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THE FIRST FIVE AT STRATFORD

TIMON OF ATHENS at the Tom Patterson

TWELFTH NIGHT at the Festival Theatre

THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL at the Avon

GUYS AND DOLLS at the Festival Theatre

HMS PINAFORE at the Avon

Joseph Ziegler as Timon (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Shakespeare does well and badly thus far this season. Stephen Ouimette’s production of Timon of Athens, that morality parable with an unfinished quality about it, is a modern update, strongly anchored by a competent ensemble led by Joseph Ziegler in the title role. Shakespeare (probably with the help of anonymous collaborators) charts Timon’s transformation from philanthropy to misanthropy, adding an alluring gloss to conventional didacticism before swerving into a virtually absurdist existentialism in the second part when, betrayed by his false flatterers who feasted gluttonously on his generosity, Timon vents his bitter hatred not only of Athens but of mankind in general. Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design mixes disco, hot jazz, and even a sliver of Queen; Kimberly Purtell’s expert lighting and Dana Osborne’s design preserve the sense of minimal ornamentation, with only a glittering table setting for Timon’s sumptuous feast in Act 1 and 21st century glam for a sexy dance by four women (including a representation of Juno). This allows the production to keep a tight focus on Timon, without cramping the satiric dialogue (particularly sharpened by Ben Carlson’s churlishly cynical Apemantus). Ziegler (reliably credible and life-size) negotiates Timon’s savagely bitter rages, showing how misanthropy bursts beyond the play’s schematic symmetry. This wonderful actor shines forth in a performance of striking pith and hurt as, sick at heart of a false world, he isolates himself like a bedraggled, root-digging hermit in a cave, resisting all pleas, mockeries, and reasons to return to the society that cruelly turned its back on him once he lost his fortune. Ziegler gets no help from Shakespeare when it comes to any Olympian pathos. Shakespeare has him die offstage, bringing back Alcibiades (a robust Tim Campbell) as conquering military hero in his place.

Members of the Company of ‘Twelfth Night’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Where Ouimette’s production (well judged in scale and tenor) ranks among the better versions of Timon of Athens, Martha Henry’s production of Twelfth Night (grim and largely empty) is among the worst for this much beloved comedy. Henry shows a heavy directorial hand from the outset. True, there is much cruelty and suffering in this romantic comedy, but every great comedy has a serious underbelly, perhaps even a streak of real melancholy within the general mirth. We do not need to rehearse the points of death, suffering, and chaos early in the fable or of Sir Andrew’s bloody pate or Malvolio’s cruel humiliation in a dark cage. But Shakespeare’s title alone is a clue to his play. First performed in 1602, the play takes its title from the Twelve Days of Christmas, the twelfth night being the feast of the Epiphany, though Shakespeare inverts religious significance in favour of joyous mischief. Instead of Epiphany, Henry delivers Lent. Louise Guinand’s lighting skill is taken hostage by a production where the costumes at the outset are all black, and where John Pennoyer’s metal trees also look to be in mourning in the first half. Poor Brent Carver (fine actor and singer) has to rush about as Feste in order to find the singing bowls so cleverly yet so needlessly used for his unflattering songs about the world’s woes. As for the acting, Rod Beattie’s Malvolio is a stuffy puritan who is short on comic colour and histrionic width, especially when we recall the Malvolios of Brian Bedford, Stephen Fry, and Tom Rooney. He does strike comic points in the cross-garter scene, but I have yet to see a stage Malvolio who doesn’t. His exit line threatening vengeance is rather chilling, as it should be, but this production has quite enough cold in the wrong sense. Sarah Afful’s Viola and Shannon Taylor’s Olivia are roughly single note performances that have a dying fall on the ear and in the mind, and E.B. Smith’s Orsino is only slightly better than this. Thank the lord, however, for the comic spirits of Lucy Peacock (clever, resourceful Maria), Tom Rooney (an Iggy Pop of a Sir Andrew), and Geraint Wyn Davies (Sir Toby, with a touch of Falstaff). This trio gave this woeful production its greatest contact with the play.

Geraint Wyn Davies (Sir Peter Teazle) and Shannon Taylor (Lady Teazle) (photo: Lynda Churilla)

