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Friday, 9 June 2017

Knotty, Knotty… HMS Pinafore pokes fun at POTUS

Laurie Murdoch as The Rt. hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First
Lord of the Admiralty (centre), with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Book and lyrics by W.S. Gilbert; Music by Arthur Sullivan
Directed by Lezlie Wade
Designed by Doglas Paraschuk (set), Patrick Clark (costumes), Wendy Greenwood (lighting), Nick Bottomley (projections), Peter McBoyle (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Lisa Horner, Laurie Murdoch, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Steve Ross, Brad Rudy, Mark Urhe

Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey.  Although initially popular for their subversive nature or poking fun at themselves as privileged white men (there is some debate on this), it can be hard to translate either the virtuosic musical style and vocals or Victoriana nationalism and satire into a modern-day context.

Director Lezlie Wade brings her vision of HMS Pinafore a few decades ahead of the Victorian era into WWI, when British pride was on another upswing. Fans of the wildly popular Downton Abbey will no doubt be familiar with this era, when once stately homes were appropriated by various government departments for the war effort, and Ms. Wade uses this historical fact to frame her production quite well; an estate becomes a convalescent home for injured naval personnel, with the musical becoming a New Year’s Eve diversion put on to entertain the sailors. In this context it is not shocking to see one sailor with disfiguring injuries, and he morphs into the character Dick Deadeye, one of the antagonists of the play.
Lisa Horner as Little Buttercup (centre) with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The set, designed by Douglas Paraschuk, also morphs quite brilliantly from estate foyer to the HMS Pinafore, roughly resembling an armoured cruiser or admiralty trawler, with the double staircases allowing some vintage Vaudevillian capering amongst the many sailors, sisters, cousins and aunts that make up the chorus, including a great Charlie Chaplin foot-stuck-bucket-nearly-falling-down-the-stairs bit. 

Ms. Wade brings the satire firmly into the 21st c,. however, with the appearance of The Rt. Hon. Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, First Lord of the Admiralty, played brilliantly by Laurie Murdoch. Given that this character is based on a real man who, never having set foot on a ship or in the sea (read: never held a political office) was appointed (read: elected) to the most important seat in a time of great national uncertainty (you get it now)… well. Give Mr. Murdoch an apricot-coloured wig perpetually askew and you can hardly miss the point.  Mr. Murdoch is spot-on with the patter, never misses a comedic pop, and his diminutive stature gives this Admiral a ridiculousness on par with the shenanigans south of the 49thIMHO he steals the show, though his brothers and sisters-in-arms are not far behind.

 Mark Urhe and Jennifer Rider-Shaw as Ralph Rackshaw and Josephine.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The story follows young sailor Ralph and his love for Josephine, his Captain’s daughter. Gilbert and Sullivan use the setting of a military ship to illustrate the absurdity – and hypocrisy – of class lines; as the captain’s daughter Josephine adores Ralph but feels he is below her rank, and is considering marriage to the foolish Admiral to preserve her station. This being G&S there is a barely-concealed dénouement in the end that reverses Ralph and Josephine’s fortunes making it ok for them to marry, and though the neat final pairings are still problematic to a 21st c audience, happy endings were a forgone conclusion so we might as well enjoy them.

The main couple in question, Josephine and Ralph, are given life by a sweetly comedic Jennifer Rider-Shaw and Mark Uhre, barely recognizable from his other superlative performance as Benny Southstreet in Guys and Dolls. They make a charming if chaste pair (you can’t get rid of all Victoriana at once), and are supported in their romantic liaisons by all the swooning sailors, sisters, cousins and aunts, gleefully playing along in the background; in particular the cute-as-a-mother-of-pearl-button Glynis Ranney. The dastardly Dick Deadeye is gamely played up by Brad Rudy, and Steve Ross and Lisa Horner are unforgettable as the beleaguered-father/beloved Captain and the devoted, fretting Little Buttercup.

Operetta really is not my favourite, but I love theatre that subverts my expectations, so I can fully appreciate this production of HMS Pinafore.  It continues in repertory until Oct. 21 at the Avon Theatre.


