Theatre Review: Angels in America – Millennium Approaches (Soulpepper)

angels_in_america_-_millennium_approachesAngels in America is a big, ambitious duo of plays, each clocking in a three hours and managing to be simultaneously human, epic, literal, metaphorical, intimate and distant. To take them on at all speaks to a certain amount of like ambition, to say nothing of confidence, and suffice to say that Soulpepper has done a wonderful job.

Written by Tony Kushner partially in response to the AIDS crisis of 1980, Angels nonetheless manages to have a timeless feel about it, and director Albert Schultz taps into that broadness right from the start. Prior Walter (Damien Atkins) may reveal his era-centric diagnosis to his lover Louis Ironson (Gregory Prest) in their first scene together, but little is made, in the moment, of the fact that the scene consists of two men. In fact, for most of the production, AIDS may as well be interchangeable with any other devastating disease one could contract.

As the name suggests, Millennium Approaches anticipates change rather than delivers on it, and as such is the more portentous of the two halves. Every character is on the cusp of a major transition, and what’s fascinating is the different ways they react to this impending doom. Joseph Pitt (Mike Ross) is the poster boy for stereotypical Mormon mental compartmentalization, so utterly able to convince himself of his own heterosexuality that he doesn’t even know he’s lying when interrogated by his wispy wife Harper (Michelle Montheith). It probably helps his cause that she’s in a near constant Valium trance, but her pointed questions constantly penetrate his anger, prevarication and last-ditch faith-based workaround: what does his sexual preference matter? He loves her and prays and wants to make it work. So there.

If Joe is the epitome of self-denial, Roy Cohn (Diego Matamoros in a role so well suited to his unique style of enunciation it ought to be recorded for posterity) is so self-assured of his own grandeur he can admit his sexual proclivities while denying homosexuality on the basis of having made a pretzel out of dictionary definitions. A homo is someone without clout, an ineffectual nobody who deserves to be stomped on; Cohn, on the other hand, has political capital to burn and the attitude to do just that. Matamoros lends a hypnotic gravitas to the role; watching him, you truly believe this man can turn AIDS into cancer just by having declared it so.

What impresses most about this production of Millennium Approaches is how human it is, despite the grandeur, visions and literal angel crashing through the roof to end things off. We’ve all known a philosophizing blowhard like Louis, and yet it’s heartbreaking how his inability to cope with losing Prior cuts through his bluster. Prior’s anger at Louis’ betrayal is palpable, as is his fear and wonder at the voice he hears in his dreams (to say nothing of the accompanying physical reaction he wakes to). Harper may spend half her time with an imaginary, Valium-induced friend (Belize/Mr. Lies, played by Troy Adams), but the pain that drives her to it is written all over Monteith’s face in every scene. The play may be solidly rooted in the AIDS crisis and 1980s politics, but the human element makes it timeless and terrifically easy to access.

The set is incredibly versatile, surrounded on all sides by rotating panels with two to three doors each, making for at least 15 different ways for actors to enter and exit the stage. And despite the chaos so much coming and going could suggest, the production keeps the necessary connections visible and present at all times. Characters not part of a scene are often on stage anyway, in the dark. Prior’s bed is Louis’ bed is Joe and Harper’s bed, and it remains on stage no matter what else changes. Prior himself stays in bed through each intermission, blurring the lines between when the show actually stopped. (It never did, of course; as in life, you’re in bed sleeping whether people witness it or not. Trees falling in the forest and all that.)

By the end Millennium has indeed arrived, with tremors and thunder and fallen chunks of ceiling, and it is wonderfully, simply, powerful. The play began with a eulogy, recalling our connection to the past; who’s to say if it that connection will survive ’til morning?

5 out of 5 angels dancing on the head of a pin.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: The Barber of Seville (Soulpepper)

the_barber_of_sevilleEverything about Soulpepper’s The Barber of Seville was a wonderful surprise, from the fact that it was a musical to the related fact that, well, it’s a comedy. In fact, this production has a lot more in common with the Looney Tunes version of my childhood than the stuffy opera I thought it to be, a realization that had me grinning like an idiot for most of the night. To be perfectly honest, my own ignorance of the plot and history of Barber was a huge boon to my enjoyment of the show, and if you are similarly in the dark, then stop reading this right now. Just go, buy yourself a ticket and enjoy. I’ll wait.

Done? Good.

Every so often, you see a show where the actors’ sheer enthusiasm for the material is infectious. The kind of production where flubbed lines, dropped props and Soulpepper veterans such as Oliver Dennis corpsing on stage somehow all enhance the experience rather than detract from it. To be fair, Dennis was acting against Gregory Prest (as Count Almaviva) in some truly fabulous drag, who wasted no opportunity in winking to the audience every time Dennis broke character (Don Bartolo) to choke back a laugh. Even the music, somehow marrying Rossini’s grand opera with an on-stage, costumed folk band, was in character; this show is all about absurd yet immensely satisfying combinations.

Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster brings a fantastic, cartoonish glee to her work as the fiery Rosina, a Rapunzel-like figure awaiting her opportunity for escape from the guardianship of and secret betrothal to Don Bartolo. Her signature song careens from the operatic (with surprising bursts of bluesy angst) to full-on contemporary (with surprising bursts of operatic power), much like her character overall. She’s as comfortable belting out some impromptu Carly Rae Jepsen as she is going from helpless to aggressive to swooning all in the same breath, easily the comic equal of her sly savior, Count Almaviva.

But the true accolades of the night go to Dan Chameroy’s Figaro, whose introduction alone is worth the price of admission. You all know the tune: “Figaro qua, Figaro là, Figaro su, Figaro giù“, et cetera. His is the kind of number that makes you want to use the word “virtuoso,” but you try not to because it sounds so pretentious. Chameroy’s voice is rich and powerful and fills the room, and he imbues every step and movement with purpose and intent. He sets the musical bar for the rest of the show. And in a bit clever writing surely attributable to 1700s madcap playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (seriously, look the guy up), even as most of the play concerns itself with the forbidden love between Almaviva and Rosina, Figaro is always present, never more so than in the play’s beautiful final scene. He is, after all, the titular character; watch the set transform and morph with but a twist of Figaro’s smile.

My favourite moments all consisted of carefully layered satire and jokes: the manic performance of Figaro adding subtlety to every line and movement, the mercurial Rosina and her on-a-dime mood swings, the foppish Bartolo with his befuddled desperation, and the cavalier Almaviva throwing himself into every new scheme of Figaro’s with worried abandon. From a script perspective, I found less interest in the role of Don Basilio (Soulpepper stalwart William Webster, who nonetheless brings a credible gravitas to his part). Bartolo’s confidant, he’s presented as a savvier sort of confidence man than Figaro, and his crooning ode to slander is amusing and… well, amusing. He’s in league with Bartolo and therefore doomed to fail, but is he a smooth operator who got outfoxed or a fool who’s out of his league? Neither option really came across, which is a shame. Same goes for the ensemble piece praising love and money; is there more to the joke than the simple audacity of committing a whole showstopper to ironic juxtaposition?

Preview period began on May 9 and the performance I saw was on May 11; opening was May 15. If I’ve learned anything from Smash (and to say that I’ve learned something from that train wreck is to be more charitable than it deserves), it’s that shows change quite a lot during previews. Fewer lines get flubbed; props don’t get dropped. Corpsing happens less and less. Little performance and writing tweaks get made and the show improves. It could very well be that my nitpicks above don’t even exist anymore.

The Soulpepper team (and have I really gotten to the end without praising director Leah Cherniak?) does its frenetic source material great justice, and it makes me glad that society no longer qualifies men like Figaro to be a barber, doctor and dentist all in one. Or anyone, for that matter.

4.5 out of 5 shave-and-haircut combos (plus 2 bits for the tip jar).

~Mike!

Theatre Review: True West (Soulpepper)

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First, I need to give a shout-out to the architects who designed the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 2008. Apart from making the most of its re-purposed industrial-Victorian architecture, the Baillie Theatre is a phenomenal space. I’ve seen it operate as a proscenium arch, a theatre-in-the-round, a thrust stage. I never know what I’m going to find when I walk in.

Also, props to Soulpepper as a company for a consistently impressive job with its set design. Oleanna had a simple off-kilter and claustrophobic feel in 2011, Parfumerie looked like it took place inside a tasty cream puff last year, and yesterday’s True West was such a perfect suburban kitchen that I could have been in virtually anybody’s house and felt at home. Old-school white fridge with faux wood handles, white oven with clunky dials on the back, floral trim on the wallpaper near the ceiling, decorative plates on the walls, delicate floral detailing on the cupboard doors, Formica table with chrome trim and legs… and how did they scrounge up so many era-specific toasters, anyway?

As for the performance, I enjoyed it. Mike Ross is by turns weak, determined, angry and adorable as screenwriter Austin while Stuart Hughes does well as his brother Lee, a grizzled and conflicted thief who kept on reminding me of Wolverine. Something about the hair.

I like how the level of antagonism between the two brothers didn’t exactly boil over. Sure, they start off talking and wind up fighting, but you get the sense that it was almost inevitable. That tension fueled every word they exchanged, and at almost any time it would have made sense for one of them or the other to throw the first punch. The lingering resentment between siblings is palpable. Mom trusts you more. All dad wants from me is money. I know a story about dad you don’t. Who are you to tell me if I can stay here? It’s mom’s house, not yours. My life is real and important. No, mine is. I want your life. Me too.

There are a couple of highlights in particular. I loved the scene where Austin tries to write the outline for Lee’s terrible-yet-intriguing idea for a Western film. Austin points out how cliché it is (they run out of gas in the middle of a car chase, but it’s ok, because they both have a trailer with a saddled horse ready to go) but Lee won’t be swayed. Hughes’ voice takes on wonderfully haunted quality as he describes the fear both his characters feel: one for not knowing where he’s being led on the chase, and the other for not knowing where he’s going. They’ll chase each other wherever Lee damn well tells them to go, but the point is that they’re scared while they do it.

