A Theatre Buff Reviews Three Plays

This summer feels like the season of too many plays and too few minutes at the keyboard. This is not a complaint, except for the bit about time because there are theatrical productions I have not commented on in a timely manner.

When I established this blog my commitment was to comment only on the plays that I enjoyed and to remain silent on the ones that did not move my needle toward “Enthusiastic.” Unfortunately, I’ve been silent on far too many productions for the only reason that distractions and obligations have abounded. I will attempt to make amends by first noting observations that I suspect are the result of seeing over thirty plays per year. Then I will provide impressions of three plays seen over the past month: 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt; Middletown; The Madwoman of Chaillot.

I’ve been struck this year by the power of theatrical ensembles. Perhaps it’s because I’m in my third year of having season’s tickets to The Shaw Festival that I am observing the ensemble performing a full range…from musicals-to dramas-to comedies. I’ve heard actors changing accents as easily as they switch costumes, and I’ve watched them easily inhabit a role playing a different gender.  As my basketball playing husband would put it, “The ensemble is an incredibly gifted team. Each player can move easily and skilfully between offence and defense, and any one of them is capable of being a star player. Shaw has a strong bench this year.” Point taken!

The other feature that has struck me is the power of a small stage embraced by the audience on three to four sides (At the Shaw: 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, Middletown, Androcles and the Lion. At Stratford: The Madwoman of Chaillot, The Virgin Trial [see A Theatre Buff Reviews The Virgin Trial]). For my husband and me it’s a riveting experience. The staging connects us to the storytelling and the performance in a way that is quite different from observing a play on a proscenium stage.

With these observations out of the way I can move on to impressions of three plays. If you can catch only one play at Shaw this year, and you are a Canadian,  then make it 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.  

Travis Seetoo, Ric Reid and Donna Belleville. Photo by David Cooper.

(The Americans who make up a large part of the Shaw audience, are staying away in droves I understand…their loss.) Rick Salutin is the playwright; the story addresses the Upper Canada Rebellion. It’s history that I certainly did not learn in elementary school probably because that history was written by the victors, the ‘ruling class’ who in this portrayal are “thieves, rogues and villains”. The staging is superb. There’s a rhythmicity to the performance that is like a heartbeat throughout the production. The strength of the ensemble is extraordinary.

Middletown at The Shaw is a play that asks if anyone can really know what goes on in the heart and mind of another. Middletown profiles life in a small town where inhabitants have histories that others will not let them forget or they’re newcomers seeking to develop friendships and roots in a place where others have lived for generations. The staging is intimate. That quiet space makes it possible for one character to observe that he “wants to calmly know love on earth and to feel beautiful” and for another to note that we’re “born with questions and the world is the answer”. Unlike 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt there are leading actors, Moya O’Connell and Gray Powell. Their performances are outstanding and they are superbly supported by their peers. It’s been some weeks since I saw this performance and I can still return to the last few scenes in my mind’s eye. Middletown raises questions that that are part of living an examined life.

The last play to comment on is The Madwoman of Chaillot.

The Madwoman of Chaillot, Stratford Festival 2017
Seana McKenna as Aurélie, The Madwoman of Chaillot. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I saw this production over a month ago and sadly, did  not keep my notes. It’s a well crafted play, creatively staged, that explores the literal and figurative  underground of  Vichy France. There’s an element of fantasy that would have been a welcome solution had the Resistance had access to it, but that was not the case. In a curious instance of synchronicity about the time I saw this play I was reading a novel about the period, and also came across the obituary of Simone Veil .Vichy France was a grim period of what is still recent history. Thank goodness for people who inspired the development of characters like the Madwoman of Chaillot and her friends, and for real life survivors like Mme Veil.

With all the theatre I see, there is more than my happy quotient of musicals. In a fit of pique last season, I actually cancelled our Mirvish subscription and thereby missed out on Come From Away! (We have renewed for this year and have been granted a second chance to see this award winning production). Given my contention that not every story lends itself well to a musical I did see two superb productions this season: Guys and Dolls at Stratford and Me And My Girl at Shaw.  Go see them for the sheer joy of watching the dancers perform.

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt  is playing at the Shaw Festival until October 8, 2017.

Middletown was playing at the Shaw Festival this summer. The last production was September 10, 2017.

The Madwoman of Chaillot is playing at the Stratford Festival until October 3, 2017.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope and humor despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands. Autumn’s Grace is a powerful commentary on the need for well-organized and well-funded palliative care in private homes and in residential hospices. It’s a gift to people who would like to be prepared as they help fulfill the final wishes of a family member or friend.