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!

Advertisements

Theatre Review: The Assembled Parties (Broadway)

tap

Note: This production is now closed.

This is an odd, slow-burn kind of play. Drama, in the edge-of-your-seat sense, is in short supply and much of what little there is takes place off stage, during intermission. It’s the kind of play that relies utterly on the chemistry between its actors, making each scene fascinating unto itself even as it gradually builds to a clear picture of just what, exactly, is going on. The dialogue has more to do with suggesting the details of these characters’ everyday lives than it does with moving any plot forward.

Which makes it a shame that some pairings just don’t have it. Jeff (Jeremy Shamos) and Scotty (Jake Silbermann) certainly don’t, making their rather lengthy first-act scene tedious at best. The set design in act one is fascinating, constantly rotating from room to room in the enormous Central Park West apartment that plays host to Christmas-slash-Hanukkah dinner, suggesting more energy and intrigue between plot points than there is. Jeff and Scotty, friends in college, talk about Scotty’s career aspirations versus the ones his parents expect him to have. Scotty’s mother Julie (Jessica Hecht) and father Ben (Jonathan Walker) prove to be kind, welcoming and unwittingly high-pressure. Ben finds himself blackmailed by brother-in-law Mort (Mark Blum), who does this behind the back of his wife Faye (Judith Light), both of whom railroad and endlessly criticize their awkward daughter Shelley (Lauren Blumenfeld).

The two best performers by far are Hecht and Light, and they have chemistry with everyone. Hecht in particular has the trickiest role, as her character is required to be utterly guileless, presenting the kind of sweet sincerity that would be overwhelmingly saccharine if not for its absolute genuine sincerity. Julie truly cannot see the bad in any scenario, and has intelligence and wit to say precisely what’s on her mind without being flakey. And speaking of over the top, if ever there was a Jewish mother replete with neuroses, guilt, self-deprecation and angst, Light is surely the prototype. She imbues this stock character with a specificity that makes it feel unique and individual, no matter how many times we’ve seen the act before.

Act one takes place in the 80s. Fast forward twenty years to another holiday feast for act two and all of life’s major changes seem to have occurred off stage. Mort, Ben, Shelley and Scotty are all out of the picture. Julie has been diagnosed with a condition of some sort, so long ago that nobody on stage refers to it specifically enough for the audience to figure out exactly what it is. This is a play that tries very hard to ignore details in favour of emotional, day-to-day realities. If the characters wouldn’t go out of their way to recap a scenario in real life, they’re certainly not about to for the audience’s sake.

And, coming back to the top of this review, that is why this is such an odd play. Is it funny? Absolutely. Is it touching? At many points, yes. But its commitment to “everyday” form of storytelling removes a tremendous amount of inherent drama. The audience is required to spend a great deal of time determining what blanks need filling, and then has to go about filling them, only to find that the details may not be all that interesting to begin with. Which is a lot like life, but most theatregoers buy their tickets to escape that kind of humdrum reality. Scenes live and die by how engrossing the characters are, and too often they simply aren’t. The brightest spots are Light, who absolutely earns her Best Actress Tony, and Hecht, who is so sweetly tragic it really is remarkable.

The Assembled Parties is a mixed bag of a play, but with more than enough material to chew on for après-theatre coffee and pie.

3.5 out of 5 awkward family dinners.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Guys and Dolls (Shaw Festival)

gandd

Guys and Dolls is classic Broadway musical: people bursting into song for no particular reason, tremendous energy, big show-stopping numbers and enough heartwarming moments scattered throughout to give everything some weight. Experts in the satirical wit of Oscar Wilde, the Shaw Festival knows a a lot about balancing the light with the heavy, and their take on Guys mostly hits the sweet spot.

The brightest star is Jenny L. Wright as Miss Adelaide, 14-year fiancé to longtime gambling organizer Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright). She nails the nasal Brooklyn accent (where “cold” becomes “co-wuld”) and affecting angst that comes from wanting nothing more than to have a ring on her finger already. She owns the stage in her solo number, “Adelaide’s Lament”, one of the few performers with such individual presence in this production. At many points throughout the show, I was struck by how big the stage was; except during the big numbers with a lot of hustle and bustle, the actors were often dwarfed by their surroundings. Not so with Jenny Wright.

