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Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Trespassers, where the Truth is Relative; Phedre, where the truth hurts

The Trespassers, written and directed by Morris Panych
Featuring Kelli Fox, Lucy Peacock, Robert King, Noah Reid and Joseph Ziegler (above)

The Story: In a dying rural town young Lowell is giving a statement to a police officer about recent events in his family’s history. Since Lowell may or may not be bipolar, and recent events may or may not have been criminally related, the police officer and the audience are left to decide.

The Trespassers is a beautifully written play. One can literally feel the bones of its construction, see the layering of story and its characters, and hear magic in some of the lines. Told in a non-linear fashion, with intriguing silences built into the dialogue, it is the type of story-telling that the similarly constructed Rice Boy aspires to be.

At the heart of the story is 14-year-old Lowell, remarkably played by Noah Reid, who both narrates and relives events for the police officer, a very stoic Robert King. The officer never interacts with the other characters on the stage – to him, they are just parts of Lowell’s statement. This means the audience is never sure if what they see and hear is the truth, or just a story, which is what Lowell’s grandfather Hardy describes as the part between the truth and a lie.

Joseph Ziegler’s journey as Hardy is inspiring – one wants to debate with and later weep for a man so physically changed. This task falls to daughter Cash (Kelli Fox, right), who manages to show tender love for and overwhelmed bewilderment for both her father and son. Understanding them all better than they themselves do is Roxy, a jaded ex-stripper who still has some dreams, portrayed here by Lucy Peacock (left), who provides a heart-as-big-as-the-stage core for the piece.

The Trespassers closes October 3 at the Studio Theatre, although it has all the hallmarks of an audience favourite, so if you miss it, it is sure to be remounted soon at a different theatre near you.

Phedre, by Jean Racine, adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker
Directed by Carey Perloff
Featuring Jonathan Goad, Roberta Maxwell, Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna (above)

The story: Phedre is Theseus’ second wife and has a terrible secret – she is in love with her son-in-law, Hippolytus, who is secretly in love with Aracie, the sworn enemy of his father. When Theseus is reported to be dead, Phedre follows her nurse’s bad advice again and again, leading to fateful consequences for all concerned when the truth is revealed.

Written in the 17th century about events from Greek mythology, Phedre is a melodrama filled with passion, lust and revenge. With actors like Seana McKenna, Tom McCamus (right), Roberta Maxwell (left) and Jonathan Goad in the cast, this production should have been stunning, showcasing the best of what Stratford can do.

Instead – and it hurts greatly to say this – this production of Phedre was boring. Stiff, actually. And it was not due to the actors efforts.

Starting with the costumes, which were made of heavy, rich brocades and silks, cut to resemble 17th century fashions, this was certainly meant to imply Racine’s own time period. Instead, they weighed down the actors, confining them, nearly tripping them on more than one occasion.

Contrast this with the elemental set designs – a well of water at one end and an enormous, shimmering, textured wave of material that suggests either water or a rocky outcropping, or wind – take your pick as it is very abstract and overflows one corner of the stage. It is wild, and dangerous-looking and evokes exactly the kind of mood one expects from this play, which is very much absent otherwise.

The director, Carey Perloff, is a well-respected director in other areas, but here, it felt like she did not trust her cast. For instance, in the scenes of most passion, while one actor delivers lines meant to enrage, enrapture or horrify, the other actor stands unmoving, not reacting, just waiting for his or her turn to speak. Their movements seemed reigned in, and as stiff and formal as their costumes. There was one shyly romantic moment shared by Jonathan Goad as Hippolytus and Claire Lautier as Aracie (right), but the emotion was all too brief in an otherwise bereft play.

There were further problems with the direction, but for all their efforts, the most heartbreaking thing about this production of Phedre is knowing how much better it could have been. It continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson theatre until October 3.

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