A Theatre Buff Reviews An Octoroon

If you can get past two men in jockey shorts, revealing more buttocks then you might care to see, then you will likely enjoy, and appreciate, An Octoroon. It’s a nineteenth century melodrama (The Octoroon) embedded in a twenty-first century play (An Octoroon). Had I read my program notes before the play began, I might have understood this fact and been more relaxed about the actors revealing their glutei maximi on stage, and then applying white face and red face make-up as they prepared for the melodrama.

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Ryan Cunningham Starr Domingue, and André Sills. Photo by David Cooper.

An Octoroon explores racism from the perspective of both centuries. As we watch the performances of a black actor in white face and white actors in black face and red face, “We cannot not see race while watching this play. We cannot declare ourselves colour blind and get away with it.”1. It’s a disruptive theatrical technique that is profoundly effective.

At its simplest, An Octoroon is the entwined story of the sudden foreclosure of a southern plantation and the consequences for a  young woman, Zoe (Vanessa Sears), of mixed race who thought she had been assured her freedom by the legal papers her recently deceased father (the plantation owner) had signed some years before. But where there are issues of rights, freedom, property, and love, nothing is simple.

The performances by the ‘slaves’ (Lisa Berry, Kiera Sangster, Starr Domingue, and Ryan Cunningham) are compelling in part because the playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has liberated the actors’ voices by his stage directions: “I don’t know what a slave sounded like. And neither do you.” He might have also added, and I don’t know how they acted either. The result is an effective mash-up of language and conduct with the language moving between southern cadences/pronunciations and modern street-talk, and the conduct ranging from obsequious to cheeky. André Sills who plays three roles portrays the playwright, BJJ, with anger and resignation, and draws clean distinctions between the kind but ineffective heir, George, and the scheming plantation owner, M’Closky.  Patrick McManus is in character at the outset as the verbose and drunken Irish playwright of The Octoroon and then for the remainder in red face as he plays a reserved and faithful Indian. Diana Donnelly (Dora) plays the white heiress who, if only George would marry her, could join two plantations together. We’re left with the distinct impression that were that to happen she would not be bothered with the details of day to day operations.

There are two scenes in this play within a play—the slave auction and the knife fight—that for different reasons are seared in my mind. The auction is foreshadowed by a bill of sale that is handed out with each program. I thought that reading The Book of Negroes might prepare me for that experience. It did not. The knife fight is extraordinary acting. It’s performed by André Sills who plays George/M’Closky, and is literally the struggle between good and evil.

If you plan to attend be sure to look up Br’er Rabbit (Samantha Walkes) on Wikipedia. Understanding the folk lore will help you to understand the timing of the appearances of this character who has Nanabush qualities.

An Octoroon makes for superb, if somewhat discomfiting theatre. It’s well worth your time. Catch it before it leaves the Shaw Festival (Niagara-On-The-Lake) after the October 13th performance.

  1. Program notes by Jennifer Buckley

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. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews The Virgin Trial

Playwright Kate Hennig demonstrated her grip on an audience with The Last Wife at Stratford in 2015. This year, she’s doing it again with The Virgin Trial.

The Virgin Trial, Stratford Festival 2017

Brad Hodder as Thom and Bahia Watson as Bess. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The play covers the life of the young Princess Elizabeth (Bahia Watson) between the ages of fourteen and sixteen. It’s an unstable time for the throne.  Two brothers, Lord Somerset (Nigel Bennett) and the Lord High Admiral Thomas Seymour (Brad Hodder) are jockeying for position at the court of the young King Edward (heir to Henry VIII).  Thom has proposed to each of the Princesses (Mary and Elizabeth) and been refused by the court. He settles for Catherine Parr, the dowager queen and the last wife of Henry VIII, and by so doing he becomes Bes’ stepfather. It’s the combination of Thom’s illicit rallying of troops, sexualized tickling and teasing of Bes, and attempted break-in of the young King’s apartments that puts the future queen in peril. The pivotal question posed by the regency council (Yanna McIntosh) is whether the future queen knowingly conspired with Thomas Seymour to depose her step-brother, King Edward VI .

Could a teenage girl reasonably be implicated in treason? This one could be. She’s smart. She’s strategic. And when she realizes the significance of the charges that have not yet been made against her, she makes every effort to protect her governess, Kat Ashley (Laura Condlin), and comptroller Thomas Parry (André Morin). When Ashley and Parry are sent to the Tower of London, Bes does what any motherless teenage girl would do: She seeks the counsel of her older sister, Princess Mary (Sara Farb). Interestingly, these latter exchanges offer the only break from the tension that reigns on the stage.

