Sunday, 9 December 2012

A Mellow Messiah

 Bill Rankin

The Messiah I heard at Edmonton's Winspear Centre was verging on mellow. The sounds of malicious scourging and contemptuous expectoration were mainly left out in favour of pleasant, but stolid, performance under the direction of renowned lutenist Stephen Stubbs, who coaxed a gentle Messiah from the Edmonton Symphony (with loads of subs) and a cobbled-together choir anchored by the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers.
Canadian tenor Colin Balzer
  Tenor Colin Balzer, clearly the most experienced of the four soloists, set the tone with wonderfully soothing opening aria, Comfort ye. I'd never heard Balzer before, but he is a singer I could listen to for a whole evening. He reminded me, and not just because of his shiny pate, of Ben Butterfield. Balzer isn't quite as mellifluous as Butterfield, generally, but the UBC-trained Canadian has the qualities that make him an undeniably lyric tenor with considerable vocal character.
  An advantage of Stubbs' approach was that the soloists, and singers overall,l were given plenty of space to express and be heard. The Messiah mezzo, I've found, can be at the mercy of too exuberant an instrumental collaboration, but the young mezzo Wallis Giunta, currently attached to the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, has poise, but she will learn, as Balzer has, that the soloists in the Messiah have narrative and dramatic roles that call for more than fine vocal production and a lovely gown. When she sang "He gave His back to the smiters, and His cheeks to them that plucked off His hair: He hid not His face from shame and spitting," she could have mustered more indignation, not to mention an explosive "sp" in "spitting".
  Giunta did show some ambition, though, in colouring her arias with ornaments that sounded improvised. The Baroque period is known as an age of exuberance, and Guinta's impulse to find some of that spirit made her singing exciting when she took a chance or two.
  Bass-baritone Gordon Binter is on he cusp of a career as well. He participated in the 2011 Opera Nuova opera boot camp in Edmonton, and has had some gigs, including an engagement with the Montreal Symphony after winning the Grand Prize in last year’s OSM Standard Life Competition. Binter is more baritone than bass, and so when he declaimed his intentions to shake the heavens and the earth, he delivered the message but not so much the de profundis heft. (Gary Relyea has been my favourite God-imitator in local Messiahs).
Binter makes a beautiful, if not a fully basso impression, but he brought a poised performer's energy to the occasion.
  Soprano Yannick-Muriel Noah made her Edmonton debut as Tosca with Edmonton Opera last season, and she has a dominating presence on stage. It was nice to see her back singing in the city after a strong Edmonton debut in Tosca.
  There were many excellent choruses, including the rocking Amen at the end. However, Stubbs could have drawn a little more drama from the libretto, especially in choruses where the ensemble plays the role of the distainful rabble. Choruses such as "Worthy is the Lamb," though, recreated the pious elements of the text effectively.
  Listening to the holiday staple again made me want to be up there singing. Fortunately for the listeners around me, I restrained myself to mostly mouthing the words, but my wife was a little embarrassed at my sotto voce singalong to the Hallelujah chorus.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Next to Normal crazy good theatre


