A Theatre Buff Reviews Three Plays

This summer feels like the season of too many plays and too few minutes at the keyboard. This is not a complaint, except for the bit about time because there are theatrical productions I have not commented on in a timely manner.

When I established this blog my commitment was to comment only on the plays that I enjoyed and to remain silent on the ones that did not move my needle toward “Enthusiastic.” Unfortunately, I’ve been silent on far too many productions for the only reason that distractions and obligations have abounded. I will attempt to make amends by first noting observations that I suspect are the result of seeing over thirty plays per year. Then I will provide impressions of three plays seen over the past month: 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt; Middletown; The Madwoman of Chaillot.

I’ve been struck this year by the power of theatrical ensembles. Perhaps it’s because I’m in my third year of having season’s tickets to The Shaw Festival that I am observing the ensemble performing a full range…from musicals-to dramas-to comedies. I’ve heard actors changing accents as easily as they switch costumes, and I’ve watched them easily inhabit a role playing a different gender.  As my basketball playing husband would put it, “The ensemble is an incredibly gifted team. Each player can move easily and skilfully between offence and defense, and any one of them is capable of being a star player. Shaw has a strong bench this year.” Point taken!

The other feature that has struck me is the power of a small stage embraced by the audience on three to four sides (At the Shaw: 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, Middletown, Androcles and the Lion. At Stratford: The Madwoman of Chaillot, The Virgin Trial [see A Theatre Buff Reviews The Virgin Trial]). For my husband and me it’s a riveting experience. The staging connects us to the storytelling and the performance in a way that is quite different from observing a play on a proscenium stage.

With these observations out of the way I can move on to impressions of three plays. If you can catch only one play at Shaw this year, and you are a Canadian,  then make it 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.  

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Travis Seetoo, Ric Reid and Donna Belleville. Photo by David Cooper.

(The Americans who make up a large part of the Shaw audience, are staying away in droves I understand…their loss.) Rick Salutin is the playwright; the story addresses the Upper Canada Rebellion. It’s history that I certainly did not learn in elementary school probably because that history was written by the victors, the ‘ruling class’ who in this portrayal are “thieves, rogues and villains”. The staging is superb. There’s a rhythmicity to the performance that is like a heartbeat throughout the production. The strength of the ensemble is extraordinary.

Middletown at The Shaw is a play that asks if anyone can really know what goes on in the heart and mind of another. Middletown profiles life in a small town where inhabitants have histories that others will not let them forget or they’re newcomers seeking to develop friendships and roots in a place where others have lived for generations. The staging is intimate. That quiet space makes it possible for one character to observe that he “wants to calmly know love on earth and to feel beautiful” and for another to note that we’re “born with questions and the world is the answer”. Unlike 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt there are leading actors, Moya O’Connell and Gray Powell. Their performances are outstanding and they are superbly supported by their peers. It’s been some weeks since I saw this performance and I can still return to the last few scenes in my mind’s eye. Middletown raises questions that that are part of living an examined life.

The last play to comment on is The Madwoman of Chaillot.

The Madwoman of Chaillot, Stratford Festival 2017

Seana McKenna as Aurélie, The Madwoman of Chaillot. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I saw this production over a month ago and sadly, did  not keep my notes. It’s a well crafted play, creatively staged, that explores the literal and figurative  underground of  Vichy France. There’s an element of fantasy that would have been a welcome solution had the Resistance had access to it, but that was not the case. In a curious instance of synchronicity about the time I saw this play I was reading a novel about the period, and also came across the obituary of Simone Veil .Vichy France was a grim period of what is still recent history. Thank goodness for people who inspired the development of characters like the Madwoman of Chaillot and her friends, and for real life survivors like Mme Veil.

With all the theatre I see, there is more than my happy quotient of musicals. In a fit of pique last season, I actually cancelled our Mirvish subscription and thereby missed out on Come From Away! (We have renewed for this year and have been granted a second chance to see this award winning production). Given my contention that not every story lends itself well to a musical I did see two superb productions this season: Guys and Dolls at Stratford and Me And My Girl at Shaw.  Go see them for the sheer joy of watching the dancers perform.

1837: The Farmers’ Revolt  is playing at the Shaw Festival until October 8, 2017.

Middletown was playing at the Shaw Festival this summer. The last production was September 10, 2017.

The Madwoman of Chaillot is playing at the Stratford Festival until October 3, 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 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 The School For Scandal

Juicy bits of information, true or false, have always been hard to resist and easy to pass on. Such schadenfreude is the driving creative force in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s School For Scandal.

Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir Peter Teazle and Shannon Taylor as Lady Teazle. Photo by Lynda Churilla

Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir Peter Teazle and Shannon Taylor as Lady Teazle. Photo by Lynda Churilla

It’s a play that was written in the 18th century, but is timely for the 21st. If one changed the set to Manhattan condos, the costumes to modern day dress, the dialogue and intrigue would work equally well. To say that the satire delivers is an understatement; it’s witty, fast-paced and entertaining.

The play begins as Lady Sneerwell is literally finishing her morning toilette while being visited by a journalist, named Snake, who is both feared and admired for her malicious and salacious society column. There’s a game afoot. Lady Sneerwell is trying to secure the hand of Maria, for her friend, Joseph Surface, who (on the surface) is a thoughtful young man. However, Maria, the wealthy ward of Sir Peter Teazle is beloved by Joseph’s somewhat dissipated (on the surface) brother Charles. If Lady Sneerwell is successful, she will deny Maria’s hand to Charles and entrap him for herself.

This intrigue is set within two others: the travails of a May-December marriage (Sir Peter and Lady Teazle’s) that has lost its bloom, and an inheritance that the Surface brothers expect to receive from an elderly uncle, Sir Oliver. Throw in Rowley, a family manservant, who manoeuvres behind the scenes and the evening is set for intrigue and hilarity as loyalty and love are tested.

The play is set in a series of elegantly appointed rooms in the homes of Lady Sneerwell, Sir Peter Teazle, and Joseph Surface. Charles’ home, however, looks like an 18th century bachelor pad of a man who is on his last farthing, which is the case. Costumes are lush for both men and women.

I attend the Stratford Festival expecting excellence and I have yet to be disappointed. The teamwork that makes these productions possible speaks of a commitment to craft and polish. And for someone like me who took only one (obligatory) university English course, the excellent program notes are essential reading

School For Scandal is playing at the Stratford Festival in the Avon Theatre until October 21st.

Characters referenced in this review: Lady Sneerwell (Maev Beaty), Snake (Ansuree Roy), Maria (Monica Peter), Joseph Surface (Tyrone Savage), Sir Peter Teazle (Geraint Wyn Davies), Charles Surface (Omar Alex Khan), Lady Teazle (Shannon Taylor), Sir Oliver Surface (Joseph Ziegler) and Rowley (Brent Carver).

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.