“The Two Gentlemen of Verona”: wherein the Freewill Players demonstrate how to properly “tweak” a problematic Shakespearean play.

No spoilers here.

Like the texts of a number of Shakespeare’s plays (The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, Othello), The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a little uncomfortable for audiences today.  How can one respond to a happy ending that sees the victim of attempted rape reconciled to her attempted rapist just a few moments after the crime? How can we accept the whole cast going off to celebrate a wedding just after the Bride was almost raped by the Best Man?  Well, as the Freewill Players warn us in the playbill for this year’s production, “we have tweaked Shakespeare’s ending”, and the tweak is, I feel, a profound success.  By means of a final repetition (with slight modification) of a line spoken earlier in the play, the women of the play find freedom in the only way possible: as outsiders, exiles, outlaws from the male social structure of the play.

Much is often made of images of transformation in The Two Gentleman of Verona, of references to Ovid’s Metamorphoses — this thread is made obvious in the name of one of the two Gentlemen, Proteus.  But in this Freewill production, the transformation is wonderfully turned away from the men who are textually the centre of the play, in the final moment — which I hope I haven’t spoiled — in which the ever-present Shakespearean crossdressing female character embraces her femaleness and offers escape to the trapped-in-their-gender-roles women of the play.

The “tweaking” of the ending is textually subtle (unlike the bitter, savage mess the Citadel recently made of The Tempest), just a repetition of a few words from earlier in the play which reveal a wonderful new depth of meaning perhaps inherent in the text.  Certainly, the repeated line serves only to emphasize meanings already conveyed by the body language of the actors.

If I go on, there will be spoilers, so I will end by saying, the performers were uniformly delightful, the sound system had it’s usual glitches, and,

go see Freewill’s Two Gentlemen of Verona!

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Onegin

Look around
Look around
Look around
Do you see someone worth dying for?

Onegin

I just got home from a wonderful evening in downtown Edmonton.

No, not at that hockey game.

I just got home from an evening of wonder at Catalyst Theatre‘s presentation of The Vancouver Arts Club production of Onegin, an unqualified marvel of theatre.

But . . .

How was it not a full house?!

From the moment the cast walked out from the voms and mingled with the first few rows of the audience (Nadeem Phillip sat with us for a brief discussion of the Edmonton theatre scene which ended with a hasty “до свидания!”) it was clear this was going to be a warm, inviting, fourth-wall-breaking, audience participation piece.

With vodka.

But the mingling and conversation (and vodka) were just the warm up. The fortunate people who chose theatre over hockey this evening witnessed a tour-de-force of acting, singing, dancing, musicianship, lighting and costume design, and just pure theatre.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’m not up on Pushkin — or Tchaikovsky — so I really didn’t have much of an idea of what the story was going to be except Russian and so probably dark and probably not a happy ending.  But I didn’t need to know anything in advance. I just needed to sit back and enjoy the ride.

The cast is outstanding, many of them in many roles, but I found Alessandro Juliani most remarkable as the title character, the nihilistic, dark, Russian young man with more wealth than empathy who probably won’t have a happy ending.  But everyone in the cast truly shone and endlessly surprised as they each in turn stepped into the background and joined the orchestra (The Ungrateful Dead), picking up instruments and joining right in. The cast doesn’t just break the fourth wall, they break the side walls and the back wall, too.

Special mention must be made of Chris Tsujiuchi, piano and keyboard player and clearly the leader of the band, who completed his one hundredth performance of Onegin this evening.

The voices of Meg Roe (Tatyana), Lauren Jackson (Olga and others), and Caitriona Murphy (Madam Larin and others) were simply angelic while Jackson’s flamencoesque pas de deux with Juliani was more than a little devilish in a very pleasing way. Josh Epstein as Lensky was lyrically charming until he became tragically pigheaded at the end of the first act. All the darkness of Russian literature suddenly possessed this sunny young poet, and the audience just had to head to the lobby for another Black Russian.