 By Bill Rankin

West Side Story has its fatal knife fight. Sweeney Todd gets song and dance routines out of serial murder, dismemberment and prankster cannibalism. The seminal 1927 Kern and Hammerstein II musical Show Boat offers a humfest inspired by the scourge of American racism. The Sound of Music is hardly all sweetness and light: the von Trapps barely survive the imminent Nazi Anschluss. Urinetown makes sewers into sanctuaries. Annie is an abused orphan; even Mary Poppins is lonely spinster without not quite enough magic to get herself a stable domestic arrangement of her own.
So when a new musical comes along that explores a particular form of insanity — bipolarity — no one should be surprised that it draws audiences ready to be bummed out and invaded by earworms at the same time.
The Citadel-Theatre-Calgary co-production of the Brian Yorkey/Tom Kitt 2009 Broadway rock-musical hit Next to Normal is as kinetic as a bipolar patient surging, and as depressing as any story about families in despair, children skidding out of control, hope not just fading but being bashed about mercilessly.
Director Ron Jenkins and the Citadel production team have staged an often hilarious, ultimately maddening musical gallop through the sabotaged life of Diana, a suburban mom desperate for even a little control over her world, thwarted repeatedly by a mental disorder that resists all remedies. Suicide beckons; love has no power to dissuade the morbid comforter.
Kathryn Akin plays Diane
Kathryn Akin is a totally convincing Diane, the disturbed and disturbing central character. In Saturday's first preview performance, Akin exuded the positive energy that the rock musical conventions call for, but when Diane hits the wall and the pall of doom pervades the scenes of bleak medical adventures like electric shock and dead-end talk and drug therapies, Akin was moving. She has the vocal heft and the actor’s experience to command the spotlight convincingly. The part gives her a lot to sing, and except for a few brief spells towards the end where she sounded a little strained, she delivered a strong performance.
 The close to a couple of dozen tunes Yorkey and Kitt have written to propel this unhappy story give each character plenty of challenging musical episodes, and musical director Don Horsburgh and his small cohort of musicians in the pit lifted the characters into the ambiguous world of musical theatre most helpfully.
The production has a nice mix of young, up-and-comers and seasoned pros. Akin has had an interesting career in Britain and Canada, and Réjean Cournoyer (Capt. von Trapp in the last Citadel Sound of Music) sang Dan, Diana’s hopeful, helpless husband, firmly and unaffectedly. He was best in the couple’s more subdued and tender moments; his voice sounded a little dry and tired in the heavy-duty belting tunes.
Sarah Farb crafted the role of Nathalie very intelligently. Nathalie is the daughter left out in the cold as her mother fights toxic brain chemistry and wallows in memories of a dead baby son. The girls seeks refuge first in an obsessive will to be perfect, then in drug-induced oblivion.
Robert Markus plays Gabe, the ghost child; Markus has a strong Broadway-style voice, and in scenes where he haunts the wretched mother, he generated feelings more Mephistophelean than wispy child soul adrift in a sick woman’s mind. The effect the character produces was creepier than anything we see in Diana’s manic-depressive rollercoaster ride.
Nathalie’s boyfriend Henry (Michael Cox), a pot-head with a good heart, doesn’t sing much, but he aced the part, and the scenes he and Farb have together bring the artificial aspects of musical theatre down to the level of just plain affecting theatre.
John Ullyatt is Doctor Madden, Diana’s last hope. Ullyatt is a versatile performer with a decent set of pipes, but his contribution is mainly straight theatrical in this show, and it’s an important contribution. In several scenes, he shifted from comedian to serious actor in a flash. Ullyatt stole the scene when Diana hallucinates her shrink as a raucous rock star one second, an understanding therapist the next.
Next to Normal is a high-energy night of contemporary musical theatre. You wonder how many folks leave a production of Les Miz brooding about the French Revolution. You’ll leave Next to Normal invigorated the way a night of live theatre should make you feel, and probably a little blue because this musical will touch everyone who isn't living a perfectly normal life.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Sorkin's words come alive in Citadel show

