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Thursday, 19 August 2010

Bank Robbery Walker Style: King of Thieves

King of Thieves
By George F. Walker
Directed by Jenifer Tarver
Featuring Nigel Bennett, Jay Brazeau, Evan Buliung, Laura Condlln, Sean Cullen, Nora McLellan
Photos by David Hou

After last year’s success with Zastrozzi and Anything Goes (Factory Theatre) George F. Walker has a new fan base in Stratford. His plays challenge perceptions and perspectives, can turn your mind inside out, leave your head reeling. When combined with brilliant directors such as Jennifer Tarver, and solid actors like Nora McLellan and Evan Buliung, they are stunning, exciting works of theatre.

There was every confidence that his new play, King of Thieves, would be excellent - based on the same story and characters found in The Beggar’s Opera and Threepenny Opera, what great fodder for a playwright of Mr. Walker’s talent?

Instead, the play is simply shrug-and-a-sideways-head-nod meh. As Mr. Walker’s plays go, it is not mind-numbingly challenging, it is as straightforward as they come. It is a criminal world, where the authorities are just as corrupt as the thieves, but maybe not as corrupt as the bankers, and so the thieves become the heroes.

Yes, it is a timely statement full of bitter irony – leaders of the banks collude to bring down the economy, and then gouge the common man to build it back up again. The most satisfying part of Walker’s story is that in his 1929 version, the bankers are made to pay for their crimes, unlike those who were bailed out in our recent economic collapse. That they go out singing in three-part harmony is disturbing, precisely the kind of darkly disturbing one has come to expect from Walker’s play – which means the play is not without hope for later rewrites.

In fact, it is only in the second half of the play as people begin getting bumped off that it becomes more Walker-esque. Two girls have their throats slit, but break into song as their bodies – literally dead weights – are carted off. The cart returns again and again like a grim reaper on wheels, anticipating another character’s death. Both funny and deadly serious – that is what makes George F. Walker plays extraordinary.

Sean Cullen (left) plays Vinnie, the night-club owner / narrator of the piece. As the night-club owner he is great, but the narration is rarely necessary. The character would be more effective as a type of chorus, as Mr. Cullen is certainly expressive enough to convey deeper meaning without stating the obvious. As Macheath (Mac for short), Evan Buling is fine, but the part is no challenge for him, either. (If you were lucky enough to see his recent work in Yasmina Reza’s Art at Canstage, there is no comparison.)

In this case, the female of the species is far more deadly than the male. Myrna Peachum is an ex-burlesque dancer with a passion for booze, crime, her hubby and guns – we see her cleaning a Colt, then a machine gun, loading them with bullets hidden in her brassiere. She is an utter hoot to watch as played by Nora McClellan (left). As her daughter Polly, now married to Mac, well let’s just say you do not mess with her family. Laura Condlln’s icily intimidating performance is also full of heart, making her character one of the most fleshed-out and believable.

Performances by Jay Brazeau and Nigel Bennett as are also noteworthy as Mr. Peachum and FBI Agent Brown, as each tries to foil the other, and Oliver Becker is back as the thug Pork, although he was far, far more menacing in last year’s Walker play, Zastrozzi. The entire cast can be applauded for their fine work with New York and Southern accents.

This play is actually a musical, a first for the Studio Theatre. A ragtime-jazz score by John Roby (also the band’s conductor) is toe-tapping, although Mr. Walker’s lyrics are a bit clunky. That it is a musical is not bad – it is the type of quirkiness one expects from Mr. Walker – but that the story is not tightly crafted is bothersome. Do not let that stop you from enjoying the actors though.

King of Thieves continues in repertory until September 18.

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