Scenery Designer Marshall McMahen.  Lighting Designer Adrian Muir. Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director Josh Reynolds.  Sound Designer Patrick Pennefather.  Projection Designer Conor Moore.  Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith.  Assistant Stage Manager Ruth Bruhn. Apprentice Stage Manager Jennifer Stewart.  Directing Apprentice Wendy Bollard.

Performers :  Kate Besworth (Beatrice; Solania).  Andrew Cownden (Lancelet). Paul Moniz de Sa (Balthazar; Tubal).  Edward Foy (Antonio).  Charlie Gallant (Bassanio).  Olivia Hutt (Portia).  Luisa Jojic (Nerissa).  Warren Kimmel (Shylock).  Chirag Naik (Lorenzo).  Adele Noronha (Saleria).  Kamyar Pazandeh (Gratanio).  Nadeem Phillip (Prince of Morocco; Duke of Venice).  Carmela Sison (Leonarda; Jessica).