 Bill Rankin
Traditional war dramas often hinge on a volatile blend of romance and heroism. The male protagonist endures the tribulations of grim hostilities abroad; back home his gal frets and makes do while she waits and hopes for the best, for life to return to normal.
Aaron Sorkin’s stage play A Few Good Men, which predates the  better-known 1992 film version of his story of macho men cut down to size, military bullies uncovered and properly disgraced, looks at some of the shady culture behind testosterone-fuelled heroics.
                                                   Epic Photography
Lt. Kaffee (Charlie Gallant) and Lt. Cmdr. Galloway
(Lora Brovold) stake out territory in A Few Good Men
Almost no blood is spilled, and there is no romance in Sorkin’s drama. The one woman in the cast, Joanne, a dutifully persistent lawyer, begins as a Marine unit’s relentless nag, and finishes as alone as she starts, but by the end, she basks in the respect she's won from her male colleagues for her moral leadership and professional competence, not her womanhood. The happy ending turns on nobility and a commitment to justice rather than love between the male and female lead. Sorkin is always bound for higher ground, whether he's looking at American political culture in The West Wing or media culture in The Newsroom.
Lora Brovold, playing Joanne, began the first performance of the preview run a little flat. The men around her include greenhorn military lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Charlie Gallant), whose talent in this early stage of his legal career is finding ways to avoid the hard work of really defending his clients. He’s adept at plea bargaining, preferring time-consuming courtroom competition to pickup baseball.
Brovold’s Joanne could be seen as an outsider and therefore sensibly tentative about how she behaves around the men she has a vague sort of authority over; however, I felt Brovold just didn’t present herself as a force to be reckoned with in the early going.
But as her and Kaffee’s professional relationship develops, as they follow Joanne’s intuition that the two marines they’ve been assigned to defend on murder charges may be victims of subterfuge in an apparently trumped up court martial, Brovold got her footing, and the pair generated plenty of dramatic energy in the second act.
Gallant catches the wind of Sorkin’s often-witty writing from the get-go. His evolution from glib novice lawyer to justice crusader is generally compelling. It’s a big role, and he commands the spotlight comfortably.
The rest of the cast is strong. Jeff Strome has the physique of a marine, and his tough yet submissive portrayal of Cpl. Dawson crackled with masculine aggression. Cole Humeny, Dawson’s co-accused PFC Downey, conveyed the weaker soldier’s confusion and insecurity sympathetically. The pathos was palpable.
Paul Essiembre plays the antagonist, Col Jessop, who is behind the phoney prosecution of the two marines. Essiembre will inevitably be compared to Jack Nicholson’s volcanic Col. Jessop in the film version. Sorkin has drawn his character so clearly that perhaps only an eighty-pound weakling cast as this steely dominator could raise doubts about Jessop’s menacing persona. Essiembre musters all the necessary arrogance and indignation the role demands, and the culminating court room scene when he’s trapped and deflated was fine drama indeed.
Director James MacDonald made good use of Michael Gianfrancesco’s austere stage design, especially the rotating platform that helped move props and players in and out. The device created momentum, a benefit in a play in which the action is in the language.
Sorkin’s specialty is argument and soliloquy. This Citadel Theatre/Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of A Few Good Men definitely brings Sorkin's verbal battleground to life. Seeing justice done is always uplifting.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

This Maria needs no fixin'

