Sunday, January 31, 2010


Leah Russo, center, as Berinthia, with the cast.
Photo: Gene Witkowski

You don’t get much Restoration Comedy these days.

When was the last time the Stratford Shakespeare Festival or The Canadian Stage Company produced a play by Congreve or a Wycherley? Use the fingers on both hands and look to your toes.

Soulpepper Theatre Company did stage Congreve’s The Way of the World in 2008 but they dropped any notion of maintaining the play’s cultural and linguistic milieu and went for an Ontario-accented comedy. It got us through the text but not without pain.

If you can’t get Restoration Comedy at home the only alternative is to go looking for it abroad. In this case I did not have to go much further than Buffalo, New York where the Irish Classical Stage Company has staged The Relapse by Sir John Vanbrugh.

The ICTC has been around since 1990 and puts on six productions a year. The plays seem well-chosen and broad-ranging. The list of productions over the years shows works by Moliere, O’Neill, Coward, Shaw, Wilde, Pinter, Sheridan and many others. Indeed an eclectic mix of plays.

The productions are put on at the Andrew Theatre in downtown Buffalo. It is an attractive theatre-in-the-round that holds 200 people.

The Relapse is a classic Restoration Comedy and was first produced in 1697. It is set against the rigid class structure of English society and the pursuit of money, marriage, sex and social status.

Sir Novelty Fashion purchased a peerage and now wants to marry the rich but déclassé Miss Hoyden. She is the daughter of the aptly named country bumpkin Sir Tunbelly Clumsey. The penniless brother, Young Fashion, will attempt to marry Miss Hoyden by pretending to be Sir Novelty.

Loveless, the happily married former rake goes to London with his lovely wife Amanda but becomes seriously attracted to her even lovelier cousin, the young widow Beritnthia. Add a matchmaker called Coupler, a chaplain and a few other worthies and you have a play of wit, high and low manners and ornate language that can be a delight to see.

Director Derek Campbell has decided to eschew the 17th century setting of the play with its fancy costumes, wigs, swords and manners and sets the play in the mid-1960’s. Vanbrugh wrote much of the play in verse and in the precise and brittle style of Restoration Comedy. By bringing the play into the 20th century, the Restoration set, costumes and paraphernalia are exchanged for modern dress, a few couches and coffee tables. Old wine can perhaps be put in a new bottle without changing the quality of its taste or the nuance of its aroma. Can you do the same with an old play?

We are in 20th century England listening to Restoration English, pronounced with an American accent producing tortured English accents and watching characters in modern dress behaving like 17th century rakes, fops, country bumpkins etc. How are we to appreciate the difference in class without the assistance of costume, manners and accent?

Not very easily. The obstacles that Campbell has set for himself and the actors are insurmountable. The crisp language of Restoration Comedy suffers the fatal double incongruity of being spoken in woeful accents in a milieu that has no relation to the original. In the Toronto production, there was no attempt at English accents and the result was equally awful. The attempts at an English accent in Buffalo ranged from the execrable to the completely inept. Not all of them tried. Robert Rutland as the country bumpkin Sir Tunbelly Clumsey lived up to his name but he sounded like an American bumpkin and not an English one. He looks like a natural comic but not in that role in this production.

The only other comet in the accent department goes to Mary Beth Lacki as Miss Hoyden, who manages to produce an accent suggestive of northern England. The actors do not so much deserve criticism as the comment that they are mostly in the wrong play. Vincent O’Neill, the Artistic Director of ICTC can do comedy and much else no doubt but as Sir Novelty he appeared to be striving for laughs without getting them. Chris Corporandy as Young Fashion, Gary Darling as Coupler and the others would have produced much better results in a play with a language that that they can pronounce.
The next production of the ICTC will be The Lonesome West by Martin McDonagh and it will run from February 26 to March 28, 2010.

The Relapse by Sir John Vanbrugh opened on January 15 and will run until February 14, 2010 at the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main Street, Buffalo, N.Y.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Judith Bliss (Dinah Watts) poses with her children Simon (Ken MacAlpine) and Sorel (Tamara Lubek) Photo by Joshua Meles

Noel Coward’s Hay Fever is an unlikely comedy. The Bliss family and their servant are spending a weekend at their country house in Berkshire. They are visited by four guests and nothing much happens. No one is murdered, there is no mystery to unravel or any plot to develop. Yet, Hay Fever, if done well, can be a very funny play. Ineptly done it is a monumental bore.

Alumnae Theatre Company gives the play a superb production, eliciting howls of laughter and providing a highly entertaining night at the theatre.

Coward provided lots the opportunities for a good director and cast to work with, however difficult it may seem. Judith Bliss (played to perfection by Dinah Watts) is a retired actress who is planning a comeback. Retired is a misnomer because she never stopped acting or taking theatrical poses on or off the stage. At one point Judith’s daughter Sorel (Tamara Lubek) tells her to “be natural” for a change. For the Bliss family being theatrical, self-absorbed and eccentric is being completely natural.

