Moby Dick – Review

Moby Dick

January 28, February 1 and 3, 2012

Jubilee Auditorium

http://www.calgaryopera.com/performancesandevents/mobydick/index.php

Listen to CBC’s Eyeopener for my live review of Moby Dick on Monday, January 30 at 7:40

http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/

 

Upon reading Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick in consideration for an opera, San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie says he was surprised at how musical, lyrically charged and operatic the book already was. “I could hear musical textures, rhythms, orchestral and vocal colours as I considered it”. If this was the case, it is then disappointingly unfortunate that in the realization of Heggie’s work onto the stage, the question is not how did he do it, but why did he fall so short? How is it that a classic story of passion and madness and revenge and loyalty was such a drag? Except for the mesmerizing video projections – the real star of the show. But more on those later.

Moby Dick was commissioned from Heggie (best known for his operatic adaptation of Dead Man Walking) by an opera consortium, headed by Dallas Opera that also included San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera, the State Opera of South Australia, and Calgary Opera. It’s a big ticket item (coming in at $1.5 million) with equally big ticket talent. Star Canadian tenor Ben Heppner takes on the role of the peg-legged Captain Ahab, his real leg harnessed behind him throughout the production for the effect.

The story deviates little from the original novel save the fact that the famous first line, “Call me Ishmael”, is relegated to the last words spoken in the production, freeing the story up from the narrative first person constraints and treating the novel like a memoir that took place long after events occurred. An easily digestible full synopsis of the opera can be found at http://www.calgaryopera.com/performancesandevents/mobydick/synopsis.php if you want to read about all the little bits and details. This is opera after all, so there are many.  But the gist of the story is fairly simple. The whaling ship Pequod sets out only to discover from its Captain Ahab that the real reason they are sailing is not to hunt whales, but specifically to hunt the white whale Moby Dick that took Ahab’s leg in a previous encounter. Ahab’s desire for revenge is not only cold but obsessively insane. Despite the protestations of his first mate, Ahab will not be deterred in his quest. Not even when it brings about the loss and death of his crew, the damage to his cargo and ultimately the destruction of his ship and his own death when he finally encounters the whale.

It’s hard not to agree with Heggie that this is a story just begging to be set to music in the operatic realm. But instead of a powerful or interesting composition, we mostly get dull music that is at best forgettable and at worst something that sounds like a high school marching band riff such as the pivotal scene where Ahab and Moby Dick face off. The exceptions to this are the pieces written for the two strongest performers in the opera. Greenhorn’s (Colin Ainsworth) aria befriending a pagan native harpooner is a moving and emotional swath of music helped along by some lovely wording courtesy of Librettist Gene Scheer. Equally, first mate Starbuck’s (Brett Polegato) aria in Ahab’s cabin as he debates whether to kill the Captain and longs for his family is musically fulfilling and a joy to listen to.

If you glossed over the “two strongest performers” comment in the previous paragraph, be assured that it was not a typo where Heppner was mistakenly omitted. Right from his first appearance, Heppner’s voice sounded thin and lacking command. Often times overpowered by the orchestra, he delivered arias without any of the rage or passion or madness that the character called for. Believe me; I take no pleasure in writing this. I’m rather horrified that I was underwhelmed by such a lauded and admired tenor. In his defence, the only things that might have contributed this this lacklustre performance was the unsure footing the peg and harness might have created (Heppner himself admits that his powerful voice comes from his legs) and the totally stagnant, stand in one spot and sing, staging by Director LeonardFoglia.

In fact, I would fault Foglia as much as Heggie for causing the boredom in this production. I had happily thought that inert performers without any acting chops were a thing of the past. But practically every major character in Moby Dick was planted feet down facing the audience when singing with no regard for emoting or interacting with the action on stage. The worst of this was when Foglia had characters up on the ship masts singing without movement for what seemed like an intolerable amount of time. Compare this to the background action and choral scenes which were beautifully staged (the fight and ship capsizing scenes in particular) and it’s confusing why Foglia decided to do so little with his main characters.