 The Citadel Theatre has presented a big musical pretty much every year since Bob Baker took over in 1999, and Edmonton audiences have loved him for it. Besides the theatre's annual Christmas hit, A Christmas Carol, the musical theatre productions are a box office lodestone for obvious reasons.
Musicals are goofy. People are suddenly impelled to break into song and dance just for the hell of it, but when the songs are so great that folks leave humming  them, and during the show a fresh ear worm riggles into consciousness every 10 or 15 minutes, why overthink the beauty of giving ticket buyers what they want? There's no shame in serving the art that sells. In fact, so popular are these musicals, normally the run gets extended even before it starts, which was true for The Sound of Music this year.
There are few musicals with as many memorable tunes as The Sound of Music, and Baker's current production of the 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut has enough good singers in it to win over an already susceptible audience. Any successful musical has to start with a great selection of songs, but there is no substitute for solid singing to get the goofy thing across.
No woman singing the lead role of Maria can ever avoid being compared to Julie Andrews' in the 1965 film adaptation of the Broadway hit, but at the same time any singer cast in the role knows she's likely on her way up the mountain to a decent career because if you're Maria, it's your show, and if someone like Baker gives you that responsibility, it's bound to give you one more solid foothold on your way up.
Josée Boudreau
From the first appearance of Josée Boudreau striking the iconic pose Andrews made famous singing "the hills are alive with the sound of music," in the movie, arms outstretched in glorious optimism, relishing the sheer pleasure of singing, Bourdreau is convincing. She has a lovely voice that she can navigate from an unstrained Broadway belt into what I would call actual singing. It's always a relief when you know you aren't going to have to root for a singer to improve from a bad start.
Maria goes through a great range of experience in the Sound of Music. She has to deal with the convent characters, playing the defensive and the defiant postulant. She needs to enliven and manage the scenes when she and the von Trapp children are the focus, and she needs to seem plausible as a firm foil to the authoritarian stick in the mud Capt. von Trapp, and then his equal in her romantic relationship with the ultimately pliable captain. (The Lonely Goatherd scene is the singing nanny's biggest theatrical test, and Boudreau and the kids land it, both yodlewise and otherwise. Good, controlled rambunctiousness.)
Bourdeau vindicates Baker's belief in her. Baker has given Boudreau plenty of work and training over the past few years. He has seen her develop, and he has let her grow here in Edmonton. The New Brunswick-born, Toronto-trained makes Maria her own confidently and with genuinely fine musicality.
The rest of the cast, including a number of local actors/singers, is solid. The intermittent appearance of the nuns' chorus is always pleasant, not always perfect pitch-wise , but certainly pleasant. Susan Henley is obviously a versatile singing actor. Her My Favourite Things with Maria and her Climb Every Mountain scene with the nuns I'm sure tempted many audience members to sing along. I didn't hear anybody break into song.
Réjean Cournoyer has solid musical theatre chops. He, of course, will be compared to Christopher Plummer's take on Captain von Trapp. He doesn't do domineering as well as Plummer, and although Cournoyer is not a kid, the sense that he's en route to a sort of May-January engagement with young Maria doesn't quite come across. She's about to marry a man with seven-children, a man old enough to be her father, after all.
I especially liked Susan Gilmour as Elisa, the woman who is the captain's love interest, and more his age, until he starts hankering for the babysitter. Gilmour exudes her character's class, and she's obviously a real singer as well.
The children in the cast were fine. They're children, so let's just say, they're clearly capable of taking instruction and getting work done. Megan Anderson has a nice role as 16-going-on-17 Liesl, and Liesl gets a couple of scenes where she can be in charge. Anderson played her too demurely, I thought.
All the kids could hold a tune, but Ryan Jackson (Kurt) delivered a few beautiful boy soprano notes on his own at one point, and everyone in the audience recognized the effect excellent musical moments can have. Jackson will never play Maria, of course, but he has some serious musical potential.
Overall, Baker's Sound of Music delivers what any of the classic Broadway musicals that have made it into the standard repertoire can do. They give listeners the pleasure of sharing something both exceptional and familiar done live. The Citadel obviously believes in serving its community's tastes, and serve it it does with this tried and true musical.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Nothing amateur about emerging actors

The Citadel Theatre's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, opening tonight after a series of previews begun last Saturday when I saw it, presents a potential dilemma for the ticket-buying public.
The prices the Citadel is charging are its standard professional theatre ticket rates, but the majority of the performers are what are optimistically and encouragingly called "emerging artists."
The 14 young professionals — and it must be said that the depth of experience most of these in-training performers has is impressive — are performing here because the Citadel's artistic management has chosen them from dozens of theatre aspirants from across Canada and perhaps beyond to hone their acting craft. All of the young actors have worked professionally, some of them even in establishments like Stratford and the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto, and each of them has an impressive academy credential from a good Canadian theatre program, including the University of Alberta's and the National Theatre School's. There are lots of folks from Windsor's BFA in this group.
Director Tom Wood
Clearly these 20-somethings saw the Citadel's professional development program as a building block to help them construct a sustainable career as actors, and they've worked hard for a month to prepare for what is for many of them their Citadel Theatre debut in one of Shakespeare's most charming plays. A Midsummer Night's Dream calls for the kind of boundless energy young people can bring to a project. If ever a play required a cast of young talent, this fantastical romance is it.
So the question is, 'Will you get your money's worth from this professional production?', which is directed by consummate professional Tom Wood and designed by undeniably professional Bretta Gereke? Will you feel like you're coming to a student production that feels too much like a show pivoting on talent that is still some distance from prime-time ready?
Well the short answer is ABSOLUTELY NOT!
The opening scene in which a young man donning a stage beard and pretending to be a mature aristocrat creaked a little. But by and large, no actor made me feel like I had to compromise my normal audience expectations and simply endure, and most of them demonstrated convincingly that they deserve to be paid to entertain the ticket-buying public. The fairyland look Gereke has conjured and Wood's deft direction of the idyllic and frenetic aspects of the action are unequivocally top-quality Citadel production value.
Rose Napoli plays Hermia
Shannon Taylor
plays Helena

