Sunday, September 30, 2007

Grueling Theatre Weekend

My readers know that SillyWife and I often pack our theatre-going into short intense periods. Last weekend was one of those.

We packed three plays into two days.

The enjoyment level improved in the order we saw the plays.

Number one was Schiller's "Maria Stuart" done by Soulpepper. The production seemed stiff, and the play a disappointment, possibly simply because of high expectations created by the moment we fell in love with Soulpepper, as they implausibly started the company off with a production of Schiller's "Don Carlos", which was completely and unexpectedly enjoyable. I would still highlight Nancy Palk's Elizabeth as a joy to watch. Somehow, though, I am not sure that even if the cast had all really been 'on', I would have found Schiller's picture of the Elizabeth-Mary rivalry very compelling. Mary's misdeeds seemed to have been whitewashed, and her historic triumph, that Stuarts did succeed Elizabeth, though they did piss it all away, appeared to be lost in the story, the point of which I never got.

Our next adventure was Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman", put on by Canadian Stage. This is the first year where we, after many years of getting a full season subscription, shut it down to three plays, for reasons described in earlier posts, and this may seem an odd choice for one of the three if you inspect this year's season. I had loved their production of "The Beauty Queen of Lenane" a few years ago, and hated their production of "The Lonesome West". McDonagh paints no pretty pictures but he writes well and often wittily. I very much enjoyed "The Pillowman". The plot is pretty stretched but it offers his writing skills a chance to tell a large collection of stories, and in the process, implicitly ask a large collection of questions about the origins of art, the influence of art, about guilt, torture, and somewhat of a spread of other concerns. The writing was wonderful at times, and the staging quite inventive, which was one of the things that made the underlying grim story tolerable (and I need this with McDonagh). There were some lovely plot surprises, though the main line was easy to read from pretty early. The biggest surprise was quirky, sweet, and entirely unexpected, and forced a major revision of much of what one had seen. This is how a play should be.

The play is almost all the lead character, played by Shaun Smyth, and he carried it brilliantly. Oddly for Toronto in the past years, nobody gave a standing ovation, though I found myself quite close to doing it for his performance. Looking at his past credits it helped me understand why I found Canadian Stage's "Closer" so good, and the film version that came out a couple of years ago so repulsive. He had been superb, as had been Gina McKee and others. The film performances were star performances and ruined the movie. But back to "The Pillowman". The whole supporting cast were also excellent. In my rating brain I was thinking 2 and a half to three out of four. There was much to enjoy, but the nastiness in McDonagh leaves me a bit blank.

So the weekend was proving a bit of a disappointment. (because I expect four stars out of four for everything!)

Now at the start of the year I had seen that Soulpepper would be performing Chekhov's "Three Sisters", and I will confess that it immediately became the focus of my theatre year. (If you follow this blog at all you know my weakness for Chekhov, and especially for what Soulpepper have done with his work.) So when I settled back Saturday night for its start I was eager. And I was not for a moment disappointed.

As the lights came up the whole cast were in chairs sitting at the back of the stage and the introduction was done this way, with one or two characters coming forward, or standing up, until it slowly morphed into a somewhat more naturalistic approach. The last time I had seen this play it was at the Shaw Festival in a wonderful almost entirely naturalistic production with a massive set including large parts of the house and the garden all at the same time. Soulpepper's narrower staging was quite a change but it also worked.

As usual it took about two minutes for "Three Sisters" to start me welling with tears, that never really stop. This is a mix of Chekhov's sensibility and the utterly fine performances. The portrayal of this family, once so in charge of its fate, letting it all fall away, as the members dream of finding a better life by returning to where they were many years ago, but making no sensible concrete plan to achieve that goal, is extremely compelling. The play is full of a reflection of how much life has improved in Russia in the previous decades, and how much more Chekhov knows from his awareness of the West that things can continue to improve, and also with his awareness of how all this improvement will be marginal for the current generation of Russians.

Chekhov knows these almost-aristocrats, who know deep in their hearts that they need to become bourgeois to survive, but find it so hard to do. He finds them pitiable and he loves them and the writing, with the right performances, makes me feel the same thing about them.

And what a cast! It is likely hard for anyone outside Toronto to understand how privileged we are in terms of local acting talent.

