Saturday, July 21, 2007

Romeo & Juliet review

Molly Lyons as Nurse & Perry Mucci as Romeo

Rain no obstacle to Star-Crossed Lovers

Brockville Recorder & Times
Staff Writer

PRESCOTT -- The Fort Town's first taste of Shakespearean tragedy is hardly bitter.The St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival's Romeo and Juliet, which opened last night despite the vagaries of nature, is first of all a perfect opposite to A Midsummer Night's Dream in the festival's "Summer of Love" theme.
But it is also a perfect play to ease a local crowd accustomed to comedies, since the start of the five-year-old festival, into the darker side of Shakespeare's work.It is perhaps easy to forget how lightly this tragic tale of star-crossed lovers begins. The dialogue in the early acts is full of quick-firing puns, ribaldry and bawdy humour, lines, such as Sampson's famous "maiden-heads" pun, that one would expect to hear from some of the characters in Midsummer. Where the play turns tragic, where these lovers' story crosses a line beyond which there is no possibility of a happy ending, is in Act 3, Scene 1, when the rivalry between the Capulets and Montagues begins to claim lives. By then, the audience is already drawn in by the strength of the characters and is ready for a descent into darkness that is stunningly choreographed.
Director Craig Walker, who also doubles as this play's conscience in the character of Prince Escalus, had to make some difficult decisions to bring this production down to its practical limit of just over two hours. Gone is some of the dialogue in key moments, and audience members will have to seek reassurance in the original text that the likable Friar Lawrence (compellingly played by Tyler Murree), is forgiven for his well-intentioned but ill-fated scheme. But in return for such textual sacrifices is a tragedy that, by paring away some of the text, provides an emotional crescendo driven by raw emotion.In particular, leads Perry Mucci and Emma Hunter perform the challenging death scene almost like a dark dance, conveying the tragedy through movement rather than words. The resulting shift between the warring families from rivalry to reconciliation, upon the discovery of the young lovers' bodies, is also conveyed wordlessly, with Shakespeare's text serving more to confirm the transformation rather than effect it. This is achieved through the pacing given to the play by Walker's edits, and the effect left the small but determined opening night audience transfixed.
While there are no weak links in this mostly seasoned cast, Mucci in particular stands out because he shows himself worthy of the challenging role of Romeo after the succession of comic characters he has played in the local festival. (Indeed, on the nights he isn't playing Romeo, Mucci will be speaking in a deliberately ridiculous falsetto as Francis Flute in Midsummer.) Romeo is above all driven by an immature emotional extremism that ultimately claims his life, and Mucci, cited by Walker for his "boyish" looks, plays this with the right pitch. Similarly, Hunter captures the fluttering innocence of the 13-year-old Juliet, complete with prattling silliness, in the earlier acts, then grows up very quickly, as she is required to do, in the latter part of the play.
The entire cast, crew and indeed the audience members deserve citations of valour for what has got to be the five-year-old festival's most difficult opening night. As thunder began sounding in the distance, Murree used it to his advantage by incorporating it, at least gesturally, into Friar Lawrence's early dialogue. By the end of the intermission, artistic director Ian Farthing (Mercutio) remained optimistic, telling the audience the brunt of the storm missed Prescott and the play would continue in the Kinsmen Amphitheatre. It wasn't much later, however, when the rain began in earnest and everyone was moved uphill to the nearby tent, to see the play's denouement coincide with an invasion of mosquitoes. It is perhaps a testament to this production's power, however, that during the final scenes the slapping and shooing seemed to diminish for a moment. The mosquitoes were the result of the delay caused by the move to the tent. Festival regulars will know that by now, these Shakespeareans have learned how to time their productions to end right before the after-dark infestation begins. That is, when the weather co-operates just a little.
Despite what the weather has in store for the next few weeks, Romeo and Juliet is a production that deserves a much bigger crowd.
Published in Section A, page 4 in the Thursday, July 19, 2007 edition of the Brockville Recorder & Times.Posted 4:31:49 PM Thursday, July 19, 2007.
Molly Lyons as Nurse & Emma Hunter as