David (Hereward Pooley), the father who is a novelist and son Simon (Ken MacAlpine) complete the wacky Bliss family which gets some assistance in its bizarre conduct from their potty maid Clara (Anne Harper).

Each family member, unbeknownst to the others, invites a guest for the weekend. The guests become more like victims who need to plan and execute an escape after a night with the off-the-wall Blisses.

All the guests “fall in love” or are told they are in love or have a flirtation with one of the Blisses. Sandy (Leete Stetson) is cornered by Sorel and is caught kissing her in the library. Judith tells Richard (Jonathan Thomas) that she is in love with him and her husband must be informed immediately. The crafty Myra (Tina Sterling) tries to butter up David and they are caught kissing by Judith. The brainless Jackie (Kaitlyn Riordan) is supposed to be in love with Simon. That is a lot of activity for a play that has no plot and incidentally a lot of laughs.

The guests have become victims and the final act is a hilarious scene of them trying to escape from the Bliss house unseen. The self-absorbed Blisses get into an argument about the streets of Paris and the guests manage to escape behind their backs.

The play needs some astute and delicate handling. The lines are only funny if delivered properly. Each laugh depends on timing, delivery and the reaction of the recipients. Kudos to McDonald for orchestrating all and providing a fine production.

Dinah Watts leads the cast with a superb performance. She is allowed to overact, strike poses, gesture and modulate her voice. She does it impeccably. Pooley is hilarious as the somewhat disheveled novelist who finds himself accosted by an attractive woman. He and Sterling produce fine comedy.

The Bliss children are nothing if not theatrical and Lubek is especially good. Anne Harper’s maid was just what you would expect from a servant working for nutsos.
The English accents, so difficult to achieve at times, ranged from the acceptable to the excellent and the result was a very good night at the theatre.


Hay Fever by Noel Coward opened on January 15 and will run until January 30, 2010 at the Alumnae Theatre, 70 Berkeley Street, Toronto, Ontario. Telephone (416) 364-4170

Thursday, January 21, 2010



By James Karas

The season for most theatre companies starts sometime in September and ends in May. Then the summer festivals take over until the fall. The same arrangement applies to schools and the end of vacations, of course, and some day the calendar year may begin on September 1.

Theatre companies in Toronto follow the September-May schedule except for Soulpepper Theatre Company which follows the calendar year for its season. As such the end of the year is the appropriate time to review what they did during 2009 and comment about their 2010 season.

There is little doubt that if you want to see good plays in Toronto, Soulpepper is your best bet in terms of repertory, number of plays and quality of production.

Soulpepper produced a hefty eleven plays during 2009. All were written in the twentieth century. Three were Canadian, three American, two English, two Hungarian and one French.

The season opened in February with Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, a brilliant and intricate play that features verbal pyrotechnics and requires acting with precision and finesse. Unfortunately, Soulpepper’s production fell short of what one would expect of them or would want to see in a Stoppard play.

The wide-ranging references to art, poetry and fiction and the lines from The Importance of Being Earnest that are interwoven in the dialogue of Travesties fell flat. The great speeches and witty lines failed almost completely to connect with the audience leaving one with a bad evening at the theatre.

The second production was American David Mamet’s classic outpouring of vitriol and obscenities, Glengarry Glen Ross. If nothing worked in Travesties, the opposite was true of Glengarry. It was a pitch-perfect production that happened to have connections to the current subprime mortgage mess created by American banks’ insatiable greed.

David Storch directed Eric Peterson, Peter Donaldson, Albert Schultz and William Webster through the orgy of immorality represented in the play. A riveting night at the theatre was the result.

With Joe Orton’s Loot we moved to a different type of morality completely. Joe Orton’s world is matter-of-factly amoral and vicious. The play opens with a woman in a coffin at centre stage. Her husband displays little emotion and is mostly concerned with the flowers while her son uses the coffin to stash away stolen cash.

The dialogue is like a sadistic Oscar Wilde and I am not sure if director Jim Warren captured all the blackness of the play but it was an enjoyable production none the less. Oliver Dennis, Nicole Underhay and Matthew Edison had the leading roles.

Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing is set in the more familiar and congenial (for the audience) atmosphere of a working class apartment in New York in the 1930’s. It tells the story of a family (could be Greek, Polish or anything but in this case it is Jewish) that tries to make ends meet, maintain family traditions and morals in a new world and just survive. A moving production of the play’s several subplots with Nancy Palk’s powerful performance dominating the evening.