Andrew Wheeler and Nadeem Phillip round out the cast performing a multitude of powerful and memorable “minor” characters with major impact.

I found the choreography of lighting and “theatrical fog” particularly noteworthy. Here the fog is not simply an atmospheric device unto itself, rather, it is also a canvas on which the light is projected, made solid by colour and shadow. So effective.

As I mentioned, I’m embarrassingly not up on Pushkin, but I know poetry when I hear it, and there is poetry — not just verse — in Veda Hille and Amiel Gladsone’s lyrics, poetry which, if not directly channelling Puskin, certainly does the Russian poet credit.

Edmonton’s theatre world is an embarrassment of riches; Edmonton theatre goers are amazing, generous audiences; we are very blessed on both sides of the many, many curtains we have in our city. We all benefited from this remarkable community recently when the very remarkable Hadestown had it’s run on the Shocter stage. And our community was noticed.

Tonight that remarkable theatre community was evident again: as Catalyst Theatre’s catchphrase has it, “Edmonton is our home. The world is our stage.” Tonight Vancouver Arts Club Theatre and we, the audience, were at home on our stage. Our theatrical riches keep increasing, and we don’t need to be embarrassed. We should embrace our riches proudly.

Onegin is playing on the Maclab stage at the Citadel until January 28, 2018. Fill the seats, Edmonton! You’ll be moved. You’ll marvel. You’ll maybe be a little heartbroken.

 

But you won’t be sorry.

 

“Hadestown” at The Citadel

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas
corpora . . .
— Ovid, Metamorphosis, Book I

I just had to post a hasty note after seeing the first preview performance of Hadestown at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre this evening.

What a piece of work!

Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful, powerful, poetic words and music, under the direction of Rachel Chavkin and in the hands of such a talented cast, band of musicians (that trombone!!!), and technical staff, have given new, timely form to the Classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. The Greek mythic world is here a mythic Great Depression America, a fusion of the Mississipi Delta and the Rust Belt, of the particular and the universal. The whole is made so remarkably topical: While Patrick Page’s Hades is nothing like the President to the south, he does pump up his indentured workers with praise of the Wall they’re building to keep the Enemy (poverty) out of their homeland; the destruction of Persephone’s natural world by unbridled industry can be nothing other than a reference to the environmental precipice on which we teeter; and then those oh-so-current resonances in references to “what happens behind closed doors.”

Apart from praising them to the sky, I don’t want to take a whole lot of time describing all the wonderful details of the production and performances — you should see, hear, and enjoy them yourself.*  What I was particularly struck by about Hadestown (apart from the glorious music and dance) is the play’s firm roots in the Classical myth. This is not a riff on vaguely remembered characters. Hadestown is the product of a deep understanding of both the myth and its profound meaning.

Just before I went to the play, I reread the opening of Book X of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Orpheus and Eurydice passage is quite brief, only a hundred lines of verse or so. But so many images are shared by Hadestown and those hundred lines of Latin verse. The huge tree that dominates the first act of the play parallel’s the catalogue of trees that gather in Ovid to mourn with Orpheus. Orpheus’ awakening of hope in the Chorus of Workers in the play parallels the beautiful passage in the Metamorphoses in which the torments of the dead cease for a moment while Orpheus sings — even Sisyphus is able to climb on his rock and rest for a time. For a moment there is hope even in the depths of Hell.

Hadestown is a most intelligent and engaging retelling and reforming of an ancient myth. a joyous, inexpressibly powerful demonstration that the old stories continue to have profound messages for our lives, our societies, and our deepmost selves. And the biggest, most important and timely message of Hadestown is:

Hope.

 

Cos here’s the thing
To know how it ends
And still begin
To sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
— Hermes, in Hadestown

 

 

Hadestown continues at The Citadel until December 3, 2017.

See it.