But if Foglia was hit or miss on the stage, his decision to project things on stage was a brilliant choice that paid off handsomely. To overcome the obstacles of storm scenes, water swells and a whaling ship that not only needed to sail, but needed to sink, Foglia commissioned Elaine J. McCarthy (of Wicked fame) to create video projections that took Robert Brill’s set from good to amazing. It is McCarthy’s work that opens Moby Dick with an animation of a starry night that morphs into a massive whaling ship seemingly floating out into the audience and causing gasps of amazement. It is in fact McCarthy’s continual projections throughout the opera with their welcome eye candy distraction that save this production from being a total yawn. But even McCarthy’s fantastic touches can’t save what should have been the climactic scene between Ahab and Moby Dick. The odd pauses in action, the banal music, the stiff physicality and Heppner’s uninspired singing was in total one of the biggest letdowns I’ve ever seen at the opera.

The French playwright Moliere once said, “Of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive.” If opera were to be judged on this production of Moby Dick alone, that saying could be altered to read – of all the noises known to man, opera is the most disappointing.

RATING

For the guys – The video and animation elements are brilliantly cool. But why go to see a Moby Dick that has no bravado or passion?  The testosterone has left the building. SKIP IT

For the girls – Greenhorn is a character you will like and a performer that will impress, and yes the projections are captivating. But the music will leave you flat as will the lack of acting. SKIP IT

For the occasional audience – Well, it’s in English. And once again, the projections are amazing to watch. But with the performance clocking in at 3 hours and no music you can latch onto, you’ll be wishing the whale would come and end it all much sooner. SKIP IT

For the theatre junkie – Two good supporting performers, unique use of video and occasional lovely  libretto. Not exactly what you’d expect from Heggie and Heppner. SKIP IT 

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No. 2 – Review

No. 2

January 25 – 28, 2012

Engineered Air Theatre

https://www.hprodeo.ca/2012/no-2

To my mind, every successful theatre experience rests on a fairly simple equilibrium – the duality of a compelling story buoyed by an excellent script and enthralling acting to bring the words to life. Sure there are other layers of  a production that are important, direction, lighting, set design, costume – these are all elements that can make a play go from good to great. But getting to good in the first place lies squarely on the shoulders of the playwright and cast. No. 2, written by Toa Fraser and performed by Madeleine Sami, is a play that unhinges that equilibrium causing all the good to lie in the acting realm with little more than the doldrums residing in the story. In other words, great performance/lackluster narrative.

The story, which Fraser debuted in 1999, tells the story of Nana Maria, an elderly widowed Kiwi matriarch, who decides to gather all her grandchildren together for a feast at which she will name her successor. Nana is very specific not to invite her children for they are, as she says, “useless”. One by one we meet her grandchildren in a parade of cliché and stereotypical characters. First up is Erasmus, the quiet responsible leader of the pack, then there is Charlene the miserable put upon one who always ends up doing all the work. Saul is the wanna-be gangster perpetually in trouble, Tyson is the sweet romantic athlete, Hibiscus is the pretty empty-headed one and Moses is the youngster full of boyhood fidgety energy. Two other characters appear in the story, Maria, an English girl who Tyson has brought and the Priest of the village that Nana invites to the feast.

Nine characters in total that, with the exception of Nana, have no other purpose in the story but to play out their formulaic roles as symbols rather than fully formed characters. But here’s where the equilibrium tips, and it tips strongly. All nine characters are performed by Sami who, despite the vast limitations of the roles, serves up a near flawless and remarkable performance for each and every character. Without using props or costume changes, Sami is able to transform herself from the crotchety old woman to a testosterone fuelled young man to a vain beauty queen and back again. All this is done with a Kiwi accent so strong that it takes more than the usual time limit to adjust your ears and even once the rhythm is known, you must be resigned to missing bits of dialogue here and there.

