September 20, 2015

Evangeline Revisited by Cindy Lapeña

When Evangeline premiered in 2013, a new world-class musical was born and PEI stage was THE place to be. It’s 2015 and the Charlottetown Festival has brought back Evangeline with a few changes, and I must admit that I quite liked what I saw.

Except for two major actors whose roles have been reprised and a couple of members of the ensemble, this year’s cast of Evangeline is totally new. Whereas, Josée Boudreau played understudy in 2013, she carried the role of Evangeline Bellefontaine marvelously with her powerful soprano and forceful character. Jay Davis, whom I first saw in Bittergirl, played an admirable Gabriel Lajeunesse opposite Boudreau’s Evangeline. His wonderful voice, at times gritty but always very masculine and powerful, dominated the ensemble. I’m hoping it was a matter of balancing the wireless microphones, but he literally drowned out Boudreau in at least one of their duets. At times, it felt as though the songs were not really composed for him. All the Broadway-style belting is overpowering, and I would have appreciated a great deal more sensitivity, texture, control, and subtlety in the interpretation of some of the songs besides full-volume delivery. Réjean Cournoyer as the invented character, Captain Hampson played the perfect villain as he did the first time around, just as Laurie Murdoch as Colonel Winslow revealed the conscience behind the whole idea of the Expulsion of Acadiens, reprising the role that humanized a reprehensible historical event.

 The backdrops made use of video technology, as they did in the premier showing, but rather than using the bright paintings of Claude Picard, a generally darker atmosphere pervaded the new sets designed by Cory Sincennes. I loved most the water scenes, with the actual waves moving in the projected backdrop, which added to the feeling of realism. The images projected on the backdrop were more carefully chosen so that they blended much better with the scenes. There was greater use of the revolving stage, which enhanced the movement across space and time, and eliminated the more realistic sets used in the premier. The basic set of rough-hewn lumber beams crisscrossed over the movable wings, was repeated in the stylized boardwalk that became decks, ladders, shelters, ships and boats. I would have liked to see that same feeling of roughness and simplicity in the crucifix used in the final scene. I’m glad water scenes were kept, because those were some of my favourites, especially with Gabriel and Evangeline rowing through the swamps, although Boudreau’s boat was not moving too smoothly, which occasionally jarred the illusion. It was a tad distracting, as well, to see movement under the sets when characters who were not part of the scene remained partly hidden, something that can so easily be solved by perfect stillness to maintain the illusion that they are not even there. Another tiny technical issue: the notice of Expulsion was tacked to a beam, but thumbtacks were not invented until 1903. I would have expected the soldier who posted the notice to use a nail and hammer.  I would also think that he would have done this less surreptitiously as it symbolized the beginning of the tragedy that was the Expulsion.
I did not care very much for more than one ensemble dance number to end with the same parallel arms raised uniformly stiff above their heads; I felt that was somewhat awkward and neither very aesthetically nor symbolically significant. I seem to remember a little more dancing in the premier as well.
There were moments in the gala performance when I felt that the cast had not completely gelled together, and that some of the actors were still feeling their roles and not quite their characters. As well, I missed the completely smooth transition from one scene to another throughout that I have come to expect from the Centre’s performances.
That said, I would watch Evangeline again and again and again, because, as a theatre person, I know that no two performances will be exactly the same, and the gala performance was but one show. It is still, and always will be, a powerful story with beautiful music and lyrics.  This new version of Evangeline has so much going for it and I am sure that, when everything falls into place, the brilliance of writer and composer Ted Dykstra and the vision of director Bob Baker will shine through.
September 1, 2015

Hamlet: A Very Palpable Hit by Kimberley Johnston

Are you suffering from a Hamletian dilemma about whether to go or not to go to ACT ( a community theatre)’s latest Shakespearean offering?  You should most decidedly go.

Director Terry Pratt’s vision of Hamlet is a very palpable hit. The show portrayed choices I had never seen but were exceedingly fun to watch. Pratt, who wrote this version and directed, cut the script extensively but people unfamiliar with the text would not have noticed. The nearly three-hour show held the attention of two very young girls on opening night. The girls seemed very saddened when at the end, spoiler alert, nearly everyone dies.