A Midsummer Night's Dream review

Molly Lyons as Titania & Craig Walker as Bottom

St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival off to first-rate start

Brockville Recorder & Times
By RONALD ZAJAC, Staff Writer
PRESCOTT -- Of all the Bard's plays staged at the Kinsmen Amphitheatre so far, this one is arguably the most apt.
A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opened the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival's fifth season on Saturday, is a romp through Shakespeare's "Green World."
It's a play that deserves to be performed outdoors, making the waterfront amphitheatre an ideal setting for it. (Friday's preview performance was indeed staged outdoors, although Saturday night's opener, given the weather, was held inside the festival's nearby tent. On the upside, the tent was full.)
The "Green World," a term coined by the late critic Northrop Frye, is the wilderness to which many of Shakespeare's comic heroes escape.
Under the trees, potentially tragic lovers like Lysander and Hermia are governed not by strict Athenian law, but by whimsical, magical beings who lure them astray with their tricks, yet have conscience enough to make everything right by sunrise.
The Prescott production not only captures the sheer joy of Shakespeare's best-known comedy, but uses the "Green World" magic of the amphitheatre to full advantage. Characters sweep down on the audience from above, while music from an unseen performer wafts over the trees during the woodland spirits' games.
This is, truly, an enchanting way to spend a midsummer's night.
It's also a worthy rendition of the quintessential Shakespearean comedy.
Director Steve Scott has remained faithful to the text and the performers, many of them festival regulars by now, do it justice.
In particular, leads Ross Neill and Molly Lyons bring the right mixture of severity and comedy to the roles of the fairy king and queen Oberon and Titania, while Michael MacDonald, whose talent for physical comedy is by now well known, is an excellent choice for the mischievous Puck.
Meanwhile, the four benighted lovers (Amanda Levencrown as Hermia, Dorian Foley as Lysander, Lisa Benner as Helena and Dan De Jaeger as Demetrius), whose confused trip through the Green World is the core of the play, are also well cast.
In particular, Benner, the delicate Hero in last year's Much Adoe About Nothing, and Levencrown, who gives a somewhat coarser edge to Hermia, make for interesting echoes of the play's two other female archetypes: the fairy queen and the amazon.
And while the St. Lawrence troupe does it for budgetary reasons, casting the same two actors for the Theseus-Hippolyta and Oberon-Titania pairings conveys the message, first delivered with a similar twin-pairing in Peter Brook's famous 1970 staging, that the worlds of the mortals and fairies mirror each other.
But for comedy of the side-splitting variety, enter the "rude mechanicals," the Elizabethan term for lower-class labourers, whose hilarious play-within-a-play, and the attempt to rehearse it, provide the real from-the-gut laughter.
All six of these characters provide the play's comedic climax with their mis-staged tragedy that serves as a satire on the potentially tragic love that has just been healed in the "Green World."
In particular, Craig Walker, as Bottom, takes on the challenge of being unwittingly elevated to main character status when Puck gives him an ass's head, while Oberon magically contrives to have Titania fall in love with him.
And here we find this play's main flaw, likely the bane of every Midsummer Night's Dream director: what to do about that ass's head.
It's a tricky dilemma. Having a character run around with a donkey's head without knowing it is the stuff of pure physical comedy, yet at the same time, the audience needs to see that confusion in the actor's face. The result, as in this case, is often a head with ass's ears, but little else to suggest a donkey Walker compensates for this forgivable problem with all the facial expressiveness Bottom demands, and throws in his own deliberately asinine laugh to boot.
This Midsummer Night's Dream comes with arguably more double-entendre than other renditions, most of it delivered through physical comedy, and there are brief moments when the physical comedy distracts the viewer from the text.
But then, one could argue this is how the Bard intended it, as Puck looks on and observes: "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"
The Shakespeare festival's "Summer of Love" continues Wednesday with the opening of Romeo and Juliet on Wednesday.
· Published in Section A, page 3 in the Monday, July 16, 2007 edition of the Brockville Recorder & Times.