*Audience members from Old Strathcona will likely find Reeve Carney’s Orpheus oddly reminiscent of our own shirtless, rollerskating, guitar-playing guy.

 

__

Veiled Thoughts on “Alice Through the Looking Glass” at the Citadel Theatre

That was an hilarious, over-the-top romp! The all-Edmonton cast at The Citadel Theatre in this version of the Stratford Festival-National Arts Centre production of Alice Through the Looking Glass is by turns mystifying, magical, joyful, creepy, playful, and tender, but always thoroughly charming and endearing. This Looking Glass House and Garden are populated by all the characters to be expected from Lewis Carroll’s book with the addition of an at times disturbing chorus of dark-haired, dark-cross-dressed Alice Doppelgangers.

The cast is consistently outstanding – a demonstration of the depth and breadth of the talent pool in Edmonton’s theatre community. It would be pointless to single out individuals as all are a joy to watch in their multiple rolls.

I don’t want to post any spoilers, so, my brief thoughts are veiled:

The Fourth Wall is the Looking Glass, and the characters break the Fourth Wall in a very sweet way.

Everthing is reversed/inverted/turned about in Alice: upstage/downstage, onstage/backstage, House/stage, audience/cast. While the cross-dressing of the Alice Doppelgangers is an obvious inversion, what I found to be  a witty, smart, easy-to-miss, and powerful-in-post-TRC-Edmonton-and-Canada casting decision was to have a White guy play the Red Knight and a Native guy – the brilliant Sheldon Elert (oops! I singled him out!) – play the White Knight.

Alice Through the Looking Glass is, of course, a celebration of childhood, a gentle reminder to adults who may have lost touch with their happy, frightened, puzzled, fascinated inner child, and an homage to magnificently successful and sensible nonsense of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. But here, in this production at the Citadel Theatre in its Fiftieth Anniversary Season, I think Alice is also a bit of a love letter, a bit of a note home from a still-young but oh so precocious city to and from itself. That guy up on the wall in the egg costume lives down the road and dresses up like a fountain. That guy in the Victorian little girl’s dress is the guy you see playing in the local ukelele band or walking through Old Strathcona with the bright pink shirt on, a guitar over his shoulder. Alice is the nervous kid starting out at Grant MacEwan. And all of those people on stage you’ve seen so many times before pacing the boards of the theatres – or raising a glass in the pubs or a cup in the coffee shops – of Whyte, Jasper, 124th, 118th, or the French Quarter.

Happy Birthday, Citadel Theatre! And, Thank You! to the larger Edmonton theatre and arts community. You’ve helped make Edmonton both a Looking Glass House and a Wonderland!

Oh, and:

Alice Through the Looking Glass is the most fun you’re going to have at the theatre in a long time. Maybe ever. Go see it. At the Citadel. Until March 20th, 2016.

A Meditation on Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia”, and a slight review of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre’s production of same

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”
— T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Artist”

Tom Stoppard is a demanding dramatist.  He does not stoop to explain references in detail. He assumes that some in his audience will be left out — never more explicitly perhaps than in The Invention of Love in which a character tells the audience “if you can’t read Latin go home, you’ve missed it!”  In Rock ‘n’ Roll he expects the audience to remember Syd Barrett and know about The Plastic People of the Universe.  And, in Arcadia, Stoppard puts before us Byron and hangers-on of the Romantics, English landscape architecture, iterated algorithms and fractals, a joke dependent on an understanding of both Old and New Testament, and, yes, a bit of Latin.  Many will be left behind as are left behind by the references in Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech. Yet we all enjoy Romeo and Juliet.

The slight review of the Citadel Theatre’s production of Arcadia

. . . literature, ever since Theocritus, has been sophisticating nature  . . .
— Agnes Latham, introduction to the Arden Shakespeare (second series) edition of As You Like It, p. xliv.

