Theatre Review: Comedy of Errors (Public Theater)

comedyIn Central Park, New York, there is an open-air theatre (or is that ‘theater’?) called the Delacorte. In that… space with multiple spellings (oh, the times it is unfortunate to be Canadian reporting on America) the Public Theater company puts on Shakespeare. For free. And they get good actors, including a famous production of Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino three years ago.

That is why I found myself waiting in line at 6:30am recently. I’d have been there earlier, possibly by 5:45, but due to some rainy weather I figured it would be safe to sleep in a bit. You see, they give out the tickets at around noon, so if you literally snooze, you probably lose. For Merchant, people reportedly camped out the night before. Lucky for me, Comedy doesn’t have quite that cachet, delightful though star Jesse Tyler Ferguson is. And honestly, waiting in line at the Delacorte is one of those only-in-New-York experiences, and my secondary goal (in addition to, you know, getting tickets) was to find myself in line next to interesting people.

Interesting they were. They brought a tarp on which to sit, portable iPod speakers, cream cheese, bagels, crackers, orange juice and champagne, and they were happy to share. (All I had in return were some complementary chocolate coins from a Brooklyn steak house, but they didn’t seem to mind.) Which is how I found myself getting tipsy at 6:30 in the morning and thoroughly enjoying myself even while dodging raindrops and shivering because I dressed too light. The point? Seldom can waiting in line be a trip, but I highly recommend this one. Also: bring booze.

The play!

Comedy of Errors doesn’t get performed all that often, and apart from knowing the title I went in completely blind. I also tend to have trouble with the Shakespearean dialogue for the first 20 minutes or so until my ear adapts. Not so with this production; the Public Theater staged their Comedy in 1930s-ish America Town, complete with Brooklyn-inspired gangster accents. The heavy enunciation of every syllable made the language terrifically easy to understand, rendering it accessible without dumbing it down. Even the stage crew added to the fun, lindy-hopping their way through set changes with big-band background music.

Shakespeare is well known for having played around with identity, and Comedy of Errors is an early example of this: it features three sets of identical twins, two of whom were separated at birth. Director Daniel Sullivan opted to go with four actors, requiring Ferguson and Hamish Linklater to each play his own brother, while Emily Bergl and Heidi Schreck round out the sister act. The plot hardly matters – suffice it to say that everyone on stage brought a great energy and sense of fun to the play, with no down moments.

Ferguson did well finding two sides of the same servant; heavens only knows why both he and his brother were named Dromio before their separation as infants, but he managed to separate his two roles nicely while still suggesting their similarities. Dromio of Syracuse is a clown used to pleasing his master; Dromio of Ephesus directs his clownishness into frustrated asides at his slightly harsher masters. Likewise, Linklater brings a gentle determination to his Syracusean Antipholus while the Ephesian counterpart has a harsher, capitalistic bent. Both distinguish their separate roles with a simple adjustment to inflection and physical carriage; it’s a nice bit of acting on both their parts that kept the story humming along nicely.

Jonathan Hadary does well as the slightly hapless Egeon in his two short scenes, using the first to set up the play’s premise through the use of hilariously silly dolls and the last to tie a neat little bow on all the kerfuffle. The Duke (Skipp Sudduth) added a nice little twist to the standard Godfather role, seeming almost weary of presiding over the insanities of life in Ephesus.

Light comedy, like any genre, is hard to pull off well – after all, how over the top is too over the top? Comedy of Errors hit the sweet spot, not unlike a mimosa at 7am.

4.5 out of 5 bottles of booze discretely consumed in public.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Fiddler on the Roof (Stratford Festival)

stratfordYiddish humour is a tricky thing to pull off, whether you’re working with material as strong as the book for Fiddler or not. A great deal of this style’s power comes out of a place of sadness, of being a bit of a hapless outsider, and that sadness has to come through first. The humour comes out of the little asides you make in response to challenges, in the little ways our heroes cope through jokes.

If I have one chief complaint with Stratford’s staging of the classic musical, it’s that the jokes come first. Tevye (Scott Wentworth) nails the vocal lilt, almost a verbal shrug, that’s probably the Yiddish accent’s most famous attribute in English, but it’s strangely empty without a world-weariness to drive it. Which isn’t to say his performance is bad; his key moments with wife Golde (Kate Hennig) and daughters Tzeitel, Hodel and Chava (Jennifer Stewart, Jacquelyn French and Keely Hutton) are tender and loving, and he is a funny performer. But when the heart and soul of a show like this acts like he knows he’s funny, well… it loses something.

That about sums up this production in its entirety. With appropriately rustic stage dressing and costumes and solid performers, you’re guaranteed a Fiddler that gets the job done. The play has its own energy and hear that come through even the most rote performance. Take Motel, the tailor boy who marries Tzeitel and breaks with the tradition that Tevye extolls in the opening number. His nerves and awkwardness come across, but his big number lacks vocal power and physical largesse; he is just a small, stationary man on a big stage.