I will start with the riskiest casting (and that assessment is perhaps slightly politically incorrect), d'bi.young.anitafrika, as Olga, the eldest daughter, filled with a sense of responsibility for the whole household, but exhausting herself, complaining constantly about how tired she is, and constantly taking on new responsibilities. At the start of the play I was a little unsure, but it took only a few minutes and her Olga had me believing. I look forward to seeing a lot more of her (Soulpepper gave her an unexpected role as well in its Threepenny Opera this year).

Patricia Fagan delivered nicely as Irina, in may ways harder to characterize easily than the other sisters. I am always delighted to find her in a production, and still remember the first time I saw her in a production no longer even mentioned in her biography in the theatre program.

But Megan Follows! Who would have thought this watching Anne of Green Gables years ago. Her Masha finally erased the Masha of Janet Suzman who has haunted me for years. Her frustration with poor Kulygin is beautifully conveyed, and with the smallest of changes in body language and facial expression she charts Masha's journey into the betrayal of Kulygin with Vershinin. As I recall, a little while ago, Richard Ouzounian reviewed Soulpepper's "The Real Thing", talking mostly about Follows' legs, and in my own post on it, I found her feet more eloquent. We did not get her feet this time but her whole body language was wonderful art.

As is usual with Soulpepper, the supporting characters are wonderfully played. Let me single out Sarah Wilson, whom I recall as a very fetching Jenny Diver, a great shrew as Natasha. But I want to get to the two usual suspects.

Diego Matamoros' Kulygin was, as usual for characters he plays, heartbreaking. He is so superb at playing these poor guys, who are not self-deceiving, though one could take it that way. He will take ANYTHING from Masha so long as she comes home to him. He is provincial, and laughable, and deeptly lovable. He stole Soulpepper's Uncle Vanya a few years ago, and he was close to stealing it after the sisters here.

But in the end, who would ever have thought back in the days of Street Legal that Rob Diamond would have the ultimate sensibility for Chekhov?! I would not. Albert Schultz was the ultimate wonderful sleaze lawyer in that series (that did so much for Canadian theatre). But in Soulpepper's productions, he plays key roles in Chekhov so superbly; his Vershinin was so precise and so well balanced.

Vershinin has a philosophical bent, though he is repetitive ('though'? - maybe 'and' makes more sense). He is incredibly positive about the world, while trapped in a marriage that ought to have turned that around. He does not expect happiness for himself, but expects his life to contribute to it for future generations. His fundamental positiveness (and hunkiness) wind up tearing Masha apart. But Chekhov is too smart to let you think of him as a superstar (he really is a fumbler, if somewhat successful), however attractive. There is no question, and the end of the play proves it, Kulygin is a more solid base to build on. But a solid base is not what Masha aches for.

In the end, and it is hard to say, the hard worker Olga comes closest to getting what she wants; the others are not so close to their dreams. Nobody gets to Moscow.

It is very hard to listen to this play and not think about when and where it is written. Vershinin's hopes for the future make so much sense in terms of the progress in Russia in previous history. The prediction of a great storm that would blow everything away is very hard to hear without thinking of the Bolshevik Revolution and the total waste it imposed on Russians for almost a century. How did Chekhov get this? Well, he knew a lot, and his heart was brilliant.

When I watch "Three Sisters" I am often driven to think of a wonderful movie, "Jean de Florette", where Gerard Depardieu plays a character a bit like Vershinin, full of hopes for the future, to be brought down by slimy provincials (in that film played by a couple of my favourite French actors). Chekhov never wrote the equivalent to "Manon des Sources", but then again the analogy is a little far-fetched.

And yet in the end it is all the people, so flawed, fighting so hard for some dream, and some belief in their importance, that keeps my tears flowing as I listen to the wonderful writing, in this case performed so beautifully, as I now consider routine, by Soulpepper. Thanks to everyone involved in that production for making the weekend in the end a complete success.

And now I feel bad. I did not in the same way enjoy "Mary Stuart". But if Soulpepper were not willing to take the risks I think did not pan out in that production, they could not do the others.

So thanks guys/gals for both! And thanks Martin Bragg for "The Pillowman".



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