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 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.

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: 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.