A few of the actors, such as Shannon Taylor as Helena and Rose Napoli as Helena's rival Hermia, were memorable. Taylor, a Toronto native, was excellent from start to finish. Napoli started a bit tentatively, but she was a hilarious terror by the farcical fight scene toward the end. The Mechanicals, especially Julian Arnold's blustrous Bottom, were consistently amusing bumblers. Arnold is an established local pro, and I don't want to read too much into it, but his performance had features that raised it a notch above the mark some of the greener folks made. One irony of the rustic players in this production, who are meant to seem totally out of their element on the stage, is that the developing actors who played them played bad actors terrifically.
The acrobatic Jonathan Purvis, completing his second stint in the Citadel program, literally took over the stage whenever he appeared, swinging from a rope, climbing walls and flipping through the air forwards and backwards when a mere stage leap might seem too pedestrian. He demonstrated what having total control of the actor's full instrument can look like in performance. He clearly revelled in his role as Puck.
Edmonton's Opera Nuova program develops emerging opera singers in a month to six-week boot camp like the Citadel/Banff intensive program for actors, and the opera camp culminates in two full-length opera productions at the end of the training period each year. Over the years that I've been going to those productions, I have noticed a sustained improvement in the performances of all the singers, most of whom don't have the breadth of stage experience the young actors bring to the Citadel. The singer who looks quite unsuited for the performance profession has been a rarity in the past few years.
My conclusion is that the selection process has become so assured that folks like Citadel artistic director Bob Baker are able to discover high-potential talent that is genuinely worthy of a critical audience's attention.
You don't have to believe in fairies to see the magic in this Midsummer Night's Dream.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Pro Coro shares Easter season with friends

