Wednesday, August 03, 2011

The 2011 Summer Stage Review (Part II)

July was very busy theatre-wise for me. In all, I saw eleven shows, so I’ve got a lot to cover. Here’s the next installment on my way to recovering from my dreadful lapse in posting.

The Railway Children at the Roundhouse Theatre (Mirvish)

First off, let me say that the big whoop-de-doo about the real train in this production is silly. Yes, there’s a real train, but they certainly could have skipped it. They do an excellent job for most of the show using lighting and sound design (and the sound design is excellent, I assure you) to let us all believe in trains we can’t see, that to introduce the actual train a couple of times seems a bit needless. Be that as it may, on to my comments.

On the day we attended, we had an understudy for one of the three main children. She, and the actress who played the youngest sister, were quite good at playing children in that they just played characters who happened to be children and allowed the text to drive their performances. (The youngest sister certainly is written with the most fun, and is the most entertaining as a result.) The man playing the brother, however, is – to be blunt – dreadful. Unlike the others, he has tried to paste “childishness” on top of his performance, leading to an obnoxious, over-drawn caricature of children that should leave actual, living breathing children insulted. Yikes. The story suffers, at times, from too much telling and not enough showing, but the staging, based upon railroad tracks that run the length of the theatre space, is quite brilliant in its simplicity. Train platforms on either side, along with a bridge over top at one end, provide the permanent set of the production, but moving stages provide the real genius of the production. These platforms glide on and off without a sound or bump, thanks to the skilled stage hands (who, thankfully, take part in the final curtain call). Sometimes they disappear and reappear with a new arrangement of props or furniture, providing a new locale or setting, but when they are at their best, they contribute directly to the storytelling. When the children’s father is taken away from them, he hugs his wife, takes a step backwards, and then simply glides away from them, the distance between him and his family growing while they look helplessly at one another. Smashing. Another wise staging choice occurs during a scene in a train tunnel, when scrims are pulled across the stage area, alongside the tracks, creating the dark tunnel into which we, the audience seated on either side, can watch the goings on. Again, simple and effective. Is it a ragingly brilliant piece of theatre? No, it’s got its flaws in spades, but it still provided an entertaining (though very, very hot) afternoon and it was nice to watch the elements that worked work.

Moving from a mediocre script with good staging, we move to a good script with poor staging:

Titus Andronicus at the Tom Patterson Theatre (Stratford Shakespeare Festival)

I was greatly anticipating Titus Andronicus, as one of Shakespeare’s plays which I know only by reputation, its story known to me only in generalizations.
The story, while lacking the emotional colouring and layering of plot found in others of Shakespeare’s tragedies, certainly has the potential to be a relentless exercise in grief and revenge, an emotional pummeling of the audience. I left the production interested in seeing another production, or the critically-acclaimed film by Julie Taymor with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, but ultimately left the theatre dissatisfied, having been distracted by what I take to be self-indulgent direction by Darko Tresnjak.

Rather than being drawn in by the story and characters, I found myself conscious of the actors setting up a number of “pictures”, detached from character- or plot-driven motivations, and noticing several structural gimmicks in the storytelling that I can only imagine began with the phrase, “Hey, wouldn’t it be neat if…”

In the moments leading up to Lavinia’s abduction, the two brothers – Chiron and Demetrius – very disturbingly and convincingly degraded her with their actions, fondling her in the most grotesque and heartless of ways, foretelling of the rape and maiming she will receive at their hands and then … and then they picked her up in a very artful and “stagey” way, tossing her over a shoulder and, in the most absurd moment of the scene, Chiron suddenly crouched down, making way for her to reach out pleadingly to the Queen and to speak her lines without a brother in her sightlines. Quite a shift there.

Later, when she has returned with bloody stumps where her hands once were, a trail of blood streaming from her mouth to indicate her missing tongue, both her uncle and father in turn speak a multitude of poetic lines about her wretched state and their grief (a difficulty with the text, I acknowledge), but neither convincingly explain their physical distance from this poor, maimed girl they profess to love so dearly. If they do not rush to her side, trying in vain to somehow alleviate her pain, they must somehow communicate the tension that exists in that moment when they desperately WISH to rush to her side, but cannot for some reason, be it repulsion, helplessness, wrath, SOMETHING. The physical space between a father and his bloody, dismembered daughter cannot go unexplained as nothing more than “blocking”.

In perhaps the greatest example of misplaced direction, the final scene, for me, went so far off the rails as to negate any benefit of the doubt which I may have been holding in store for the director. By offering members of the theatre audience little tarts, the director invites us to join in the feast, making the viewers, in essence, characters in the play – guests at this most gruesome of feasts. If invited to participate in the feast, however, the audience cannot suddenly and inexplicably be left out of the ensuing bloodbath. We cannot be there as participants in one moment, only to be ignored in the next. The final nail in the proverbial coffin came in the director’s abysmal reworking of the play’s ending, placing the laurel wreath of authority on an audience member’s head and (ug) giving her a campy thumbs-up. Ridiculous and inappropriate.

(This, incidentally, is the short list of complaints about the direction in this piece. Yikes.)

Wishful Drinking at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (Mirvish)

I’ll keep this short. Wishful Drinking is Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical one-woman stage show.

It’s exactly what one expects: an evening with Carrie Fisher as she tells stories about her childhood, her parents (and their many marriages and romances, not necessarily with one another), her experiences with George Lucas and Princess Leia, her dark days of drugs and alcohol, and living with bipolar disorder. It’s candid, funny, and enjoyable. There were a few segments that seemed to move a little slowly, but still, it was fun to hear from the proverbial horse’s mouth some of the stories we’ve heard through the media. It’s worth it for “Hollywood Inbreeding 101” alone.

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