For its next production Soulpepper maintained a similar milieu. This time it was an immigrant family in Toronto in the 1970’s in David French’s Of the Fields, Lately, As in Awake and Sing this is a family drama in which a strong woman tries to effect reconciliation between her husband and her son. It is an emotionally charged play superbly directed by Ted Dykstra with marvelous performances by Diane D’Aquila, Kenneth Walsh, Eric Peterson and Jeff Lillico.

Billy Bishop Goes To War was the next production of the quintessentially Canadian play by John Gray and Eric Peterson. Bishop was the most highly-decorated Canadian war hero of World War I and the play about him has become the most frequently produced Canadian play. Ted Dykstra directed Peterson in the one-man show with Peterson paying some 20 characters. A planeload of kudos to Peterson and the production.

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? presents a family drama of a different kind, to put it mildly. Two couples meet for drinks after a party at a New England college. They could treat us to witty repartee à la Neil Simon or they could launch vicious verbal warfare and cruel games. They do the latter as they examine and reveal not only their lives but by extension American history. Diana Leblanc directed Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk in stellar performances.

A married couple engaged in verbal warfare is at the center of Ferenc Molnar’s The Guardsman but the atmosphere is one of hilarity rather than brutality. The warring couple are actors and the jealous husband (Albert Schultz) has to pretend he is his wife’s (Kristen Thomson) secret lover in order to win her back. There are several layers to the deception and perceptions of the play all adding up to a thoroughly enjoyable night at the theatre. Molnar was a Hungarian playwright and you don’t see too many plays from that part of the continent. Take it as an added bonus from Soulpepper.

The promise of moving away from twentieth century drama and offering a Greek tragedy, unfortunately did not materialize. The brochure containing the 2009 productions stated that we will get Sophocles’ Antigone. It was to be “in a new adaptation by Evan Webber with Chris Abraham” which is enough to send chills up your spine but, eh, it’s better than nothing.

We did not get even that. We had to settle for Jean Anouilh’s version of the myth as he saw it during the Nazi occupation of France.

Liisa Repo-Martell and R.H. Thomson did fine work in the leading roles of Antigone and Creon. But director Chris Abraham never brought the production to life and the whole thing was a big disappointment. Soulpepper can and should do more classics and move away from the twentieth century.

The penultimate production of the year was Parfumerie by Miklós László, another Hungarian playwright whom you do not run into every day. We are in the spirit of Christmas and a romantic comedy where love triumphs is de rigueur. Parfumerie tells the story of two people who do not get along at work but who are carrying on a passionate epistolary affair. We all know how that is going to end! Oliver Dennis and Patricia Fagan are the lovers and Joseph Ziegler is the humane owner of the shop where they work. Morris Panych directs the heart-warming comedy.

Production Number 11 for the year was Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. This was poetry recital combined with singing with piano accompaniment. There are a number of unusual elements to the event. It is based on a poem by Lee, who was Toronto’s first Poet Laureate. It is about Toronto and it consists entirely of verse. No doubt there are other plays based on poetry but I am not aware of one that combines all of the above.

The show was put together by Mike Ross (who also performs it) and Lorenzo Savoini. Albert Schultz directed. This is unusual fare and all we can do is encourage them to give us more.

In 2010, Soulpepper will produce twelve plays in what appears to be a more restricted repertoire. Canadian content is increased to four plays, the Americans and the English get three each and the Russians and the Irish one apiece. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country are the two non-twentieth century offerings.

Four of the productions are revivals: Billy Bishop Goes to War, Glengarry Glen Ross, A Raisin in the Sun and A Christmas Carol were all seen in the last couple of years. They are worthy productions but there are countless plays out there that could have been produced instead of regurgitating recent successes.

John Murrell’s Waiting for the Parade, David French’s Jitters, Sharon Pollock’s Doc are the other Canadian plays and although one can quibble about their choices one cannot mount a serious argument against them.

Oh What A Lovely War by Joan Littlewood, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton holds a lot of promise and may be an interestingly compared to Waiting for the Parade, another war-time play. Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country was produced a couple of years ago at the Shaw Festival and we could have waited for a while longer for another staging. That was the Brian Friel version and we will have to see what Susan Coyne has in mind in her adaptation of the play.

Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, a dark comedy, is to be eagerly anticipated as it comes hot on the heels of Loot. I have never seen Sharon Pollock’s Doc nor Brian Friel’s Faith Healer and I can hardly say anything about those choices. Arthur Miler’s Death of a Salesman is a classic that can be seen repeatedly with profit.

I could do without the revivals but that’s because I am not Soulpepper’s Chief Financial Officer or fundraiser.

One can always wish for more or different plays but one can also be grateful for a company that started on a shoe string and provides the richest and most varied theatre in Toronto.

The 2010 season starts on January 22 with previous of Billy Bishop Goes To War. It opens on January 26, 2010 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, Ontario. For more information telephone (416) 866-8666 or go to
(Photo: Kristen Thomson and Albert Schultz in The Guardsman)