A Theatre Buff Reviews: Saint Joan

Sara Topham-photo by Travis Magee

Sara Topham – Photo by Travis Magee

Four hundred and eighty-eight years and two weeks 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 Night Of Swing and The Hamilton Phiharmonic Orchestra

There are many nights with the Hamilton Philharminic Orchestra that are memorable: The musicians are a finely tuned team and their conductor, Gemma New, is fresh and engaging. But there is the occasional concert that surprises. 
A Night of Swing, with guest conductor Lucas Walden, was one such event. The performance coming the day after Remembrance Day, was designed to honor the men and women who gave their lives in WWI and WWII, and it succeeded. The evening began with an enthusiastic pre-concert dance lesson and demonstration by the Hammer Hoppers, a group of dancers committed to vintage swing. The surprises continued as the evening evolved. Guest artists included the Regimental Band of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry in their bright red uniforms, vocalists Cpl. Erin Wideman of the RHLI, and Michael Vanhevl. 

It was Vanhevl’s interpretation of classic numbers from the Big Band Era that made me decide to write up A Night Of Swing. I’ve never been a fan of the crooning vocal style associated with the period, so when Vanhevl come on stage looking smooth and sexy, I winced at the cliché that seemed to be appearing before the audience. I could not have been more wrong.  

Vanhevl put a keen new edge on classics: Night and Day, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, and You’ll Never Know. By the time he reached Beyond the Sea and Mack the Knife his point was made. His style may be reminiscent but he has his own signature energy. And if that is not enough to celebrate in a young performer, the duet with Cpl. Erin Wideman—In The Mood—brought the audience to its feet.

A night of Swing satisfied on many levels: the rich visuals of the RHLI’s uniforms; Lucas Waldin’s commentaries on Irving Berlin’s contribution to the war effort and the back-story for You’ll Never Know. And finally there was the music, and the musicians and vocalists who safely took the audience back to a time  when people still found reasons to sing and dance even when their hearts were aching. A Night of Swing was a captivating evening—one that I’ll be remembering whenever I play Vanhevl’s CD.  

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.

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Alice In Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland 1

Aspiring set and costume designers will love the Shaw Festival’s Alice in Wonderland, as will anyone who remembers the book with fondness. Others not so much.

The production itself  is spectacular. There is a stunning merge of audiovisual effects with the stage that is playful (the drinking of the potions), eerie (the pop-up appearances of the Cheshire Cat), terrifying (Alice drowning in her ocean of tears), and peaceful (the skiff on the river). The technology magically extends the meaning of ‘set.’ The costumes match the quality of the production. They are colourful, richly designed and creative.  As one expects at Shaw, the actors are uniformly superb in their roles. Alice (played by Tara Rosling) is onstage for the entire production and never once flags.

So why my reservations? Once into the play I remembered I had never really enjoyed the book. There are points of clever wordplay but the story has always lacked an emotional core for me. How Alice emerges from a dream believing she has  grown up is as much a mystery to me today as it was decades ago.

If you have fond memories of the story, then see the play. If you cannot recall your impressions of the book, then take along an observant, artistic and inquisitive child. Had I done so, I may have enjoyed the production more than I did.

Alice in Wonderland is playing at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake until October 16, 2016.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of one family’s journey through palliative care.