Steve Ross as Captain Cocoran, with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.



Sunday, 4 June 2017

Cimolino’s School for Scandal shows how times, they aren’t really a’changin’


theatre review School for Scandal Stratford Festival
Sébastien Heins as Charles (centre) with members of the company.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.



The School for Scandal 


by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Designed by Julie Fox (set, costumes), Michael Walton (lighting), Berthold Carrier (composer), Nick Bottomly (projections), Thomas Ryder Payne (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Brent Carver, Sébastien Heins, Shannon Taylor, Geraint Wyn Davies, Joseph Ziegler 

In 1777, according to Mr. Cimolino’s director’s notes, fake news was as prevalent then as it is today, with society rags full of soul and reputation destroying gossip supplied not by journalists but by those in society themselves.  Oh, how times have not changed.
Cheekily employing strategic selfies (including an 18th century equivalent), torn-from-the-1777-headlines projections and a few well-placed, updated barbs at the political establishment south of the 49th and texts, Mr. Cimolino’s production of School for Scandal holds that mirror up to our own selves in an almost entirely relatable way. Almost, but not quite.


Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Candour.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
The problem is evident and it is with the text, not the production itself – too many replicated scenes in the first half of the play of scandal-mongers disparaging a multitude of colleagues, most of whom never appear onstage. As overheard on opening night at intermission, “Yes, I get it, they [the scandal mongers] are awful and hypocritical for spreading gossip. Is that it?”

Well, do not despair, theatre-goers, it begins to pick up considerably with the appearance of the oft-mentioned Charles Surface, portrayed by Sébastien Heins.  Mr. Heins brings a much-needed charismatic boost later in the first half which promises (and later delivers) a little more action and excitement to come, but one does have those interminable gossip scenes first.  Thank goodness for Brigit Wilson’s Mrs. Candour who makes the comedic most of designer Julie Fox’s voluminous 18th c frock.  Athough the frocks and frock coats, while absolutely gorgeous, may also be literally weighing down the production, as they not only distract with their sumptuousness, but are also not as relevant to a modern audience. 

That being said, this edition of The School for Scandal is worth sticking out, not only to see all those gossip mongers get their comeuppance, but also for some very fine performances.  As mentioned, Sébastien Heins makes a thoroughly likeable rogue, with a 1000-kilowatt smile bestowed as liberally as his character Charles bestows wine.  His grins are matched by Shannon Taylor, who as Lady Teazle literally twinkles with mischief until she is chastened, and instead of playing it with frets and tears, Ms. Taylor gives Lady Teazle a subdued humility that suits the character far more strongly than the former might have done. 
Shannon Taylor and Geraint Wyn Davies as
Lady and Sir Peter Teazle.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Ms. Taylor in turn is matched by Geraint Wyn Davies who seems completely at home in the role of Sir Peter Teazle, turning from apoplectic to cherubic and back on a dime, never missing a beat either comedic or dramatic.  When he giggles, the audience can’t help but giggle with him; when he is humiliated, the audience is sympathetic. His and Ms. Taylor’s portrayal of a couple learning to accept and love each other despite their differences is alone worth the price of admission.


Joseph Ziegler as Sir Oliver Surface.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann
But let us not forget a few other memorable characters.  We have Joseph Ziegler playing Sir Oliver Surface totally straight, which is far funnier than it seems; and Brent Carver as Rowley, the wisest person in the play and so of course the one who gets the least respect. Mr. Carver, plays the role with a good-natured unpretentiousness (he is clothed in the most modest costume to underscore this), the eternal optimist in a band of merry but often deluded players.  Let us also draw attention to the much abused and unnamed ‘Joseph Surface’s Servant’, played well above his station by Emilio Vieira, who made his tiny role in Twelfth Night memorable as well. 



Brent Carver as Rowley.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

So regardless of a languorous first half, the overall intention of the play and production is preserved nicely in the end:  Haters might hate, but in the words of the wise Rowley, “Let them laugh, and retort their malice only by showing them you are happy in spite of it.”  Words to live by.  

The School for Scandal continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until October 21.

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