JWR Articles: Live Event - Tonight at 8:30 (Artistic Director: Jackie Maxwell) - August 20, 2009

Tonight at 8:30

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Coward collection is spectacular

Star Chamber
Kate Lynch, director

Marvellous madcap mayhem

It took only a few moments to realize just how right artistic director Jackie Maxwell was in declaring that the Shaw Festival is one of the very few companies in the world that can present all ten one-act plays that comprise Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30 in a single day. Two more of these “Madogs and Englishmen” marathons remain: August 29, September 19. Don’t miss this once-in-a-lifetime experience!

The Canadian première of Star Chamber launched the historic first set at 9:30 a.m. The dozen cast members (eleven humans and Bismarck the Great Dane who drew some of the heartiest laughs of the morning with his ideally sad-sack face and perfect air of disinterest), under the able/zany guidance of director Kate Lynch re-defined the meaning of ensemble.

From Neil Barclay’s larger-than-life presence (and mile-a-minute delivery of his incessant memory-lane banter) through Sharry Flett’s sultry take on Violet Vibart (which evoked an unforgettable moment of seductive possibility from Guy Bannerman playing the star-struck lawyer who vainly tries to bring order to a covey of show people) to Mark Uhre’s long-locked Oscar Wilde-like rendering of dandy Maurice Searle and Gabrielle Jones’ tartan-clad picture of the haughty, if fading, Dame Rose, the actors refreshed the long-abandoned script with their superb timing and style.

Best gag: turning the tables on the patrons as the actors crinkled their cellophane-wrapped lozenges, drowning out the official proceedings.

Ways of the Heart
Blair Williams, director

Necessary people

Before a word is spoken, it’s abundantly clear that The Astonished Heart will be no rollicking romp of irresolute relationships.

Sue Lepage’s upscale drawing room set and Judith Bowden’s sleek costumes are beautifully intertwined using basic black-and-white with only a few shades of tan and silver to lighten the mood. Equally sombre marble walls and floor complete the gloomy effect perfectly.

As Coward’s joyless drama unfolds, the notion of “necessary people” (couples staying together more for convenience and faux contentment rather than deep passion and understanding) is at the centre of psychiatrist Christian Faber’s (David Jansen) thriving practice and his crumbling personal life. The few laughs that are permitted thoughtfully break the spell of despair that Jansen along with dutiful wife Barbara (Laurie Paton) and lover, Leonora (Claire Jullien) cast on the audience.

Ryan deSouza’s edgy piano interventions (black-and-white of a different kind) reinforce the angst and anger brilliantly.

A welcome dose of silly

Director Blair Williams’ mastery of comedy is further confirmed in Family Album, Coward’s delightfully-silly send-up of bereaved family gatherings.

With the Featherways’ patriarch safely in the ground and the will satisfactorily read, it falls to the children and their partners to mourn Papa in a dignified manner.

But before you can say “tears-in-your-eyes funny,” a dirtily-growling trombone cues up the first entry of Burrows, the doddering, near-deaf butler. The comedy seldom flags after that.

Michael Ball, whether staggering under the weight of a drinks tray or practising the fine art of selective hearing, steals the show and soon has the cast and the assemblage eagerly awaiting the slush pump signal that more hilarity is on its way.

All of the characterizations are as varied as they are convincing. The Monty Python-like song-and-dance routines keep this show humming along as easily as the flowing sherry reveals the secrets of the dead.

Honour amongst thieves

The transition from a manor in Kent to a posh bedroom on the Côte d’Azur was a marvel of coordination, choreography and creativity. With such an inventive changeover, it was difficult for the slower-paced action of Ways and Means to attain the same degree of excellence.

As the down-to-their-last-francs couple, Toby (Jansen, affably impoverished in silk pyjamas) and Stella (Jullien transforms convincingly from nagging realist to vengeful conspirator) face their increasingly desperate circumstances with relative calm. But the tempo soon picks up with the arrival of Stevens (Patrick McManus) who rekindles the collective funny bone with a hilarious series of sight gags that only a gentlemen’s-valet–turned-cat-burglar could carry off.

Play, Orchestra, Play
Christopher Newton, director

In the key of flat

A little too close for comfort was the slight flatness in Red Peppers, Coward’s cautionary tale of the decline of music halls. The opening jokes as the Peppers (Jay Turvey, Patty Jamieson) trotted out their decades-old routine failed to elicit the requisite groans that “Can-you-believe-those-lines?” might expect to kindle.