Ross Neill as Oberon & Molly Lyons as Titania

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Duke & the Bard

Here are some audience reviews of a recent performance in Ottawa. In short, it was the 50th anniversary of Duke Ellington's suite to Shakespeare, called Such Sweet Thunder. Ross Neill, Ian Farthing and myself, all from the St Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, were asked, along with another Shakespeare company, to perform with the Impressions in Jazz ensemble.

I learned a great deal during this process, which was a bit hectic to say the least, the most important one being: my passion & joy for simply saying the words is enough to lift me. Playing a bunch of the strong, sometimes bad women, all in one night, was a thrilling experience: Lady Mac, Tamara, Kate, Titania, a witch, a brief revisit with Cleopatra, etc.

Also, I learned when I trust my scene partners, the wave of creativity really takes me on a fun surf. I was so thankful that Ian and Ross were performing with me because I know their work and can trust them. For instance, I saw them both make a really cool blocking choice when we were each taking chorus for a scene from Romeo & Juliet, so I followed suit and imitated them. I believe it made the choral bits work better and lent very tight focus to the 2 actors playing R & J.

It was as if we were influenced by the jazz and were able to jam in realy cool ways.

The music was positively inspiring and the orchestra ROCKED.

Once again, it is always rewarding to be onstage but, I must say, last minute frantic-ness aside, this was particularly FUN.

Molly Lyons as Kate from Taming of the Shrew with Ian Farthing as Lucentio, Ross
Neill as Petruchio and Emmanuelle Zeesman as Bianca with Impressions in Jazz
Conductor, Adrian Cho, looking on.

- The Duke & The Bard audience quotes:

“Your orchestra is superb - I heard the music truly come to life thanks to their passionate and skilful playing.”
Ian Farthing, Artistic Director, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival

“We were both extremely impressed by the show. The venue, the atmosphere, and all the little extras only complemented the quality of the performances. The pairing of music and acting made for a complete package and a very unique experience.”
Sandra Stockley

“This was a brilliant show. We enjoy baroque music and jazz - it was amazing to have them brought together like that. I've been a bardophile for years, so it was a real treat to hear music express characters. We usually feel that modern settings and costumes don't work for Will S's plays, but the jazz sure did. What a great group of musicians - we'll be keeping track of their gigs.”
Judy Benner

“A brief note to congratulate you and your musicians for your wonderful performance last night. I thought it was beautifully put together and executed.”
Jacques Émond, Programming Director, Ottawa International Jazz Festival

“Congratulations on a fabulous show last night! All ensembles were awesome and it was apparent that everyone was having a great time, enjoying both the readings and music.”
Sonia Dimitrov

“Sweet show! The music was so tight. I loved it as did the gang that accompanied me.”
Mary Catherine Jack

“Just a note of thanks to you and to all of the IJO team for the wonderful evening Tuesday. This was my first chance to hear the orchestra and I was bowled over by the precision and vibrance of the playing - fantastic achievement. The whole conception of the evening was a revelation to me. This is the kind of cross-cultural synergy that is so needed but so seldom encountered. Looking around me, I couldn't find a single face that was anything less than animated throughout the evening.”
Bob Reid

“The concert was spectacular and the audience was very appreciative. What you are doing is like a breath of fresh air in Ottawa; we are blessed with some great musicians and you have given them a high class focus for their talents.”
Keith Richardson

“Congratulations on Tuesday's performance! Everyone at my table was ecstatic; none had heard the IJO before and all said they'd be at future concerts.”
Ron Sweetman, jazz writer and radio producer

Other photos available at