Ross does a good drunk. He rhapsodizes about the glory of toast (the smell of it means a fresh new day of possibility), gets at the heart of his jealousy for Lee’s survival wits and acumen, calls his brother out for being a failure, and plays wide-eyed earnestness with lovable energy. He makes you believe that this prim and proper academic has a callow, violent drunk like his brother and father just lurking beneath the surface. About 20 seconds before the curtain, there’s a chilling moment where I truly wondered just how far he’d gone, and was willing to go.

Most of all, however, I laughed. And so did the rest of the audience; there was a happy buzz walking out of the theatre. A solid line drive for Soulpepper.

Four out of five toasters.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Soulpepper)

rosencrantz_and_guildenstern_are_dead

All right, gearing up for my first theatre review since high school. This could be… rocky.

I’ve got a love-like-meh relationship with the Soulpepper Theatre Company. On the one hand, they’re one of Toronto’s best-known small companies and they have a great reputation. On the other hand, a bunch of what I see there just doesn’t work for me. I want to like it, in the way that I want the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays to do well. I’m a fan in spirit, but sometimes I just can’t get behind what they’re actually offering.

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a great little play that’s right up my alley – absurd and existential. It basically takes a hard look at two minor characters from Hamlet (the prince’s “friends” who spy on him and take him to be executed, only to be double-crossed and killed themselves) and makes them the stars of the show. Only, what do you do when your existence is defined by the script? As the play opens, R (Ted Dykstra) and G (Jordan Pettle) are playing at coins, amazed that they’ve successfully flipped heads about 80 times running. Will it ever land on tails? Slowly they realize that they have no idea where they are, who they are, or where they can go. They’re not even certain which one of them is Rosencrantz, and for all the care that Hamlet gives them, it doesn’t matter. They’re tools to be pulled on stage at the behest of others, dispatched when no longer needed.

Dykstra and Pettle make a good comic pairing as they try to navigate their helpless, hopeless world. Dykstra brings a wonderful sense of uncomprehending to Rosencrantz, a character who can’t quite wrap his head around the concept of his existence but knows enough to be scared of it. “I want to go home now,” is an early refrain. Pettle as Guildenstern, for my money, brings less to his role as the intelligent one of the pair. He does well at getting his mouth around G’s scientific-method-bound dialogue, first using the Law of Probability and then the Law of Averages to deduce their situation, but for me he was less of a character and more of a script with legs.

And that’s basically it. Dykstra and Pettle spend their time parsing the information given to them (“He’s melancholy! Transformed!”) and bring a great sense of just being along for the ride to their scenes with main characters. Their dialogue with Hamlet is straight out of the Bard’s original, but they’re nervous and terrified of saying the wrong thing. Hamlet and Claudius blather on through their lines at lightning speed while R & G are barely able to keep up, saying words they feel are right but cannot understand. They only realize why they’re escorting Hamlet to England and death when they’re already on the boat, and after debating the ethics, decide that the only thing they can do is to carry on. Maybe then they’ll be free.

Director Joseph Ziegler made a great decision in using a theatre in the round stage configuration. Surrounding the stage with audience amplifies the idea that R&G are trapped by their reality, surrounded on all sides. Other actors come and go, but always in front of us are Dykstra and Pettle, flipping coins, examining their existence, making jokes and trying to get home.

As I said, it’s a great script. I love meta-stories that comment on the nature of stories, and focusing on a couple of bit characters and their time in the margins when not in use is a great way to do it. So why aren’t I raving about this show? Honestly, I found it a bit slow and boring. And here’s where my lack of experience at reviewing theatre comes in: I can’t explain why! I want to say it was Pettle who dragged it down. Guildenstern’s dialogue is so heavy on intellectual-speak that it’s hard to be emotional while speaking it. Whereas Dykstra brought a level of terrified earnestness to Rosencrantz, Pettle as Guildenstern struck me with less emotion than I would have liked and more pure exposition.

I could complain about the acting troupe that Hamlet employs – I found them to be weird for the sake of weird more than poignant. Also, was I thinking too hard about everyone’s costumes, which are straight out of the Elizabethan Closet of Traditional Garments? I mean, this is a very modern-minded play, so shouldn’t the costumes be, I don’t know, not so grounded in period fashions? These are the things I thought about when I should have been engrossed in the drama.

Ultimately, all I can say is that the material was stronger than the production, an issue I have more often than I’d like with Soulpepper. They’ve done amazing stuff, but this production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead wasn’t it.

The Upshot:

Clever, mostly entertaining, and a little slow. I wouldn’t warn you off of it, but I can’t recommend it, either.

Also:

I’ll be seeing another nine (nine!) Soulpepper shows this year, plus a few in New York, Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, so presumably I’ll get more coherent at writing these things. Plus, I’ll have more time to see Soulpepper be awesome, especially in a repeat of last season’s breakout Parfumerie. Til then,

~Mike!