Finally on Easter Sunday I had the opportunity to see Arcadia in a matinee performance of the appropriately pretty production directed by Tom Wood at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre.  I’ve been waiting to see Arcadia since first reading a review of the play in, of all places, the July 1997 issue of Scientific American.  To be honest, I feel Stoppard’s tight script and careful stage directions leave little extra for the director to do, and, not meaning to sound like Septimus talking to Chater, Wood does a good job of it.  One particular touch I noticed was in the first scene of Act II, when non-verbal Gus (Luc Tellier) sits up straight and perks up his ears when Bernard (Jamie Williams) mentions Gus’ namesake predecessor, Augustus Coverly (also played by Tellier). This touching and meaningful tiny moment is not hinted at in Stoppard’s stage directions, and the gesture adds subtly but greatly to the cross-century connection.

The set is exquisite, the costumes beautiful (both by Leslie Frankish), the sound (Owen Hutchinson) and lighting design (Kevin Humphrey) are perfect.  Performances were spot on, with special mention going to Julia Guy’s totally charming and intimidatingly intelligent Thomasina Coverly, Kevin Klassen’s lovably foppish Ezra Chater, Claire Armstrong’s crustily vulnerable Hannah Jarvis, and Jamie Williams’ smarmily narcissistic Bernard Nightingale.

My criticisms of what went on on stage are so small as to barely need mention: Plautus the tortoise is a model rather than a live tortoise; Aaron Hursh gives a little too much shrillness to Septimus Hodge’s laughs in Act I; and the wig Luc Tellier wears as Augustus Coverly makes that character a little too distinguishable from Gus Coverly, the other character Tellier plays.  Stoppard is explicit that the two should be easily confusable.

But, picking nits.

Arcadia is a long and challenging play.  It became clear part way through the second act that many in the audience had lost track and were exhausted. At the end of each of the last few scenes, a good portion of the audience began to applaud, in mistaken relief that the play had ended, uncomprehended.  I see this incomprehension not as a criticism of the play, the direction, or the performances.  Arcadia demands much of the cast and much of the audience.  It is impressive that the cast rose to those demands, and not surprising — although sad — that some audience members weren’t up to it.  Arcadia is a play to be savoured.  Careful engagement richly repays the challenge.

Arcadia plays at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, on the Shocter Stage, until April 12, 2015.

Please check out Jenna Marynowski’s review of Arcadia at After the House Lights.

A Meditation on Arcadia

Life is a quest for a quarry we will never capture.  We reach for perfection in art and always fall short.  We investigate the universe ever more deeply through science and mathematics and every answer brings a thousand new questions.  We strive for Arcadia but find ourselves fumbling in a gazebo in an English formal garden.

On stage throughout Arcadia there is a tortoise, perhaps a very long lived tortoise, like the Galapagos tortoise named Harriet who was reputedly collected by Darwin in 1835 and died in 2006.  In the 19th century scenes in Arcadia the tortoise is named “Plautus” for the early Roman comic dramatist.  The Roman dramatist was a source of plots for young Shakespeare and I have no doubt Stoppard has chosen the name carefully, at the least as a reminder of Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier).  The action of Plautus’ play, like that of Arcadia, is triggered by a servant’s accidental witnessing of a carnal embrace.  Plautus’ Soldier, Pyrgopolynices, fumbles through life with the mistaken impression that he is in control when he is, in fact, slave to his own failings and the wiles of his own slaves.  Some of Stoppards characters, Chater particularly, have much of Plautus’ soldier in them. But the most important and interesting characters in Arcadia are very much aware of what ultimately controls things — the entropy which winds down every life. Et in Arcadia, ego.

In Classical Comedy, we laugh a lot and there is a generally happy ending.  Plautus’ plays are exceptionally light fare.  Arcadia, on the other hand, for all its glittering wit and English country sunshine, for all its joy of discovery running through, is a fundamentally tragic vision.  Stoppard shows us that not only do we each have a fatally tragic flaw, but that the flaw is the tragic flaw of the universe.  No matter our joys, our discoveries, our duels or our carnal embraces, we are all doomed with the universe itself to

. . . wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless . . .

as the second law of thermodynamics grinds its irresistible way to that far future when Darkness is the Universe.