Given my disapproval of Twelfth Night, it is only fair to record my approval of Antoni Cimolino’s version of The School for Scandal, Sheridan’s glittering masterwork about hypocrisy. Though the cast seemed to push the text heavily along in the early acts on the night I attended the show, there is a level of undeniable artistic competence that manages to find Sheridan’s 18th century satiric sentimental comic spirit. Julie Fox’s set design at the Avon starts with a front curtain that looks like a tinted lithograph of a large estate, but nostalgia is not the guiding principle, for Cimolino, backed by a solid knowledge of late 18th century English and American history, as well as of our Trumpian Age of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” roots the comedy in the triumph of true hearts and minds over scandalous hypocrisy. Filled with character types (vexed older husband, spendthrift much younger wife, cuckold, sententious hypocrite, sentimental ward, young knave, wise old man) and standard subjects of courtship, marriage, class difference, it is a reflection of a sort of morality that only seems out of fashion. The two major plot lines concern two pairs: a May-December wife and husband (the amusingly fractious Teazles), and the Surface brothers, one a sly, conniving hypocrite and the other a seeming profligate but who has a genuinely good heart. These pairs are surrounded by a motley collection of malicious gossips, knaves, perpetrators, etc. but true virtue, sentiment, and sensibility come to the fore, principally through the Surface brothers’ benevolent uncle (Oliver), whom Joseph Ziegler portrays with his signature honest, no-frills acting that always gets to the heart of the matter. The pairs, too, are well played by Tyrone Savage (Joseph Surface, the oily arch hypocrite) and Sebastien Heins (less colourful in voice but no less robust in acting as Charles, his brother) for the Surface duo; and by Shannon Taylor as young, beautiful country lass who moves up in social rank and wealth as Lady Teazle when she marries anxious, fretful, but generous Sir Peter (superb Geraint Wyn Davis). Maev Beaty is a wonderfully malicious Lady Sneerwell, and there is fair support by most of the cast that includes Brent Carver (Rowley), Tom Rooney (Sir Benjamin Backbite), and Rod Beattie (Crabtree). The hours pass nicely enough.

Sean Arbuckle (Sky Masterson) and Blythe Wilson (Adelaide) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Also nice (and there is a Nicely-Nicely enough) is Donna Feore’s version of Guys and Dolls, a justly celebrated classic of Broadway musical theatre. Michael Gianfrancesco’s set at the Festival Theatre turns from black and white in a snap to florid neon colour, and Feore’s choreography brings the dance prologue to vivid life, with the swift, athletic male dancers (with high Cossack leaps, back flips, and rolls) going on to become one of the outstanding factors in the show, especially in the big show-stopping numbers: “Havana” (where they easily out dance the females), “The Crapshooters’ Dance,” and “Luck Be a Lady.” Laura Burton conducts the orchestra with brio, and Alexis Gordon delivers Sarah Brown’s soaring arias with colour and conviction. As this Mission Doll’s romantic convert, Evan Buliung’s Sky Masterson is shrewd, handsome rogue who falls into line—well, at least for a time. His singing is passable, and so is Sean Arbuckle’s as Nathan Detroit—that raffish gambler who seems to have a clever way of keeping Adelaide perennially psychosomatic and eager to parlay their 15-year engagement into a conventional suburban marriage. But this is where I have a bone to pick with Feore’s production. As Adelaide, Blythe Wilson’s comic sneezing comes artlessly on cue, though she scores apt comic points in the poignant “Adelaide’s Lament.” Her Hot Box numbers are also more knowingly sophisticated than they need to be, and they thereby lose charm and irony. The disreputable gambling men fare better, especially Mark Uhre as a bespectacled beanpole of a Benny Southstreet, surprisingly light on his feet and eager for dance, and Steve Ross as portly Nicely-Nicely Johnson, that ton of lard on a lark. But why do Feore and her lighting designer Michael Walton need to abruptly transition into top spotlight amid darkness for the signature numbers, and why is “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” turned into a flat out, full pitch presentational number rather than a contextual canon? Nitpicking? Well, perhaps, because the show has knockdown power and finesse on the whole.

Male dancers in ‘Guys and Dolls’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

What has less power and finesse is the HMS Pinafore at the Avon, director Lezlie Wade’s homage to her English grandparents who loved Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. Wade also happens to love G&S, but she is no purist—and it is actually a disservice to these operettas to take them purely at their surface value, as the late Brian Macdonald showed so brilliantly in his hilarious send-ups of The Mikado, The Gondoliers, and The Pirates of Penzance. Wade tries to resist conventional G&S by imposing a WWI frame and context. She places the musical as a play-within-a-play—a New Year’s Eve entertainment in a temporary hospital, featuring doctors, nurses, and inmates playing song-and-dance roles with purpo

Mark Uhre (Ralph Rackstraw) and Jennifer Rider-Shaw (Josephine) in ‘HMS Pinafore’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

seful levity in a combination of British patriotism and silliness, but the story of love and class prejudice aboard a British naval ship shows its age. The main plot-line (well, if the thin story can be said to have a plot) is rooted in the old British class system: Captain Corcoran (a nicely stuffy Steve Ross) cannot abide the thought of his sweet daughter Josephine (melodious Jennifer Rider-Shaw) falling in love with lowly seaman Ralph Rackstraw (Mark Uhre in a delightful rhapsodic mode). But this gets a bit muddied and coarse, especially with Lisa Horner’s loudly vulgar Little Buttercup, the Portsmouth bumboat woman. However, she is offset by Laurie Murdoch’s Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, who is right but light in his pompous comedy. Brad Rudy is an eye-sore as dastardly Dick Deadeye and he scratches the dastardy to the sore. The sailors have enough dance energy and versatility for two musicals but are not given very much to do by Kerry Gage’s choreography, though they do so splendidly and repetitively. A charming museum-piece.

Laurie Murdoch (Sir Joseph Porter) with Members of the Company in ‘HMS Pinafore’ (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

 

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