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.

This Marlowe — A Mystery by a Master Storyteller

There are authors and books that make a powerful first impression. When that feeling is sustained through subsequent encounters in person and with their writing, then I know I’m in the presence of someone with a gift. Michelle Butler Hallett is such an author.

This MarloweI met Michelle in the early 2000’s at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto. We were both in Alistair MacLeod’s seminar group and we have each written about that honour. Michelle was a student whose commitment to form and language was articulate and impassioned, yet quietly and respectfully stated. I, who was secretly stumbling about on my keyboard, was in awe that anyone could find the words to speak about writing. Since that time, Michelle has produced five novels and several short stories. Writing is as natural for her as breathing.

Michelle’s most recent novel, This Marlowe, a work of historical fiction is set in the twilight of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It’s a tense spell-binding story of the last year of Christopher Marlowe’s life. Marlowe, the son of a cobbler, was also a graduate of Cambridge. The two facts, an unlikely combination for a poor boy, add fuel to the speculation that Marlowe may have been a spy for the Queen’s Secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil. Marlowe’s violent death at the age of twenty-nine adds to the mystery and the rumors of espionage.

This Marlowe immerses the reader in the political machinations of an unstable time against the backdrop of Elizabethan England with all its beauty and grit. There were times when I felt like I could see, hear, smell, and touch the surroundings and experiences of Marlowe and his lover Thomas Kyd. The writing is taut, yet eloquent. Michelle has captured her characters, their language, phrasing and cadences in a way that is just shy of magic. She writes vividly about pain and suffering whether it comes from pneumonia, arthritis or torture.That same skill of offering the reader a virtual experience is equally present when she writes about love and compassion.

This Marlowe is one of the few books in my library I will be re-reading, as much for the pleasure of doing so as for the challenge of deciphering how Michelle Butler Hallett created this masterpiece.

Bonnie Lendrum is the author of Autumn’s Grace, the story of how one family manages the experience of palliative care with hope, humor, and knowledge, despite sibling conflicts, generational pulls and career demands.

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Matilda The Musical 

Matilda The Musical is the delightful tale of a little girl who survives the emotional abuse of her narcissistic, conniving and stupid parents, and the spirit crushing conduct of the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary. The book upon which this musical is based was written by Roald Dahl, so we know that there will be both harrowing and hilarious moments as the story unfolds. Matilda survives these wretched adults because she is a precocious reader and a gifted storyteller. And she thrives because she has support: her Grade One classmates and two mentors (the librarian and her teacher).

Matilda The Musical - Mirvish

The role of Matilda is demanding. The night I attended it was performed by the talented Hannah Levinson.  She shone, and she was capably supported by her ‘classmates’ who are also triple threat performers.  Matilda’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood (Brandon McGibbon and Darcy Stewart) were suitably despicable, and the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull (Dan Chameroy), was the embodiment of a mean spirit. The roles of teacher and librarian (Miss Honey-Paula Brancati and Mrs. Phelps-Keisha T. Fraser) were understated by comparison. Both were performed with engagement and compassion.

Kudos to Tim Minchin who created the tuneful music and spirited lyrics and to Rob Howell who designed a set that incorporates colourful and eclectic tiles from the game of Scrabble.

If you plan to see Matilda, do take one or more children with you. The children surrounding me were totally absorbed in the story, as were their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Matilda is a superb introduction to the joy of live performance.

Matilda The Musical is playing at Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto until October 16, 2016.

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

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Master Harold And The Boys

If the United Nations aspired to be a dancing school for world leaders and if politicians learned to dance life like champions moving with grace, never colliding with other leaders, then the world would be a better place. That’s the hope expressed by characters in Master Harold And The Boys as they struggle to find ‘place’ during apartheid in 1950.MasterHarold

Master Harold And The Boys is set on a rainy afternoon in a tea room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. It’s a single act play that immerses the audience in the story of a boy and two men. Master Harold/Hally is a schoolboy — white, and the son of the tea room’s owner; “The Boys”, Willie and Sam, are two black men — the family servants who operate the establishment and have known Hally since he was in short pants.  The three reminisce about the events that have bound them together, explore the notion of social reform and men of magnitude, and dread the return of the sickly patriarch from the hospital.

It’s a compelling story, told with compressed energy that is intermittently released by Willie as he practices the fox trot and the waltz in preparation for a state championship. We become aware of the affectionate father-son relationship that has developed over the years between Sam and Hally. We also see and hear Hally’s dismissive and imperious treatment toward others he considers not equal: his mother and Willie.  What the three characters ultimately share is their struggle to find their places in a society that seems ruled by the “principle of perpetual disappointment”.

The play is elegantly and tightly written by Athol Fugard. It is performed by three actors with superb chemistry: Allan Louis, André Sills and James Daly.

Master Harold And The Boys is a play for our time — a ‘must see’.

Master Harold And The Boys is playing at the Shaw Festival’s Courthouse Theatre (Niagara-On-The-Lake) until September 10th, 2016.

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

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.

 

A Theatre Buff Reviews: Our Town

Our town

The stark simplicity of the set and stage props in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town belies the depth and breadth of life on the eastern seaboard in the early 1900’s. The setting is Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire and we are introduced to it by the Stage Manager who takes the audience on a social tour of individual, family and community life over a ten year span. It’s a relatively quiet period of history, after the Civil War (1861-1865) and before the outbreaks of World War 1 (1914) and the Spanish Influenza (1918).

The play reveals a truth about life both then and now: Days, weeks and years go by so quickly that we seldom see, hear and appreciate the complexity, richness and beauty before our eyes and ears. The point is underscored by Wilder’s commitment to the staging of this play through miming of domestic chores and the use of a minimalist set and stage props.

There is much to celebrate in this production. The actors portray their characters with consummate skill from the precocious Emily, to the cynical and worldly Mr. Webb. The props are multi-functional and elegant in their simplicity, and the lighting effectively portrays changes in time of day and season. My only reservation was with some costumes for every day wear. The fabrics would not have lent themselves to scrubbing on a washboard, which would have been the mode of cleaning at that time. Having said that, I also doubt that the folk of Grover’s Corners would have had Scandinavian styled household furnishings. So consider my comments to be only a minor irritant from someone who examines costumes perhaps a tad too closely!

Our Town is definitely worth your while. It runs until October 14, 2016 at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

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

 

Autumn’s Grace – at Audreys Books on June 5th

audresys-584Back in the 1950’s one of my Canadian heroes, Mel Hurtig,  was an Indie bookstore owner and publisher. In his Edmonton stores, authors could stage plays, perform readings and drink coffee with patrons. How cool was that?

This lucky author will be reading at one of these locations (10702 Jasper Avenue) on Sunday June 5th at 2:00. The bookstore is now named Audreys Books Ltd. It’s owned by two invincible spirits, Steve and Sharon Budnarchuk, who have made this author from the east feel quite welcome in the west.

Please tell friends and family to drop by on Sunday afternoon to say “Hello!” and to support these Indie Booksellers.