Views and Reviews
by Alidë Kohlhaas
Times change, but life experiences don’t as the play La Ronde (Reigen) clearly shows. The Soulpepper Theatre Company’s fine production of Austrian writer Arthur Schnitzler’s controversial play reveals that today life is an echo of his observations even if they were made 104 years ago in a different society. This, of course, marks him a good playwright.
This roundelay–not in the musical sense, but in one of dialogue–is a cycle of 10 two-person scenes that are connected by one character in each scene moving on into the next to form a circle. It is also held together by a theme of mostly illicit sex. These scenes are further bound together by a Musician, the saxophonist/composer Colleen Allen, whose jazz composition places the action in the 20th century, but leaves the time frame open.
The Soulpepper play is an adaptation by Canadian playwright Jason Sherman, based on a translation from the German by Michael Darroch. Sherman wisely created a Canadian setting. Hence a Politician, who in the original is a duke, is now a senator, and a Soldier becomes the Athlete since we Canadians generally don’t see soldiers on our streets. German director Herbert Olschok gave vivid shape to this new La Ronde, assisted by fellow countryman, costume designer Joachim Herzog, and by Canadian set designer Astrid Janson.
The 10 actors, who form the inter-linking chain, capture the mood and tone of the play with great perception. The characters they portray are generally unlikable, yet one can accept them because the actors respond in a way that brings out the humour as well as the tragic, even brutal moments in La Ronde. Olschok opted to let the erotic rather than the explicitly sexual to rule the scenes, for which we thank him. What transpires is mostly, but not always, left to imagination. But it is not a play for the squeamish. Now and then the language drops not just into the gutter but into the sewer. There is no getting away from the sexual acts that are stylistically enacted although Olschok has mercifully banned nudity from the stage.
It seems almost unfair to single out actors in this review, for all of them shone in one way or another. Yet, some performances have stayed in the mind more than others. Holly Lewis as the Hooker plays a streetwalker with chilling reality. She is the start and the end of the chained circle. The scene between Wife and Husband (Martha Burns and Tony Nardi) is both hilarious and sad. Both actors infuse their roles with remarkable sensitivity toward the kind of individuals they are portraying. Olschok’s attention to detail here creates a play, not just a scene, between these two characters. Nancy Palk as the Actress shows herself to be a master at the difficult art of believably acting an actress who is acting. And then, in the final scene, David Gilmour as the senator, the Actress’s pathetic suitor, moves on from her to become a pitiably sentimental lush, who nevertheless does not hesitate to deprive the Hooker of her reward.
La Ronde plays at the Premiere Dance Theatre until August 25.
At the Stratford Festival a visit to two more excellent shows and one less so continued a fine summer of play-going. The favourably viewed productions were Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and Tempest-Tost (based on a novel by Robertson Davies). King Henry V, one of Shakespeare’s complex histories, failed to impress in its current staging.
Cast members from Henry IV (reviewed last month) repeat their roles in Henry V, but the different views of the directors of the two plays break the visual and philosophic continuity. Graham Abbey makes a believable transition from Prince Hal (Prince of Wales) in Henry IV to that of King Henry V. The other cast members also move well from one play to the next. There are no complaints about the performances, it is director Jeannette Lambermont’s vision of Henry V that is wanting.
Lambermont and designer Dany Lyne also mix periods as has been done in Henry IV, but ineffectively. Worse, the director finds it necessary to allude to modern trench warfare. She introduces gun powder and search lights at the battle of Agincourt, which the British actually won against overwhelming odds because Henry V’s army employed archers, then seldom used by the French. Then she has the now dead Falstaff’s Boy (Paul Dunn) run around with a camcorder. Its images are projected intermittently onto a back screen. One does not mind the projection, but the overall effect is highly irritating, chaotic and distracting. The implication here is that the audience cannot connect the past to modern events without the director’s guidance, which can be taken as an insult.
One thanks director Richard Monette for refraining from modernizing The Merchant of Venice. This current production is clean, aimed, and powerful. Shakespeare spared no one in this play, neither gentile nor Jew, nor the various nationalities of the suitors for Portia’s (Lucy Peacock) hand.
Paul Soles gives an outstanding performance as Shylock. He never exaggerates, and so is totally believable both as the villain and the victim in this piece. One can only say "Bravo."
Writer/director Richard Rose’s adaptation of Tempest-Tost is, like the novel, irreverent, hilarious, and absolutely true to life. Davies was a master at capturing our pretensions, and Rose fully capitalized on this with the help of a fine cast. This play is a wonderful antidote to the more serious side of the Stratford Festival. Those who love fun, love to laugh, and don’t mind recognizing perhaps themselves in this romp must not miss it.
Tempest-Tost runs to September 30, The Merchant of Venice to
November 30, and Henry V to November 4, 2001.
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