Reviewed by James Karas
First, the good news.
Some years ago, the Shaw Festival introduced Lunchtime One Act productions and we have seen plays that are rarely produced and it was highly unlikey that we would ever get a chance to see them. It was and remains a great idea.
This year they have put on Wilde Tales, an adaptation by Kate Hennig of four fairy tales by Oscar Wilde. They have billed it as being for “Young and Old” and have gone a step further by organizing a one-hour pre-show workshop for children ages 6 to 12. They get to interact with actors and learn how the show is put together.
Marion Day as Catherine Wheel, Sanjay Talwar as Remarkable Rocket and Emily Lukasik as Squib in Wilde Tales. Photo by David Cooper
With or without the workshop, Wilde Tales is a delightful one-hour theatrical experience. The dramatized tales are The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, and The Selfish Giant. Hennig uses The Remarkable Rocket as a connecting link between the tales.
In The Remarkable Rocket, the characters are fireworks performing for the marriage celebrations of the Prince and the Princess. All the fireworks do well except for the supercilious Rocket (Sanjay Talwar) which expects to perform spectacularly but fizzes out every time. Very amusing.
In The Nightingale and the Rose, the singing bird (puppet handled by Emily Lukasik) gives a touching lesson in altruistic love and self-sacrifice in aid of a heart-broken Student (Jonathan Tan).
The Happy Prince is about the friendship between a Swallow (Kelly Wong with puppet) and the statue of a bejeweled Prince (Marion Day). The Swallow delays its migration to Egypt to help the poor by denuding the Prince of his rich jewels. When there is nothing left, it is too late for the bird to fly away and it dies. The Prince’s heart breaks and the statue is taken down. Lots of lessons there.
The Selfish Giant is about an ogre (Kelly Wong) who refuses to allow children to play in his beautiful garden. A Little Boy (Sanjay Talwar) melts his heart and all is well until the end when the giant finds the identity of the little boy is in reality. Marvelous.
The six actors take between three or five roles each, most of them requiring puppets, The lovely PJ Prudat, for example, plays Moon, Dragonfly and Belle. They all are charming, agile, amusing and poignant as the situation requires.
The best one-hour in the theatre.
Now for the … not so good news.
The Festival offers Dracula as one of the three productions in the Festival Theatre. It is an adaptation of Bram Stoker’s famous novel by Liz Lochhead and my displeasure will be quite obvious. I should note my antipathy to adaptations of novels for the stage. No doubt, there are adaptations that make good literature into fine theatre but my proclivity against the practice remains.
Martin Happer as Dr. Seward, Marla McLean as Mina Westerman, Ben Sanders as Jonathan Harker and Steven Sutcliffe as Van Helsing in Dracula. Photo by Emily Coope
Dracula and Company is not just a novel or a character in fiction who likes a hefty supply of blood for sustenance, especially from pretty women. It is an industry that ranges from Count von Count on Sesame Street to Count Chocula to less serious manifestations in countless films and other formats.
Lochhead and director Eda Holmes take a heavy-handed attitude towards the novel-turned into play and the result is ponderous theatre with scant relief. When it is not ponderous, it is pretty difficult to take with a straight face. When Dracula (Allan Louis) visits the necks of Mina (Marla McLean) and Lucy (Cherisse Richards) for dinner, it seemed to throw the women into sexual ecstasy. Is that one reason for the difficulty of weaning them from him? These are straight-laced Victorian women for whom sex is a gender and nothing else but when Dracula goes for their necks….
Dracula’s neck bites have serious health consequences and only a super specialist like Dr. Van Helsing (Steven Sutcliffe) can diagnose and treat the illness. He brings all his artillery to England from Holland and he sets out to find and destroy the vampire.
I had some difficulty in keeping a straight face when part of his equipment consisted of a crucifix, some sanctified wafers and strings of dried garlic. We can assume that the Count is a good Christian under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church for the first two items to be effective or has an extremely sensitive nose for garlic to drive him away from his means of survival.
You can’t take away anything from Michael Gianfranco’s dark and eerie design. Very few pieces of furniture were required and hospital-type curtains were wheeled in and out efficiently for scene changes. Alan Brodie’s lighting supplements the effect of Gianfranco’s design.
Unfortunately, good production values were not enough to alleviate the tedious first half. The pace picked up during the second half but not enough to erase the effect of the first part.
Dracula by Bram Stoker, adapted by Liz Lochhead continues in repertory until October 14, 2017 at the Festival Theatre. Wilde Tales by Oscar Wilde adapted by Kate Hennig continues until October 7, 2017 at the Court Hose Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. www.shawfest.com.