In Stoppard’s play, Hannah recites the above lines of Lord Byron, using poetry as evidence that even before our thermodynamic doom was understood mathematically, it was possible to glimpse the cold, dark truth.  This dark truth hangs over all the characters in Arcadia.

But we are not alone, either in space or time.  Septimus says of the endless succession of human generations:

We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind.  The procession is very long and life is very short.  We die on the march.  But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

I can’t help but hear an echo of T. S. Eliot here:

He must be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.

Indeed, I find much in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” which illuminates Arcadia.  Consider:

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.

Arcadia is fundamentally about creativity in the face of the Second Law.  it is about life as a local reversal of entropy and what a marvellous gift that reversal is.  Arcadia is about the quest to find out, to learn. Hannah says:

Comparing what we’re looking for is missing the point.  It’s wanting to know that makes us matter.  Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.

Yes, Death is there, but, before all else, Even in Arcadia is Life.

Some, having little understanding of the Second Law, have tried to argue that Darwinian Evolution, for example, contravenes that law by increasing order when order must decrease.  But, of course, there is nothing in the Second Law which makes impossible localized, temporary increases accompanied by a greater decrease elsewhere or elsewhen.  Each pleasantly arranged dessert, each beautiful poem, every evening at the theatre, is made possible by the distant future cinder we now call The Sun.  These local eddies of increased order are what Stoppard offers us — not as consolation — as purpose and meaning.  “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow the universe will sink into a lightless heat-death.”

Eliot again:

….he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.

Near the end of the play Gus, the non-verbal youth picks up what has been shed, as he had earlier picked up a trans-temporal apple for Hannah (a reference, I think, to Theocritus’ third Idyll). Gus gives Hannah the unexpected clue she needs to clinch her argument about the identity of the Hermit.  In that moment, Gus and Plautus the tortoise are linked through time.  The silent watchers hold the answer, but there is a melancholy.

Septimus and Thomasina dance. Gus silently invites Hannah to dance.

Hannah says,

“Oh, dear, I don’t really . . .”

But, really, she does.

As the couples orbit each other into the night at the end of the play, we and they know that the journey and our companions, including those who have preceded us, and what we make of them, are all we truly have.

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard is published by Faber & Faber.

On a lighter note

From page 38 of my 1993 copy of Arcadia:

Et in Arcadia Typo

Et in Arcadia, Typo.

I’m feeling really annoyed at the Dean of Edmonton Theatre Reviewers

I’m feeling a little annoyed at Colin MacLean, “the Dean of Edmonton Theatre Reviewers.” You see, when writing in the Mary Poppins playbill earlier this year about the then-upcoming Citadel production of Romeo and Juliet, he reminisced about the 1976 Citadel production of the same play:

“It featured Canadian Brent Carver (who went on to win a Tony in New York) and a young Tom Wood as Mercutio. (Also it featured a Juliet who performed the balcony scene topless but that is another discussion.)”

Well, Colin, that Juliet you dismiss with such puerility has a name. She’s Nicky Guadagni. John Neville brought her to Edmonton fresh from playing Miranda to Paul Scofield’s Prospero in London. She’d graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She’s since been nominated for five Geminis and won two. She’s had as successful a career as that young man who played her Romeo in 1976. I’d argue she’s gone much further than her Mercutio.

It is absolutely shameful and sexist of you to dismiss Nicky Guadagni as the topless, nameless Juliet on the balcony.

Shameful.

By the way: if I remember correctly, Mr. Carver also played that scene topless, Colin.

Check out Ms. Guadagni’s CV here.

