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 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: Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God

Brilliant! That’s my conclusion about Lisa Codrington’s one act-one hour play, Adventures of The Black Girl In Her Search For God. Codrington pulls no punches yet leaves the audience in stitches, unless the theatergoer happens to be an older white male. At least four such men exited within the first twenty minutes of the production I saw yesterday. It was their loss.

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Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God is an adaptation of a novella written by George Bernard Shaw in 1932. At the time, it was a radical piece for an old white guy to publish. The play is an exploration by a inquisitive, orphaned black girl of theism, colonialism, slavery, racism, atheism, evolution, scientism and feminism. The script is tight; the set is small, yet astonishing; and the acting* is superb.

I’ll not say more. As the calendar has rolled into September I am limiting observations for a Theatre Buff Reviews. Writing time for my current manuscript is taking precedence over promoting plays I have enjoyed.  I would refer you instead to some excellent reviews on Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For Godhttp://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/theatre-reviews/bernard-shaw-short-story-adaptation-is-the-highlight-of-the-shaw-festival/article30673122/     and https://nowtoronto.com/stage/theatre/the-adventures-of-black-girl-search-for-god-review/        

With eight plays ticked off and two more to go, Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God  and Master Harold and The Boys have been my highlights of the Shaw Festival’s 2016 season.

Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God has been playing in the lunch-time slot at the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre, Niagara-On-The-Lake. It has one more show date and that is  September 11th. If you cannot catch it then, watch for it over the next few years. It’s bound to reappear.

*Actors: Natasha Mumba, Guy Bannerman, Tara Rosling, Ben Sanders,Kiera Sangster, André Sills, Graeme Somerville and Jonathan Tan.

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: Engaged

Morris Panych’s production of Engaged at the Shaw Festival is unabashed fun from beginning to end. The play was released in 1877 yet the social conventions being satirized are as relevant today as they were over a century ago.

Shaw-EngagedWe know W.S. Gilbert by his association with Arthur Sullivan and the comic operas they created. By the time he began composing librettos for Sullivan’s scores, Gilbert was a well-established playwright. His plays leaned to satire. While George Bernard Shaw was still in short pants, Gilbert had several plays in production.

Engaged is a satire of about the ‘rules of engagement’ leading to marriage. The play begins on the grounds of a humble cottage in the Scottish lowlands on the border of England and Scotland. The location sets the curious premise of the play which is that any man and woman who, when in Scotland, proclaim that they are husband and wife are considered to be married. In the case of Engaged, mayhem ensues.

Gilbert pokes fun at fidelity as easily as he derides love as a basis for marriage. He skewers the class structure relentlessly through the interactions of lowland Scots with English townies, and by way of flirtations between a maid and a lord. As for the innumeracy that is supposed to be the fate of the kinder, gentler sex, Gilbert knocks that by having a young female character know more about a failed bank than does her father. The bank in question in this case is named the “Royal Indestructable Bank.” Gilbert took pleasure in roasting many sacred cows.

The actors* have a formidable sense of comic timing. That teamwork is essential to pulling off a madcap production.  They perform against a set that is simple yet very effective. Even the ten foot high thistles in the first act are used for their comic value. Some costumes gave me pause. There were curious inclusions that were out of place for the period: the Vonda Dr. Martens on Maggie, the silk trousers on Belinda, the modern jeans on the male servant and on Cheviot. Having said, that Angus’ costume is superb. Note the streaks on his legs in Act 1, consistent I would think with the traditional wearing of a kilt! Do keep an eye on his sporran.

If you go, don’t be put off by the beginning which is a vaudeville-like warm-up act. It’s not part of the play that Gilbert wrote. I concluded that it was inserted as a commentary on Gilbert’s time when acting and playwriting were not respectable endeavours.  The play is delightful. On the drive home, we were still laughing at elements that tickled our funny bones.

Engaged is playing at the Shaw Festival in the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-On-The-Lake, until October 30, 2016.

*The cast of Engaged: Julia Course, Martin Happer, Mary Haney, Jeff Meadows, Nicole Underhay, Shawn Wright, Gray Powell, Ric Reid, Mathew Finlan, Diann Donnelly, Claire Julien

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: The Dance of Death

Tolstoy’s observation that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is just as true for marriages as it is for families. In Strindberg’s The Dance of Death, the marriage of Edgar (Jim Mezon) and Alice (Fiona Reid) is a combination of “hate and love forged together in a foundry of Hell.” It’s the unhappiest marriage I have ever encountered, yet it makes for excellent theatre.Shaw-The Dance of Death 3.jpg

The play is an exploration of a search for meaning in life as much as it is a study of relationships. Alice and Edgar have become socially isolated from their military peers on an outpost island in Sweden. Edgar’s behavior is overbearing at best and tyrannical at worst; Alice’s is no better but managed in a shrewd, manipulative manner. Their antidote to arguing is to recall nasty encounters with other couples and to make denigrating comments. Let’s just say that Edgar and Alice would not make pleasant dinner companions. However, watching the give and take from the safety of the audience is fascinating.

Both Edgar and Alice struggle with what has brought them to this point in life. Their marriage of almost twenty-five years has been a “long miserable mistake”; Edgar’s fellow officers are eager to be rid of him; their children despise them.  Edgar, whose heart appears to be failing, notes, “I always believed we must be dead and paying some horrible penance.”  It’s a sad observation from someone who appears to have neither the skill nor the motivation to change, and it’s a sentiment Alice shares. She notes that, “If we can be patient, death will come.” It doesn’t come, but Alice’s cousin, Kurt (Patrick Galligan), does make an unexpected visit. For a short while his presence relieves the oscillating lassitude and hostility. It’s through the assorted interactions that we learn the backstory to the marriage—the many deceits, both innocent and treacherous, that have played out over a quarter of a century.

This review undoubtedly makes the play seem grim. It’s not that by any means. In many instances, it is quite funny. Edgar’s nearsightedness and his ‘spells’ are shy of slapstick, and points in the marital bickering are humorous, perhaps because they are familiar patterns even in healthy marriages.

The Dance of Death is well worth your time. It has been deftly directed by Martha Henry, and the actors are a strong ensemble. As I left the theatre, a song from my youthful explorations of existentialism came to mind—Is That All There Is?.  From this vantage point in life, my response is: ‘Yes, and….’

The Dance of Death is playing at The Shaw’s Studio Theater in Niagara-On-The Lake until September 10, 2016.

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.