And there is lots of dialogue. All nine characters interact with each other throughout the play and it is through Sami’s strength as a performer that the rapid changes are not jarring or awkwardly comedic. It’s a physically intense piece of acting we are treated to and it is to Sami’s credit that we care about these characters at all. Problem is that even with her superb acting, we just don’t care enough.

This is where No. 2 falls with a thud. The long-winded and two-dimensional script gives the audience no point of engagement with any of the grandchildren. We can laugh at the impersonations, but ultimately we don’t relate or root for any one of them. Nana’s character is given more context and texture and at times redeems the otherwise flat storytelling, but after 90 minutes of trying to become engaged with the story even Nana can’t save the day.

RATING

For the guys – Sami’s male characters are spot on and fun to witness, but the fun wears thin with a dull script and overly long performance. SKIP IT

For the girls – Nana Maria will intrigue you but the overall family dynamic is shallow and the female characters are all unnecessarily ugly stereotypes. SKIP IT

For the occasional theatre goer – The barrier of the accent alone might be too much for you. Add on a script that lurches and this is a no go. SKIP IT

For the theatre junkie – Yes I know this show has been produced internationally and won an award at the Edinburgh Festival, but no doubt this was by virtue of Sami’s performance and for me, a glass distinctly half full performance is not a good enough reason to recommend it. SKIP IT

The Ugly One – Review

The Ugly One

January 16 to 26, 2012

Lunchbox Theatre

http://www.lunchboxtheatre.com/the-ugly-one.html

 

It was a very fitting coincidence that the opening performance of The Ugly One, a play about the perversely reverential way society esteems beauty, should come just a mere day after I, like many others I’m sure, sat glued to their TV set watching the red carpet of the Golden Globe awards. After a night spent critiquing which star‘s hair/dress/makeup looked best and who ‘s plastic surgery made them the fairest of them all, The Ugly One was a much-needed slap in the face to remind us how judgement based on outward appearances is not only shallow, but dangerous for all those involved. Even better was the fact that this slap was not provided by a heavy-handed preachy production but instead the message was delivered through a clever, surreal, sometimes funny, wonderfully acted and smartly designed and directed 60 minute one-act play.

The story, written by German playwright Marius Von Mayenburg, centres around Lette, an unknowingly hideous-looking engineer, who finds out from his boss that he’s not being sent to present his new product at a conference because he is repulsively ugly. Aghast and upset at the news, Lette goes home to his wife to find out if it is true – if he really is unbearable to look at. His wife, Fanny, praises Lette’s many good qualities but cannot deny her husband’s facial shortcomings. She explains that she thought Lette knew about his looks all along and that she was impressed at his ability to soldier on in spite of his appearance. But her assurances aren’t enough to quash his distress and he instead opts for facial reconstruction that renders him stunningly handsome. This transformation not only changes the way Lette looks (“I look like someone I’ll always envy,” he says upon seeing his face for the first time), it changes the way everyone feels about him too. Fanny is suddenly erotically obsessed with him, his boss is now fawning and eager to send him to the conference and while on the road, throngs of women line up to meet Lette for more than his engineering smarts while orders for his product are pouring in.

But like the saying goes, Lette’s beauty is only skin deep and soon enough he becomes vain and demanding and thoughtless and able to get away with it because of his looks. Until it comes back to bite him that is. I won’t ruin the plot twists for you; they are too much fun to experience fresh. But suffice it to say The Ugly One is an exacting and critical look at our aesthetic values and trust me, no one is spared and no one is redeemed. It’s a deliciously strange and twisted story that makes you think even when you are laughing while making you laugh uncomfortably at the irony while you are thinking.