People who are familiar with ACT’s previous Shakespearean offerings are aware the show takes place out of doors in Stratford and audiences are led from scene to scene around Robert Cotton Park. They may be surprised to learn, however, that the entirety of this year’s play is being performed by only eight actors.
A lot was asked from the performers and they delivered ten-fold. They worked incredibly well together and were all given the opportunity to shine in at least one scene where their raw talents and energies could be showcased, no matter how many parts they played.
Sara McCarthy and Keir Malone, who each played four different parts, were entertaining in all of their roles. I loved McCarthy most as Gravedigger 1. She held nothing back belting out a tune (written by Pratt) whilst digging up skulls. Malone’s acting and physical agility was best demonstrated in his portrayal as Laertes, both when his sister Ophelia was found drowned and during the fencing scene with Hamlet.
T. Noah J. Nazim as Hamlet was exciting to watch. His madness (whether there was method in it or not) was captivating. This was Nazim’s first experience with ACT. I’m anxious to see him in more theatre in the future.
Lindsay Gillis’s ACT debut as Ophelia (Hamlet’s love interest) was breathtaking. Her final  scene exposed  the audience to her amazing singing voice as sweet Ophelia loses touch with reality. Especially poignant was when she picks reeds from the Stratford shoreline and passes them out, believing them to be various flowers.
ACT veterans Ashley Clark, Richard Haines and Catherine MacDonald were stellar as ever in their roles. Gordon Cobb as Polonius was the highlight for me. Cobb mastered the verbose speeches of the king’s advisor and demonstrated some excellent physical comedy, especially with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Malone and McCarthy respectively, I think).
Cobb’s portrayal of Polonius made me ask questions of Hamlet that I never thought to ask before, such as: Was Polonius aware of Claudius’s betrayal in killing Hamlet’s father? Nazim’s most  hilarious moment was as he pulled Polonius’s lifeless body behind the gazebo.
In a production of this magnitude and with so many moving parts, it takes a talented crew to make the cast look this good. McCarthy underwent several challenging costume changes, I would think, in the curtained gazebo that doubled as Queen Gertrude’s bed chamber and the final resting place of Polonius. The costumes, hair and makeup were on point, as was everything to do with this production, from the music arrangements to the mobility cart driver.
It will be difficult for ACT to top this play next year, but I sincerely hope they try.
August 15, 2015

Rope’s End Review by PL Holden

In a hopeless romantic tale like something inspired by a foreign film, Mark Fraser (who made his directorial debut at The Victoria Playhouse in last seasons The Best Brothers) sculpted a play written by prominent playwright Douglas Bowie where the lines of reality are blurred & spontaneity is rampant. There are flashbacks, fantasies, & something for the part of us that always wanted to explore what might’ve been.

Star & producer Jody Racicot (who teaches acting at Holland College School of Performing Arts & appeared in Confederations Centre’s Cinderella, in another role where checking your ego at the door was a prerequisite, as evil stepmother Putrid Von Farfrompoopin) & the lovely Johanna Nutter (who is no stranger to Victoria Playhouse, dedicating this performance to her friend & mentor Erskine Smith) are a splendid pair. Their characters are played at high and low points in life as well as young and old in multiple locations on a charming symmetrical set design (excellent work by scenic design: W. Scott MacConnell, production stage manager: Kevin MacLeod, rehearsal stage manager: Emilie Cassini, Light & Sound tech: David Nicholson, & scenic carpenter/stage techs: Jonathan Smith & Ron Quesnel).

Racicot plays Toby, who is a loveable film critic on a mission. Toby is also a self-proclaimed failure, representing the loss of all hope, putting himself in a pretty difficult situation as a last ditch effort to have some meaning in his empty life. Early on, he sometimes looks like a bombing stand-up comedian on that stage as he laments about his chances with the apple of his eye, Marisa (played of course by Nutter). At one point I actually hoped for his sake that some sort of act of divine intervention might time warp us back to the beginning of the show & give this poor fool a clean slate.

Believe it or not though, his character’s downward spiral into Bummerville actually works in his favor, fostering a very high level of genuine pity from the audience giving him the undisputed title of underdog. It’s a safe bet that a technique like this would be discouraged for television as the audience would be tempted to change the channel, whereas in live theatre, 5-10 minutes of drab is quite forgivable when you look at the bigger picture of forming an emotional connection like this.

by @PLHoldenIn Set2 the inside jokes build & the unexpected twists continue. It’s a relationship that is built on enjoying each others personality instead of the usually superficial reasons that draw couples together. There are certainly some lessons to be learned from this show, most notably about self-esteem. A self-deprecating joke here & there will definitely put people at ease, no argument there. That said, too many displays of belittlement on one’s own behalf turn into self-loathing & just because you’re the one getting made fun of, although we have a hard time adimitiing it, it’s still bullying. Not to get too personal, but I often wonder if in my own mind this is happening at too high of a rate.