As well, the live pit-band—notably the soaring violin—fell short of the top. Still, Tyler Devine’s “backstage” video projections worked beautifully, subtly foreshadowing how moving pictures would spell the end of variety-show theatre.

Just desertion

Fumed Oak, the darkest play of the lot—replete with violence against women: physical and psychological—provided Steven Sutcliffe the means to utilize his impressive emotional range. Starting out in the morning as the meek, nattered-at Henry Gow (head of the all-female family in name only), he’s had enough of everyone and—in one of finest revenge-fuck scenes ever written—finally emerges from fifteen years of suffering in silence.

The poorly tuned, purposely badly played piano, (director Christopher Newton assigned himself to the task, choosing the entirely appropriate “Hearts and Flowers” for the musical murder) was the ideal aural reinforcement.

Keeping the same “lovely“

The musical, and in many ways emotional, highlight of the set was Shadow Play—a fantastical examination of the too-frequently impossible task of maintaining love once it has been found.

Having just returned home from the theatre where bursting into song is the perennial cure for all calamities and happy-ending wedding bells bring down the final curtain, Victoria (Julie Martell, a sensation in three disciplines) quaffs some sleeping pills then—moments later—a request from husband Simon (Sutcliffe, looking and sounding as svelte and smooth as Coward) for a divorce.

The rest of the play is a wondrously layered dream sequence. Conductor/arranger Paul Sportelli turns in superlative results on both counts. The supporting cast fills and resets Cameron Porteous’ fresh-and-fanciful stage (a deft touch using some of the same black marble seen in The Astonished Heart) with well-rounded choruses and the ever-flowing dances from Jane Johanson’s company-smart choreography. Notable is Kawa Ada’s confident, nuanced performance as A Young Man—here’s to bigger roles in the future.

Newton’s love of the period and passion for the work comes through in every measure: Coward must be pleased as “pink.”

Brief Encounters
Jackie Maxwll, director

Sharing the danger

The last trio of plays—the only ones performed in the Festival Theatre—proved that bigger is not necessarily better.

After the preceding seven presentations on the far more intimate stages of the Royal George and Court House Theatres, the playwright/composer’s personal insights and fabulous sense of the absurd initially diminished in direct proportion to the square footage of the venue.

The extra-marital affair of Laura Jesson (Deborah Hay, delectably demur) and Alex Harvey (Patrick Galligan) told in an oddly cavernous 1936 small-town railroad station required a few scenes for the audience to adjust to the much grander physical scale before the unfolding drama took as much hold as the earlier pieces.

Happily, the concluding bittersweet encounter managed to focus on the delicacy and deeply personal parting of the luckless pair. Jesson’s pull-back exit astonishingly and magnificently sparked an invitation to the dance (Krista Colosimo and Gray Powell, engaging at every turn) that moved the minimum wage lovers from dead-end Milford to the divine—if imaginary—island of Samolo as magically as the music shifted gears.

Love suddenly

The perils of sudden infatuation form the basis of We Were Dancing. It’s the prolific writer’s most exotic location of the group. Love at first dance (Hay and Galligan) leads immediately to instant confession (Thom Marriott as the stoic husband; Goldie Semple as his outraged sister).

Hit of this show is the pre-intermission fantasy/dance sequence where the design team (led with impeccable style and inventiveness by William Schmuck) bedazzles the eye even as the energetic troupe collectively kicks up its heels. After such an invigorating lift sent the audience happily to the refreshment stand, Act II (this was the only play split into parts by an interval) merely tidied up the threads. The earlier exuberance, like the hope for unending love, couldn’t return.

Always leave ‘em laughing

The frenetic closer spectacularly demonstrated Coward’s seldom-matched, never-bettered pillory of upper-class Brits and their gin-addled view of the Colonies (notably Malaysia).

Semple as lead-souse was a hoot: “I want to get so drunk that I just can’t hear any more.” Special mention to Marriott who complemented his earlier first-rate characterizations as a smitten ticket inspector, stiff-upper-lip cuckold with a Peter Sellers-like study of a simple-minded giant who’through no fault of his own (or slip of a wife—Corrine Kolso was the perfect foil)’finds himself in a frantic case of mistaken identity. Showing that much craft and range in one evening‘s work is the key to the Shaw’s success.

Most appropriately, the entire cast and crew of the one-day theatrical equivalent to Wagner’s Ring Cycle (the leitmotif being human frailty) assembled for the rousing curtain call.

Three cheers to Maxwell not only for her excellent work in the final three plays but for having the vision and courage to bring this unique collection to such spectacular life. JWR

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