Just as interesting as the story in this play is the staging and set design. Pamela Halstead remarks in her director’s notes that The Ugly One was a difficult play to conceptualize and a challenge to direct. Several times she says, she and the production team scrapped their ideas and started from scratch. If it was a challenge, the audience is the better for it because what Halstead and her team deliver is an inventive and risky production that is the perfect simple foil for the complex messages of the script. Opting for a chillingly stark stage with white walls and only two props, an operating table that doubles as a desk and a bed and the gauze that Lette wears post operation, Halstead and set designer Anton De Groot create a clinical atmosphere in which the absurdity of the beauty myth becomes magnified.

This bare bones set also does great justice to the uniformly impressive cast, who without scenery and props to rely on are utterly exposed for the fine performers they are. All actors are on stage throughout the play and simply turn their backs to the action when they are not part of the scene and there are many scenes in this play, with all of the actors except Matthew Thomas Walker (Lette) playing more than one role. Brian Heighton as Scheffler (Lette’s boss) and the surgeon oozes wonderful advantage-taking sliminess with both his characters, Kate Lavendar as Fanny and one of Lette’s affairs excels at both the small gestures of her characters (the way Fanny averts her eye from the ugly Lette) and the over the top outrageousness of a woman in erotic heat and Adriano Sobretodo Jr. as Karlmann (Lette’s assistant) and the odd misfit son of Lette’s  female suitor evokes both a man wronged seeking revenge and the vulnerability of not being desired. Walker as Lette, though a little too reserved and plotted as the ugly Lette, lets loose once his character’s handsome transformation and his out of control spiral with a fabulous ease and intensity that begs to be watched.

I have spoken before about my desire for theatre that takes risks and pushes expectations. Not simply for newness sake, but in order to bring excitement and illumination to the stage. This script and this production is one of those experiences. And as a result, dare I say it, The Ugly One is beautiful.

 

RATING

For the guys – You may think that the whole “looks are everything” notion doesn’t affect your gender. Think again. SEE IT

For the girls – Beauty as judgement is all too real in your world. This is not simply a shame on us story but rather a disturbingly funny look at how trapped we all are in it. SEE IT

For the occasional audience – Normally I wouldn’t send you to see a play with no props and a surreal storyline – but I think you’ll find it easy to penetrate and fun to watch. In other words, not too weird to enjoy. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – We don’t get many experimental theatre productions in Calgary with this quality cast and script. SEE IT

Picasso at the Lapin Agile – Review

Picasso at the Lapin Aglie

January 13 to 28, 2012

Pumphouse Theatre

http://www.morpheustheatre.ca/prod/picasso.php

 

So Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar. No really, it’s not a joke. In Picasso at the Lapin Agile these characters actually do walk into the same bar. On the other hand it is a joke – the play I mean. Not a joke really, more of a lengthy Saturday Night Live skit that while smart and funny in places goes on just a bit too long and runs off the rails in places.

I use the SNL reference here intentionally because Picasso at the Lapin Agile is written by one of the show’s most well-known and well-rounded past cast mates – Steve Martin. Martin, who is known for his banjo playing, novel-writing, screenwriting and art collecting in addition to his comedy, penned this, his first full length play in 1993. It had a successful run in both Los Angeles and New York and now is brought to us by Morpheus Theatre here in Calgary.

The one-act play features Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso who meet at a bar called the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit). The date is 1904and both men believe they are close to unveiling work that will change the century. Einstein is on the verge of publishing his ground-breaking theory of relativity and Picasso is working up to his seminal painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. The two meet and argue about which is the more beautiful, meaningful and significant talent – that of the hand or of the mind, that of the scientist or of the artist. Heady stuff for sure – but in Martin’s hands, the discussion is peppered with humour that ranges from the intellectually witty (Einstein discussing how a baker would and should bake pies in the shape of the letters of the alphabet) to slapstick-ish (Picasso clutching his heart in mock pain and jealousy every time someone mentions Matisse).