The dialogue in The Virgin Queen is taut. The acting is impeccable. The set is sparse. And the costumes are modern. If you plan to attend, be prepared to sit on the edge of your seat.

The Virgin Trial is playing at the Stratford Festival until September 30, 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 someone they love. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Dancing At Lughnasa

 

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Diana Donnelly, Fiona Byrne, Tara Rosling, Claire Jullien, and Serena Parmar. Photo by David Cooper

Dancing At Lughnasa is a poignant story skillfully told. It’s narrated by Michael (Patrick Galligan), the love child of the youngest of the five Mundy sisters (Fiona Byrne, Diana Donnelly, Claire Jullien, Serena Parma, and Tara Rosling), as he remembers the month of August in 1936. Michael was seven years old at the time. We get a sense of an intelligent lad who is a keen onlooker and eavesdropper as he plays just outside the kitchen window, hides behind bushes, and, I suspect, listens in from the upstairs landing at bedtime.

Watching Dancing At Lughnasa is as close to déjà-vu as many of us will ever encounter. The farm-house kitchen, the household work, the women’s attire and the right of place for the Marconi were all familiar to me from my mother’s family photo album. Even the conversations between and amongst the sisters felt familiar: the propriety of five middle-aged women attending the harvest festival; the longing for new shoes, or a pretty dress; the worry about how to stretch a sparse meal to include Michael’s father (Kristopher Bowman) at the table; the health of an elderly uncle and rogue priest (Peter Millard). These women were leading a life at the margins alleviated by interactions with Michael and by programs from their beloved Marconi. And when that programming included music they would joyfully and enthusiastically abandon their worries to the pleasures of Irish dance.

Dancing At Lughnasa works on many levels: memory, family, community and religion. It’s a story of time and place that can, as it did with our group of four, engage the audience’s imagination. The performances are superb. Dancing At Lughnasa is playing at The Shaw Festival in Niagara-On-The-Lake until October 13, 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. Bonnie Lendrum has just completed her second manuscript. It’s currently out for review to readers selected for their abilities to be critical, blunt, and polite. Stay tuned!

 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Saint Joan

Sara Topham-photo by Travis Magee

Sara Topham – Photo by Travis Magee

Four hundred and eighty-eight years after she was burned at the stake in Rouen, Joan of Arc was canonized by the Catholic Church. It’s a remarkable distance of time for healing of wounds and righting of wrongs. Equally remarkable to me as a writer, is that in 1923, or three years after her canonization, Bernard Shaw had successfully mounted his play, Saint Joan, in New York. It’s Shaw’s keen observation of political and social tempests, along with his formidable productivity that have made me an admirer. Imagine what his output might have been had he had a word processor and Google!

Tim Carroll’s production of Saint Joan at The Shaw Festival is accomplished. The action takes place on a raked pentagonal stage. It’s a stark set augmented by the introduction of translucent and illuminated cubes and rectangular columns which hide/reveal actors. The performers, with the exception of the clergy are in modern dress. I state these features at the outset because the effect of the staging, lighting, and costumes is critical. It focuses the audience on the dialogue, the subtleties of gestures, and the meaning of words. The performances are compelling. There’s Joan’s (Sara Topham) radiant hope, the Dauphin’s (Wade Bogert-O’Brien) ineptitude and self-absorption, the Earl of Warwick’s (Tom McCamus) pragmatism, and The Inquisitor’s (Jim Mezon) conflict. These actors are supported by a fine cast.

Saint Joan is not an easy play. The dialogue is complex; the political and theological arguments twist and turn. Historians and theatre aficionados will value it and perhaps love it. (I’m in the latter category.) First time theatre goers, however, might want to begin with a more light-hearted play—perhaps a musical. My husband, an engineer, appreciated this production of Saint Joan, although he commented that he would not have enjoyed it forty years ago. (Thirty plays a year for the past several years has made him an astute observer.)

This production has me anticipating Tim Carroll’s work during his tenure as Artistic Director at the Shaw Festival.

Saint Joan is at The Shaw’s Festival Theatre until October 15, 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. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews Androcles And The Lion

Cast of Androcles and The Lion - Photo by David Cooper

Cast of Androcles And The Lion – Photo by David Cooper

The Shaw Festival’s  Androcles And The Lion is a delightful production. It’s fun, interactive, and can leave one with the impression that it’s improvisational at points. However, the impression of improv theatre is just that; these actors know their material to its core.