And then see again what the Dean of ‪#‎yegtheatre‬ Reviewers has to say about her:

Colin MacLean being sexist

Update, June 22, 2015:  Ms. Guadagni just won the Dora award for Outstanding Performance – Female for her work in Theatre Passe Muraille’s Hooked.  The “Dean of Edmonton Theatre Reviewers” really should be apologizing, methinks.

Update, November 22, 2015: I noticed this evening that Mr. MacLean, in his series of essays on the 50th Anniversary of the Citadel, has somewhat made amends. In the second essay, printed in the program for Evangeline, he writes:

The new theatre opened in 1976 with Romeo and Juliet. Brent Carver was a memorable Romeo, Juliet was a young and appealing Nicky Guadagni (with Tom Wood as Mercutio).

image

Thank you, Mr. MacLean, for shedding the puerile misogyny.

Quick Notes on “Romeo and Juliet” at the Citadel Theatre

I’ve been a little hard on The Citadel Theatre (and its audiences)  and Tom Woods in the past, but, I have to say, the current staging of Romeo and Juliet is a tremendous, thoughtful romp.  Sadly, there are only a few days left in its run — could one imagine it being held over?

Wood’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream two seasons ago was a pleasant enough treatment, a painless entry to Shakespeare for school kids and those wishing to avoid challenge.  It was comfortable.

Wood’s Romeo and Juliet also has a degree of comfort, but it is, thankfully, and in spite of the youth of the characters, a fully adult outing.  In the opening slow-motion melee of Capulet and Montague women and men, blood is drawn front and centre, by a dirk to the eye, no less.  Mercutio’s (Jamie Cavanagh) life’s blood oozes from a belly wound, Tybalt’s (Nick Abraham) face is beaten in, and Friar Lawrence (Jamie Williams) delivers his opening monologue on herbs from a very unusual position.  Wood has given an interesting subtext to the relationship between Tybalt and Lady Capulet (Mabelle Carvajal) – they got a thing going on – which perfectly emphasizes the youth of the Lady — she is roughly twenty-six as written.  There is  desperate clutching for life in deadly feud- and plague-ruled Verona.

The matinee show I saw featured Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Shaina Silver-Baird, the “young Romeo and Juliet” – two pairs of actors alternate in the roles.  McMurtry-Howlett, all wiry and hopped up on youth and love with golden curls on top, put me in mind of young Brent Carver in the same role in 1976.  Silver-Baird, perhaps not everyone’s idea of Juliet, is a head-strong fire-plug, controlling her situation – and the stage – with an unexpected certainty.  In short, a teenage girl.  Any idea that these are two foolish, mooning, love-struck youth is immediately erased by Silver-Baird’s Juliet’s determination.  Indeed, because Wood has banished the Chorus from the opening, replacing him with a plainsong choir, Romeo and Juliet are not “star-crossed” on this stage. The sole cause of their tragedy is that Friar Lawrence’s letter did not reach Mantua.  We believe their love will last.

A technical note:  I was pleased, particularly after the over-amplified but spectacular Mary Poppins next door, that for Romeo and Juliet the Citadel set aside the microphones.  It was so good to hear the actors voices coming from where the actors actually stood, instead of them all being gathered in an unidentifiable place somewhere over my head.  Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but I’ve always felt that, given a space with appropriate acoustics, actors should use their talents and their actual voices to reach the audience.  It was gratifying to see this cast reminding us that whatever technical wonders are available, theatre is at its essential, an actor and an audience.  With just their voices, Tom Wood’s direction, and Shakespeare’s words, the cast from the Robbins Academy held us spellbound for three hours – no small feet in our 140 character world.

Romeo and Juliet will be at the Citadel Theatre on the MacLab stage until April 27.

Just for fun, when I got home, I rooted around and found my copy of the poster from the 1976 John Neville directed production starring Brent Carver and Nicky Guadagni:

image

(and I tried to ignore Colin Maclean’s sexist comments on that 1976 production)