The two are joined in the bar by a host of other characters that each get their chance to zing a few lines and deliver Martin’s philosophy on everything from what drives a womanizer to what inventions the 20th century will bring to what type of books get published to the sleazy world of art dealers. Martin’s insightful, sarcastic and ironic views are given full airing on stage and they work best when the zany screwball treatment is toned down and the jokes are allowed to breathe on their own. Best at this is Greg Spielman as Gaston, a French elderly barfly with an eye for the ladies and a bladder that needs tending to every 15 minutes or so. Apart from his trips to the bathroom, Spielman’s character is on stage throughout the play and his understated stabs at the humour were very welcome in a cast where extreme mad-cappery and shouting was often employed to emphasize the funny and overcome some hollow acting. Lonni Olson at Sagot, Picasso’s art dealer, also hits the right balance between larger than life unctuous character and well-timed thoughtful delivery.

Unfortunately the other actors don’t fare as well. Peter Dorrius’ Einstein feels far too naively gee-whiz to be believable as a master scientific mind and as Picasso Brad Simon’s usage of bombast and bravado makes for some great shouting but not great acting moments. The rest of the cast falls somewhere between fine to amateurish with each one having occasional bright moments that quickly get brought down again by bouts of wooden acting and flubbed lines.

To be fair, Martin’s script doesn’t exactly allow for great character development. Picasso at the Lapin Agile is far more concerned with spouting off sarcasm and bombarding us with gags than it is with giving actors great roles to play. But as Saturday Night Live has shown us, sketch comedy is only really funny if the acting is good. And in this case, there is no way to change the channel.

 

RATING

For the guys – Zany with a healthy dash of smarts would have been a great bet – but instead it feels over-acted and under-funny. SKIP IT

For the girls – See above. SKIP IT

For the occasional theatre goer – Way too much going on with no real plot, this is will feel long and rambling. SKIP IT

For the theatre junkie – A better cast might have made this a smartly interesting light-hearted diversion, but unfortunately the cast doesn’t live up to the script. SKIP IT.

 

Taking Shakespeare – Review

Taking Shakespeare

Big Secret Theatre

January 10 to 28, 2012

https://www.hprodeo.ca/2012/taking-shakespeare

Listen to my review of Taking Shakespeare on this morning’s CBC radio’s Eyeopener

http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/columnists/theatre/

 

Happy New Year everyone – I hope your holidays were splendid and that you are all ready to get back into the thick of the theatre season. As usual in Calgary, the start of a new year means it’s time once again for the High Performance Rodeo and there are five theatre or theatre-ish offerings on the schedule this year. The productions hail from all over the globe, but it’s the hometown darlings One Yellow Rabbit that always have the biggest theatre buzz heading into the festival. This year has been especially buzz-worthy thanks to the Rabbits scoring Taking Shakespeare,  a new play by the award-winning John Murrell that he himself stars in. If you are unsure who Mr. Murrell is or why this is a big deal, I suggest you take a look at his entry in the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia to get a handle on his accomplishments and accolades.  http://www.canadiantheatre.com/dict.pl?term=Murrell%2C%20John

Taking Shakespeare is the first new play by Murrell in over a decade and I was very pleased to see that he hasn’t lost his touch.  This 90 minute one-act, two-character play is charming, funny, poignant and despite some thin narrative edges, it was a delight to watch. Murph is a 24-year-old college slacker who’s flunking his English Lit course; specifically he just doesn’t understand any of the Shakespeare plays that have been assigned. In an effort to help, his mother who is the president of the University, arranges for him to be tutored by another instructor at the college – the Professor  (played by Murrell) -who is an old-school Shakespeare-ologoist if there is such a thing. A devoted lover of Shakespeare’s work, the Professor knows all the plays by heart and is very opinionated on how they should be taught, in what order they should be taught and how old you need to be to understand them. Naturally, the Professor is horrified at the selection Murph has been given and is equally disgusted by Murph’s ignorance of Shakespeare in general and refuses to tutor him. That is until Murph tells him that Othello is on his reading list. The play is one of the Professor’s favourites and it hits a soft spot that gets him to agree to work with Murph.  The tutoring sessions that ensue are the meat of the play, and you do get a lot of Shakespeare in the script as the two work on Othello, but the play really isn’t about the lessons per se, it’s about what the two characters learn about each other in the process and more importantly what they discover about themselves over time.