Thinking back on this production, one number stands out as everything they got wrong: Tevye’s “If I Were A Rich Man.” If you’re going to knock one song out of the park, make it this one. Its simultaneous yearning for the impossible along with weary resignation that it will never be is the thematic undercurrent tying the entire play together. Its emotional core is an unreachable, rapturous joy so profound Tevye can’t put it into words. His “biddy-biddy byes” are a pure, flowing expression of complex emotion, an unintelligible prayer to God.

Wentworth delivers those lines as if each word is, well, a word. It’s as if he’s scatting along in a jazz number. He enunciates each syllable clearly, giving them equal lexical weight. It ruins the significance of the key part of the song that is key to the entire play. Add the fact that Wentworth is a fine singer but can’t quite fill the room with his voice, and critical people such as myself start to check their watches a little too often.

Fiddler on the Roof is a wonderful story that’s near impossible, I think, to get wildly wrong. What you can do, however, is a paint-by-numbers approach that suggests rather than communications the script’s greatness. Stratford put all the colours in the right place. Shame they didn’t go over the lines a bit.

2.5 out of 5 sewing machines.

~Mike!

Research Diaries: Entry 1

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Kind of funny how coincidences work out… no sooner do I sit down to finally reflect on my recent experience digging up the history of some bridge in my hometown than a blogger I follow does kinda sorta the same thing. I guess we both hopped on the zeitgeist.

I recently embarked on a personal project, the kind of thing that indie filmmakers like to pretend also leads to unexpected love, a heartwarming cast of quirky characters to fill in the margins and some kind of personal revelation about the small yet fulfilling pleasures life holds. It also makes for great blog fodder, which I suppose is a good consolation prize in case that other stuff doesn’t work out. Stupid reality.

There’s this bridge near by grandmother’s house. It spans one of Toronto’s many ravines, has a wooden deck and is pedestrian-only. I’ve always enjoyed biking over it for the earthy clatter my wheels make passing over the beams, and passing under it for the view of its gently curving support trusses on tapered concrete pillars.

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About a month ago, I started wondering about it. When was it built? Why is it pedestrian-only? It occurred to me that with a topography of ravines, valleys and creeks, Toronto is more likely than most cities to have bridges. A relatively high number of builders, architects, developers and politicians are going to point to where a bridge currently isn’t, declare “No, this will not do,” and start putting one there. What this winds up meaning is that Toronto, for my money, contains a huge number of small, humble bridges and a relatively small number of world-class megaprojects. No Golden Gates or Brooklyns for us; maybe the Bloor Viaduct qualifies. Invisible bridges that get the job done, sans muss and lacking fuss.

So, my grandmother’s bridge. Glen Cedar bridge. I figured there had to be a story behind it, and when you want to look up civic history in Toronto, there’s really only one place to go: the Toronto Archives.

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You want a hardcover book of City Council minutes from the 1970s that’s thicker than your thigh? The Archives has that. Fancy a banker’s box of historic Toronto postcards from the 1930s? They’ve got that too. How about a view into a filing system that looks like the inspiration for Indiana Jones? Archives.

I’ve visited a few times now, and learned the following: this kind of research is hard. In my mind, a bridge represents a fairly significant investment. City Council has incredibly fractious debates over them. Of course, back when Glen Cedar was built in 1912 (I found out that much), record-keeping was a bit more… haphazard. What is now Toronto was several independent towns, each with its own governance structure and rules about records. Few of them have a handy document entitled “Everything you need to know about that bridge a developer is building in a part of town nobody lives in.” Following the annexation of these town into modern-day Toronto, records were invariably collected, mis-filed, moved, and perhaps most distressingly, lost and destroyed.

A senior archivist took pity on me that first day, showing me the ropes of this kind of research. You don’t dive in; you nibble around the edges. Look at historic maps, many of which show a street grid that has either changed over time or was only hypothetical and never actually existed. Search for historic street names in the vicinity; at one point, he showed me a multi-volume set of Township of North York historic by-laws. Spanning over a century. He recommended I search for ones related to bridge repairs and maintenance; maybe I’d find some mention of the bridge there.

Yeah. Maybe in a century’s worth of research. In the meantime, I’m learning an incredible amount about topics I never expected to find: massive folios containing detailed development plans for far-flung parts of the city, timelines of when various townships coalesced into modern-day T.O. The fact that streetcars used to be called “civic cars,” and that proximity to them was considered a plus in real estate advertisements.

I’ll be keeping a research diary here on Inspiared. Even if most of what I find is completely unrelated to that damned bridge, it’s entirely engrossing, and I can’t wait to get back there. As it stands, I can only schedule it in every other Friday afternoon, so this promises to be a slow-cooker of a project. Because when all you’ve got to go on is a gorgeous, undated landscape architect’s plan for the neighbourhood that clearly didn’t pan out as documented, you take any semblance of a clue you can find.

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~Mike!