The cast at large knows how to deliver on the biggest numbers: “Luck be a Lady”, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” and “Havana/If I Were a Bell” are all wonderful and highly entertaining with fun choreography. Elodie Gillett as Sergeant Sarah Brown does a nice switch from uptight to drunk and back again. It’s the secondary male characters who don’t quite carry the load. The opening number with Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Thom Allison), Benny Southstreet (Billy Lake) and Rusty Charlie (Kelly Wong) just doesn’t have the energy it needs to propel the show forward, and again I was struck by how large the stage was during Allison and Lake’s “Guys and Dolls” midway through act one.

Also on the note of staging, I have to wonder at set designer Peter Hartwell’s decision to make Broadway so monochromatic. The characters’ colourful costumes certainly stand out against the black and white marquees, but drained of colour, New York itself seems to fight against what life the actors can bring to its streets. Perhaps that’s why “Havana” and “Bell” were so successful; suddenly, the stage was awash in yellows, blues  and reds that enhanced the action and choreography. Back on Broadway for “My Time of Day”, and all of a sudden Sarah and Sky Masterson (Kyle Blair) just didn’t have the same impact.

Shaw has put on an overall an enjoyable, faithful rendition of a Broadway staple, sure to be one of their best sellers this 2013 season.

4 out of 5 floating craps games.

~Mike!

Theatre Review: Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Broadway)

vanya

What do you do with a problem like Masha? That seems to be the question on everyone’s lips, including Masha (Sigourney Weaver) herself – after all, it’s not every day that a world-renowned egotistical actress named after a Chekhov character about to enter her fifth marriage confronts long-standing rivalries with similarly named siblings and their emotion-laden homestead.

The show is hilarious, even if you know nothing about Chekhov. The titular siblings’ parents knew plenty, however, and named each child (even downtrodden adoptee Sonia (Kristine Nielsen)) after their favourite roles of the Russian playwright, and inserting those three personalities into an idyllic Virginia lakefront cottage to bounce off one another is inspired. Vanya (David Hyde Pierce) rounds out the trio in a quiet, understated role that gets incredible laughs out of minuscule twitches in body language and nuance of inflection.

The crux of the show lies in how each sibling comes to reverse course on key character traits, and my favourite structural element of the writing is how virtually every member of the cast has an extended, measured-in-minutes chance to own the stage. Everyone has the chops to deliver, too; Weaver comes on as a force of nature, railroading Nielsen’s Sonia and barely remembering that her brother is gay. By the end, she has softened, calling out her vacuous fiancé and forging genuine conversations with those who matter to her most.

Many will point to Vanya’s rant against progress as the standout moment of the show, and they wouldn’t be wrong to do so – Pierce delivers a pained, frustrated, long-brewing filibuster that truly sells all of Vanya’s decades of self-restraint, and it is a joy to watch. My favourite, however, was Sonia’s monologue. Alone on the stage, as isolated as she tends to feel, she receives a phone call. A guest at the party she attended the prior evening (a party where she upstaged über-controlling Masha for the first time ever) has called her to ask for a date. Her first date. Sitting quietly in her chair and enduring the the throes of hope, despair, embarrassment and joy that one does in such circumstances, Nielsen’s presence fills the room.

The show’s weak points lie it the book; simply put, it’s a little over the top and too easy, too pat, by half. Psychic housekeeper Cassandra (Shalita Grant), with her posture-jolting premonitions, is never dull and always funny but a little one-note all the same. Spike (Billy Magnussen) never grows beyond his preening idiot schtick (though his reverse striptease managed to be both predictable and utterly relentlessness, which is an adjective I never thought I’d apply to a striptease). Young neighbour Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager) is sweet and encouraging because the plot requires her to be. Vanya, Sonia and Masha reach their resolution very easily, considering the baggage they start with, plus there’s the overt symbolism of a heron that may or may not land in the lake any given day. Could the heron represent their hope for a better tomorrow? It’s probably a Chekhov reference, but that doesn’t make it any less of a symbolic sledgehammer. Does the upbeat Beatles song, wonderful as it is, meaningfully represent the thematic peak? All of it is enjoyable, but it has a lightness that takes away from the emotional depth suggested at so many points.