While having the playwright as one of the stars in the play is unusual, it’s not as unusual as the choice that was made in the casting of Murph.  In a reversal of what would have happened in Shakespeare’s day – namely a man playing a woman’s role – Taking Shakespeare casts a woman in the role of the college slacker. And not just any woman, but Denise Clarke, who is also twice the age of the character she portrays. For the most part she does a decent job, but it was a job that got better as the play went on. The start of her performance felt “acted” and overly card-boardy with the male mannerisms either not quite right or at the very least not natural. But as the momentum of the play took off so did her performance and by the end of the production she gave us a fully formed character that you could connect with and one that you could pretty much forget was being acted by a middle-aged woman.

As for Murrell’s writing, the play is a very simple premise without much action, so if the writing isn’t good you really don’t have much traction. I am happy to say this was not a problem; Murell’s writing as always was excellent. The play had humour and humanity, it didn’t hermetically seal every plot twist, it was terribly smart in places and it was also profoundly sad at times in a way that didn’t shamefully pull on the audience’s heartstrings.

There were a few dropped threads in the writing that ever so slightly dented the excellence armour – most notably an exchange after Murph snoops in the Professors closet that has the Professor barely aggravated or upset by this invasion of privacy. Frankly I was shocked that his character was not more offended or angry as this seemed totally out of step with the Professor persona we being presented and for a moment broke the spell.  Thankfully this moment passed quickly and was not broken again until an odd little drunken scene late in the play which had the Professor dancing by himself to Prince’s Raspberry Beret, that while funny to see, felt totally unnecessary and just wrong for the character. Truthfully I can’t say if this was a glitch in Murrell’s writing or the only wrong step in Blake Brooker’s otherwise respectable direction. But either way I do wish they hadn’t included it.

As for Murrell’s acting, I can’t believe he doesn’t do more of it because he’s very good at it. Right from his first line he burrows deep into the character of the Professor and gives us great outrage and bluster and educational snobbery. But the real talent shows when Murrell is playing the calmer moments, the parts where he needs to be contemplative or compassionate or vulnerable. These are the really hard emotions to evoke onstage and Murrell delivered them with the realness and honesty of an inspired performance.

So yes, this is one of those cases where the goods do live up to the hype. True, the idea of a play centered on a tutoring session isn’t exactly new, we’ve seen this before in various forms over the years, but Taking Shakespeare does it really well with a lot of heart, great writing and good to great performances. This is a play that will have a tremendously wide appeal and don’t worry; you don’t need to be an expert on Othello or like Shakespeare to enjoy this production. But what you do need to do if you are going to see this play is learn how to turn your cell phone off. No less than three times during the production someone’s cell rang or beeped, and that my friends is a BIG no-no in live theatre. So go, enjoy but please, hit the off button first.

 

RATING

For the guys – The juxtaposition between an under-achieving man in his prime and an old-timer with accolades that are fading will resonate with you no matter what stage of life you are at. The chuckles are plenty and the 90 minutes moves along quickly. SEE IT

For the girls – Male or not, these characters are empathetic and you will have a soft spot for the Professor as a kind of avuncular figure. You’ll be interested to know that originally the role of the Prof was written for a woman. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – You’ll laugh, you’ll sniffle, you’ll like both characters and the simple premise is easy to follow and engaging. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie– Murrell’s writing is wonderful and to hear him perform his own words is a real treat – one he delivers with great talent. Ignore some of the thin spots and you will thoroughly enjoy yourself. SEE IT