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.

2017-An Octoroon

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 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 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.