While falling short of profound, V & S & M & S is enormously crowd-pleasing and it’s easy to see why it won the Tony for best play. Catch it before July 30 when Weaver leaves the cast.

4.5 out of 5 cherry orchards (well, cherry groves, at least)

~Mike!

Theatre Review: The Nance (Broadway)

nance

With Nathan Lane headlining a show, you may be forgiven for walking in with some unreasonably high expectations, especially post-Tonys where he was nominated for Best Performance by an Actor in Leading Role in a Play. How nice then to have those expectations easily met.

The Nance is a clever, touching new play by Douglas Carter Beane, a period piece set in 1940s New York. Actually, clever doesn’t quite cover it; that implies a lot of wry smiles and knowing nods of the head among the audience. “Laugh-out-loud” comes closer, but implies that it’s essentially a comedy. How exactly does one peg a show that covers everything from romance to politics to burlesque to full-on belly laughs and, most importantly, depth of character across the cast?

We meet Lane’s Chauncey Miles at a local self-serve diner, where he briefly walks his latest prey through the ropes: young, down-and-out Ned (Jonny Orsini) has wandered by-mistake-but-really-on-purpose into one of those places where “boys like the boys,” it’s not uncommon to make surreptitious plans to meet up around the corner in half an hour, and everyone goes tense when a police siren enters earshot. How far we’ve come in 70 years. Chauncey leaves the diner for work, playing the titular nance for comic relief at a local burlesque house. He leaves work for home, picking up Ned along the way for what he assumes another in a long line of one-night stands.

The burlesque scenes are truly inspired, with a healthy dose of vaudevillian rapid-fire double-entendres (my favourite involved a later scene with Chauncey in drag as a prostitute named Hortence; cue the joke about how relaxed she looks). The stage is also a masterwork, a massive turntable with sets on each facing side. It’s used to best effect when turned on an angle, with most of the burlesque “backstage” facing the audience for dialogue between characters while a hint of the “onstage” side remains visible, with secondary performers playing to the wings. There’s a continuous energy to this show that comes through staging and performance simultaneously.

Chauncey is also a bit of a stand-in for some one of today’s political curiosities: how can you be gay and Republican at the same time? For Chauncey, the answer is easy; neither party supports gays in that era, so he may as well go for the individualist do-it-yourself-ers who support business and enterprise. His blind faith that the crackdown on his livelihood is a temporary political stunt is tragic; surely a Republican would never close down an industry that employs thousands solely on moral grounds? Ned (who has moved in with him and joined the burlesque show) and his coworkers are excited about an impending sympathy strike among all the arts performers in the city. Chauncey is dismissive of their enthusiasm, a wet blanket over their belief that together they can make change.

Which isn’t to say that he is without courage or empathy. Amid the crackdowns and police raids, he insists on playing his effeminate nance, even to the point of courting investigation and arrest. He refuses to plead guilty, thinking his status as “one of them,” a Republican, will protect him. The chemistry between Lane and Orsini is undeniable, and the show’s laughs never overshadow its inherent tragedy. Also excellent is the burlesque show’s owner, Efram (Lewis J. Stadlen), a rough and practical funny man who is politically savvy enough to be aghast at Chauncey’s decisions while wise enough not to take personal offense at them. His patter with Lane and Orsini on and off the stage-within-the-stage keeps the show moving at a good clip, never wasting a moment.

In the end, this is a show about how nothing is straightforward, faith is seldom rewarded, and people will be who they are to the end, no matter how bitter. We all know how the story proceeds (thank you Supreme Court of 2013), but The Nance takes us back to a harsher time for social justice and makes us ask: “What would I have done?”

4.5 out of 5 double entendres.

~Mike!

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: 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!