Pro Coro's Good Friday tradition continued April 6 at the Winspear Centre with an eclectic program of music fit for the saddest day of the Christian calendar. The choir, which was joined for several selections by the University of Alberta Madrigal Singers and was led by guest conductor Len Ratzlaff, who also leads the Madrigals and put the program together.
 About 1,000 people attended.
Leonard Ratzlaff
Even with the heftier forces of two chamber choirs, amounting to about 50 singers, it's always dicey placing such an ensemble too far back on the Winspear stage, even with the hall's excellent acoustics. For the opening piece, a sixteen-part setting of the motet Crucifixus by Antonio Caldara, an early Baroque composer, the singers were lined up single file along the shallow arc of stage's back wall.
 Ratzlaff must have had a technical reason for such a configuration since the full group's later collaborations were sung  more down stage and in  rows. The helpful accompaniment of organist Jeremy Spurgeon and Josephine van Lier on Baroque cello reinforced the slow, resonant unfolding of this meditative reminder that Christ "was crucified for us, under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried", but the effect of the still relatively small choral forces diffused as they were at the back was not as strong as an opening number should probably be. A piece with sixteen voice parts means small groups must emerge and recede with power and subtlety. I missed that in the Caldara.
The first four pieces were sung by the combined choir. Bruckner's Christus factus est pro nobis (the choir was forward and more clustered) highlighted the vocal of the singers in this a cappella motet. The Bruckner and contemporary composer Jeff Enns' Litany would be lovely things to hear at any Sunday morning church service.
Knut Nystedt's O Crux has recurring shades of dissonance common in much challenging contemporary choral music, enough seconds and minor seconds too convey notions of distress one expects from art depicting an execution site. The general point of the text doesn't dwell on the purpose of the Cross; its message is the paradox of the Christian teaching that somehow Christ's torture and execution is a good thing, and therefore so too must be the wooden scaffold on which he was killed. Many years the Pro Coro Good Friday event has featured classics like various Bach Passions, and one year, probably the most well-attended, Mozart's Requiem. It's always nice to hear less familiar music sung with musical quality and conviction.
Jolaine Kerley
Pro Coro sang Domenico Scarlatti's Stabat Mater by themselves, a piece made for Good Friday if there ever was one, a meditation on the helpless, grieving mother. Soprano Jolaine Kerley and tenor Caleb Nelson sang their short solo parts pristinely. The choir was in its element.
The second half began with an arrangement Amazing Grace. You can turn anything into a choral piece, I suppose, and choirs sing this hymn all the time. Erik Esenvalds' arrangement, sung by the Madrigals and Pro Coro, certainly gave the choir some lovely harmonies to sing, but I see Amazing Grace as a single singer's piece, and when Abra Whitney had her turn to express the penitent's remorse and gratitude, the song really sang the way I like it. She should have got an outright solo.
The final piece, supplemented by a number of Edmonton Symphony string players, was an inspired choice. Esenvalds Passion and Resurrection includes an extremely dramatic soprano solo role, and Kerley was brilliant doing it. The piece also calls for a vocal quartet, which Ratzlaff situated in the second balcony box to the right of the stage. This ensemble, too, was excellent. The text, like Handel's Messiah, is an assortment of biblical passages surveying the Christian story. This treatment of the story, has more to do with the Passion than the Resurrection, and Esenvalds uses the strings, choir and quartet in a great range of ways to capture all the anguish and hope in the religious tale. The strings controlled much of the dissonant effects, and Kerley carried the elevated emotions with great soloist flair.
This piece was a revelation, in itself, and it concluded a very intelligent program of music reflecting on the Holy Week drama.
Clearly Ratzlaff selected pieces that told different aspects of the Easter story: the Good Friday crucifixion, the meaning of the sacrifice, the sorrow that is ultimately ironic, the sorrowful song of the tearful believer who plays out the apparent mournful tragedy each Good Friday, a paean to the Christian's ultimate symbol,  the useful Cross and the grieving mother at its foot, and finally, the revelation that it was all a joke. You never expect a barrel of laughs from the Easter punchline, but excellent art is probably just as good.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