Another example of imaginative theatre in PEI, Rope’s End isn’t afraid to deal with awkward stuff & I think that couples who enjoy a good laugh & crave the unexpected will love this romantic comedy!

August 9, 2015

Blindness: To Laugh or Not to Laugh By Cindy Lapeña

photos by Cindy

photos by Cindy

I was able to catch a performance of Blindness: A Dark Comedy, a play by Mariève MacGregor, one of several performances in this year’s Charlottetown Fringe Festival. For those who are not familiar with the Fringe Festival, it is a frenzied weekend of one-act plays and one-person shows that have audiences running all over the downtown area with barely 20 minutes in between performances to get to the next venue. Or you can get a schedule ahead of the weekend and plan your 4 days so that you can leisurely stroll to the ones you want to see beginning at 5 p.m. and straggling home around 11 or midnight. Each show is staged at different times on each day of the festival, so it’s quite possible to catch all of them within the earlier hours of the evening. More risqué topics, however, are restricted to much later hours. All performances are free entrance with donations recommended.

Back to the play. Blindness is a biographical piece based on the playwright’s actual experience of blindness from an unusual condition whereby the body produces too much blood, causing it to leak into the retina, which prevents a person from seeing. There was humour, no doubt, as the dialogue made light of a variety of situations encountered by blind people and how others can be oblivious to it or not know how to deal with it. More than just humour, though, the play was extremely enlightening in that it explained a great deal about the condition and the situation from first-hand experience. Something like Helen Keller’s autobiographical stories, but with fun. I have to admit that, while I did find the humour funny and the monologues informative, it was an awkward kind of funny–which was the general feeling I also got from the audience, who seemed unsure whether to laugh or not at times. It’s pretty much like when we make jokes about disabilities, race, and cultures. Political correctness and politeness keeps us from making jokes that might be seen as offensive especially if we aren’t the ones with the condition/race/culture. It’s okay for the Irish to make fun of the Irish, but if anyone else does it, it becomes offensive. In that vein, it might have been perfectly all right for the playwright to make light of her condition, but I thought the audience was not too sure if it was all right for them to laugh at her situation. I guess that’s where the dark comedy part comes in.

As for the skill levels, one has to remember that the Fringe Festival is just so called because the works are by budding artists, novices, or amateurs if you will. The acting was decent, not bad for a troupe that was put together in a few short weeks. However, I could not get a feeling of passion or conviction from the troupe as a whole. I think the funniest characters were those interpreted by Andrea Filion, until she dove into a monologue. The problem with performing in an open space, is that the space drowns the characters. Even if I was sitting in the first row, I could not feel enough tension holding the ensemble together, nor was there enough projection, so that the acting was not big enough to magnetize the audience.
The fact that the main character had three characters playing her psyche, was, I think, not exploited enough. The psyches could be a more powerful vehicle for the comedy. I believe their presence and lines should have been more closely integrated with the main character, instead of being relegated to passively watching her in the background most of the time. There was also quite a bit of monologue, which was really explaining details of procedures or the affliction, which tended to drag. It is a prolixity that could have been avoided by involving the psyche more. Don’t get me wrong, but unless a monologue is as powerful as Hamlet’s delivered as engagingly as Kenneth Branagh would, then don’t do the monologue. Those monologues could have been improved by breaking up the information into bits of dialogue involving the psyche so that they sounded less like lectures and more like a person struggling with coping with her fears and situation.
by Cindy Lapeña

Cindy Lapeña 2012

I have to say that one of the most brilliant choices was in the original music. To set everything to a jazzy beat provided by Justin Amador and Charlotte Large with those couple of folksy gospel song-like choruses by Tony Reddin at the beginning and end really set the tone for the comedy. If the pacing and acting had followed that jazz beat throughout, it would have been a great performance. In fact, I would have liked more music interspersed with the dialogue and a more active part of the performance, particularly since some bars were finished before they could even be appreciated. I’m just imagining involving the musicians in the dialogue by making them parts or voices of the psyche.

I would certainly like to see this play developed more and performed to wider audiences, because of its educational value. Here’s hoping that someone will pick up the sponsorship to bring this play all over PEI and elsewhere.  
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