The premise of the play is taken from a classical folktale whereby a runaway Roman slave, Androcles, relieves a wounded lion of the thorn in his paw and then benefits from the lion’s hunting prowess. Throw in George Bernard Shaw’s variations to the story to advance his views on religion, politics and vivisection, and the play becomes a comedy.  Androcles (Patrick Galligan) is a Christian and a vegetarian; the Christians being rounded up for death in the Colosseum are happy people who routinely break into song; the Roman centurion (Shawn Wright) is a buffoon; the Captain of the Roman Guard (Kyle Blair) has fallen in love with Lavinia (Julia Course), a beautiful and devout Christian; and Ferrovius (Jeff Irving) a muscled young Christian fighter struggles to reconcile his violent tendencies with his  faith.

The play becomes interactive when members of the audience change the momentum of the story by tossing coloured balls onto the set, and change the direction of the action by re-designing the set. I saw a preview; it was superb. It’s one more example of the energy at Shaw this year under the directorship of Tim Carroll.

Androcles And The Lion is playing at the Court House Theatre until October 7, 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. 

A Theatre Buff Reviews The School For Scandal

Juicy bits of information, true or false, have always been hard to resist and easy to pass on. Such schadenfreude is the driving creative force in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School For Scandal.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir Peter Teazle and Shannon Taylor as Lady Teazle. Photo by Lynda Churilla

Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir Peter Teazle and Shannon Taylor as Lady Teazle. Photo by Lynda Churilla

It’s a play that was written in the 18th century, but is timely for the 21st. If one changed the set to Manhattan condos, the costumes to modern day dress, the dialogue and intrigue would work equally well. To say that the satire delivers is an understatement; it’s witty, fast-paced and entertaining.

The play begins as Lady Sneerwell is literally finishing her morning toilette while being visited by a journalist, named Snake, who is both feared and admired for her malicious and salacious society column. There’s a game afoot. Lady Sneerwell is trying to secure the hand of Maria, for her friend, Joseph Surface, who (on the surface) is a thoughtful young man. However, Maria, the wealthy ward of Sir Peter Teazle is beloved by Joseph’s somewhat dissipated (on the surface) brother Charles. If Lady Sneerwell is successful, she will deny Maria’s hand to Charles and entrap him for herself.

This intrigue is set within two others: the travails of a May-December marriage (Sir Peter and Lady Teazle’s) that has lost its bloom, and an inheritance that the Surface brothers expect to receive from an elderly uncle, Sir Oliver. Throw in Rowley, a family manservant, who manoeuvres behind the scenes and the evening is set for intrigue and hilarity as loyalty and love are tested.

The play is set in a series of elegantly appointed rooms in the homes of Lady Sneerwell, Sir Peter Teazle, and Joseph Surface. Charles’ home, however, looks like an 18th century bachelor pad of a man who is on his last farthing, which is the case. Costumes are lush for both men and women.

I attend the Stratford Festival expecting excellence and I have yet to be disappointed. The teamwork that makes these productions possible speaks of a commitment to craft and polish. And for someone like me who took only one (obligatory) university English course, the excellent program notes are essential reading

School For Scandal is playing at the Stratford Festival in the Avon Theatre until October 21st.

Characters referenced in this review: Lady Sneerwell (Maev Beaty), Snake (Ansuree Roy), Maria (Monica Peter), Joseph Surface (Tyrone Savage), Sir Peter Teazle (Geraint Wyn Davies), Charles Surface (Omar Alex Khan), Lady Teazle (Shannon Taylor), Sir Oliver Surface (Joseph Ziegler) and Rowley (Brent Carver).

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. 

Back At The Keyboard Post-Concussion

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Two years, one month, and two weeks post-concussion, I am joyfully back to the keyboard. My characters have returned. They ‘peer over my shoulders’ and make observations that amuse, disturb, irritate, surprise and satisfy me. I had missed them and feared that their absence over the past two years was permanent.

When I resumed writing in October 2015, it was to assess whether I could still string words together. I could. With much effort. The posts I did were descriptions under the guise of theatre reviews. They were an intentional test of my ability to remember, assimilate and make sense of the productions I was seeing. Straight-forward productions were relatively easy to review; they took a few hours to write up. Others like If/Then were challenging. And some, like the the brilliant Broadway production of A Curious Incident of The Dog In The Nighttime, were impossible.

In the spring of 2016 I resumed work on my manuscript; I had last touched it in December 2014. To my great sadness, all I could do was edit… and edit… and edit some more. My characters had gone AWOL, and  I had no idea how to create bridging chapters from where I had left off  to the last chapter. I had written that chapter about two and a half years ago when I had determined that the manuscript was at the one-third point.

This past November, twenty-three months post-concussion, my characters, along with my memory, began to return. I’m more than relieved; I’m ecstatic. Over the next many months, creative rather than descriptive writing will be my focus . Please know, that the absence of new posts on this site will mean that I’m happily absorbed with, and distracted by, the process of story-making.  Signing off for now…

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.