ESO introduces its new composer

The Edmonton Symphony program Saturday night drew a crowd that belied the notion that classical music is foundering on the rock of the aged. I've never seen so many people under 40 at an ESO concert. (Maybe I haven't gone to enough of them recently.) And what the full Winspear Centre, including about a quarter of the choir loft, heard was a little bit of new music untinged by notions that phrase "new music" often conjures, and a couple of chestnuts played engagingly under the direction of guest conductor Julian Kuerti, who was making his debut with the orchestra. His father, Anton, has played in Edmonton numerous times, and is a true friend of ESO. Julian will be invited back based on the leadership he gave the band his first time out.
After a seven-year hiatus since Allan Gilliland left, the ESO has a composer-in-residence again, and Robert Rival's first ESO commission, Achilles & Scamander, received its world premiere Saturday. Inspired by a scene in Homer's military epic The Illiad, Rival wrote an eight-minute programmatic work not surprisingly brimming with loads of brass and percussion. Rival has been praised for his taste for harmony that average listeners relate to, for his 'accessible' writing, and we got a work Saturday that inevitably explored aggressive ideas implicit in a war story, but his language isn't aggressive like some contemporary composers' medium. The audience seemed to like it.
The piece suggested John Williams' Star Wars music and Bernstein's Broadway sensibility in small ways, and I'm sure I heard a hint of music that sets up Wile E. Coyote getting flattened by a steamroller. What Rival doesn't do is stay on a allusiion so long that any of his possible influences sound derivative. Star Wars is an epic of its time, so why not borrow a little of contemporary musical epic flavour?
The scene Rival depicts involves Achilles as warmongering juggernaut, and Rival has a clear notion of how to convey juggernaut sonically. Full marks to timpanist Barry Nemish and the whole back row of brass players. In the several moments of lull in the martial frenzy, the bassoon, flute and harp gave moments of emotional relief nicely.
The ESO's past composers-in-residence have had an ear for music that doesn't attack the listener. Rival succeeds them in the spirit of music making that the Edmonton Symphony audiences have always appreciated. Make him work.
The feature artist, after Rival, of course, was cellist Shaun Rolston performing Dvořák's Cello Concerto. I was expecting Rolston to play her carbon fibre cello, but she came to blend and chose the wooden instrument like all the other string players played. Dvořák's concerto is not a battleground where orchestra and soloist compete for supremacy, and the ESO and Rolston demonstrated that collegial feature of the work powerfully and sensitively by turns.
The second movement in particular gives primacy to several wind and brass instruments (the short horn trio was pure and impeccable), and those exposed passages the ESO principals shone in their collaboration with Rolston. In fact, the whole night I heard no insecurity in places where soloistic matters could go awry.
The tempo of the second movement was exceptionally slow, but the choice worked to highlight Dvořák's unostentatious treatment of the concerto form.
The second half featured Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6. It's in large, dramatic symphonic works that the ESO's size affects its effect. In fact, without the harp behind the violas, there was a gaping empty space that gave an unbalanced appearance to the ensemble, visually if not sonically: density (in a small way) to the left, sparce forces to the right.
Kuerti conducts without ostentation. There are sections of turmoil, especially in the final movement of No. 6,, and the conductor engaged the players with physical intensity without drawing the eye to himself.
The orchestra is a little more than a month away from its trip to Carnegie Hall. It's sounding like this concert, like the rest of the month's programming, was a dry run for the moment of international exposure on the horizon. Things are sounding good.

Friday, 16 March 2012

God of Carnage devastatingly funny

Veronica (Fiona Reid) gets ready to smack her husband Michael (Ric Reid) as Alan gets drawn into the fray in God of Carnage.
Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, running at the Citadel Theatre until April 1, beyond being a giddy evisceration of our culture's ideals about love, marriage and family, is a relentlessly hilarious farce.
Reza's Tony-award-winning play, translated from French by Christopher Hampton, begins with Alan (Ari Cohen) and Annette (Irene Poole) sitting in Veronica (Fiona Reed) and Michael's (Ric Reid) living room discussing how to resolve a conflict their sons have had at school. Alan and Annette's boy has bashed a couple of teeth out of Michael and Veronica's son's mouth with a stick, and all the parents can agree that such violence is unacceptable and that the perpetrator, whom Alan is prepared to concede is "a savage," should be made to acknowledge his transgression and probably make some amends to his school mate.
As the couples debate the moral issues and the parenting philosophies that bear upon the incident they're trying to resolve, the civility of the opening discussion gradually descends into a series of insults, recriminations, and eventually even a little light violence, all the while revealing that seemingly decent people, regardless of their good intentions and social conditioning, can become, in one way or another, devotees of The God of Carnage.
As the meeting unfolds, Annette gets woozy and pukes her guts out all over her hosts' carpet and one of Veronica's prized possessions. Ric Reid's vigorous work with a dustbuster and a hairdryer cashes in on the comic currency of the vomit gag terrifically. Fiona Reid's obsessing over her vomit-saturated book seriously silly stuff.
The whole 90-minute play takes place on one set, but director James MacDonald has given the cast plenty room to milk Reza's dark wit and aggressive slapstick. Ric Reid and Poole's comic timing is totally pro, Fiona Reid's move toward derangement shows some accomplished comedic chops.
Fiona Reid is the idealist of the bunch, but once her threshold for patience and liberal tolerance is reached as Alan and Annette become less and less interested in conceding their son's faults, Reid becomes the God of Carnage's most passionate maenad, ready to dismember her husband as readily as her detestable adversaries in this demoralizing morality play.
Reza is utterly unsentimental about how couples can behave. Partners under stress can become incompatible strangers. (The divorce rate isn't as high as it is for nothing.) A common cause, like defending your own child against another tribe's impositions, has a tenuous hold when issues move from the domestic to the strictly personal. Throughout the play the characters find their allies on the other side of the conflict, which precipitates the slide toward chaos.
Reza's play has a dramatic arc that builds both the comic and the catastrophic dimensions of the action masterfully, and she's a mordantly funny writer, too. The climactic explosions of personal contempt (not to mention some propulsive gastro emissions thrown up) will shock some viewers, and Hampton's translation of the coarse language every character resorts to as debate deteriorates into derision and disgust is perfectly idiomatic. Great swearing can be at least as funny as an excellent display of hurling when done right.
The Citadel has mounted a wonderful play that should make you laugh till it hurts, and go away exhilarated and probably depressed by Reza's indictment of people's incapacity to mend fences that separate their common ground.
Bill Rankin

Monday, 20 February 2012

Citadel's Red a laugh a minute (not)

 John Logan's Tony-award-winning Red, playing at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre until March 4, mines American abstract painter Mark Rothko's austere aesthetics, which the wretched Russian emigre explained to art critic Harold Rosenberg. “I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self.” (Read the whole play before or after you see it —

Most theatregoers won't be drawn to a play that feels more like a philosophy lecture than a human drama, and Logan has crafted a play that swirls about in the heady world of hard ideas, but is, at its core, the story of a despairing man who felt misunderstood, and whose ambition seemed to be to find even one person who could appreciate his artistic aim. Rothko was a grim idealist. Logan deliberately doesn't mention that Rothko had a second wife and a daughter in 1958, when he got the Four Seasons commission, the fulcrum for the play. Trivial matters like domestic relations couldn't have a place in Logan's project.

Logan shows us a Rothko who was conflicted in the desire to be properly recognized without being appropriated by the art buying public who saw art as over-the-mantel decoration and commercial investment. Rothko was known to greet fellow artists sarcastically with the question, "How's business?" (When Rothko killed himself 42 years ago this coming Saturday, he left behind 800 unsold paintings. In 2007, a Rothko sold for $73 million.)

A highlight of Logan's script is a fine Rothko diatribe on human superficiality of the sort that allows most of us to evade the demons that call some to oblivion before their time. Logan's Rothko is an Old Testament judge, indicting the masses for their despicable mediocrity and philistinism. He rails against inauthenticity. He ultimately condemns the very audience that comes to hear him speak in the theatre. Everything is absolutely not fine, thank you very much.

So why would you want to spend 90 minutes listening to a fuming alcoholic, devoid of empathy, self-absorbed and generally personally offensive?
Thank the writer and his conduit, actor Jim Mezon (Rothko) and newcomer David Coomber (Rothko's much put-upon gofer Ken). Logan's script rises above philosophical monologue because he reveals the humanity of the flawed Mark Rothko in the artist's element, a studio setting (David Boechler) where opera arias comfort the tortured painter and real art gets done. The scene in which Rothko and Ken frenetically lay a maroon primer onto a large canvas with house painting brushes reminds the audience that the ideas get their life from physical work. Rothko's ethereal vision of colour as a route to an ineffable metaphysics is the product of Johnny Walker Red and paint, real things that were never good enough for him, but helped make him who he was.
Logan kind of redeems Rothko in the end, but it's no happy ending.
Red is a terrific exploration in the world of ideas and art, but it is grounded in totally understandable human agony. The question of whether a child could paint a Rothko is beside the point. Rothko's originality is in his work, but the work is an imperfect reflection of the striving man, the foundation of good drama.

One audience member was determined to make her afternoon a pleasure. Certainly Logan's play has a dose of acerbic Rothko wit, but Red is no comedy. In fact, Rothko's relentless message is that all true humans must acknowledge the tragedy relived interminably. Red is no barrel of laughs, and that's just fine.