Stratford Festival’s “Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Redemption”

When the news came out that Graham Abbey had been working on an adaptation of four of Shakespeare’s history plays, and that they were going to modify the Tom Patterson Theatre especially for the production, I was thrilled. There’s nothing more exciting than getting to see a brand new piece and in a totally different way than it would normally be staged. Breath of Kings exceeded my expectations and gave me a totally different view of Shakespeare’s histories; it made me want to see the full versions immediately!

Breath of Kings: Rebellion tells the story of Henry Bolingbroke and his rise to power over King Richard II, using the plays Richard II for its first act and Henry V Part 1 for its second act. A political thriller for the first act turns into a bloody battle for supremacy by the second, making for an amazing buildup to the final battle. Breath of Kings: Redemption focuses more on young Henry, or Prince Hal, and his rise to power through Henry V Part II and Henry V. Once again culminating in an epic battle, this piece was fascinating and fast paced as young Hal goes from miscreant to King overnight.

The most immediate thing that struck me was the stage. Not only was it redesigned to be theatre in the round (which I LOVE) but for Rebellion there was a thick layer of mulch covering the stage. This mulch would be pushed, dragged, and raked all over the stage. I loved how when the play needed to take place indoors the mulch was pushed aside with the boxes to create a hallway-like path. But for me the best part was after the battle scene, the mulch had been spread back out over the stage, so there was this amazing map of the battle left on the floor after the actors had left, I can only imagine how incredible it must have looked from above. For Redemption, the stage was the bare white that you could see underneath the mulch, but as the battle of Agincourt was waged, the floor came up in these massive, jagged pieces which left the earth turned up and ragged by the end of the play; a torn world which Hal will be responsible to put back together. Paired with amazing costuming and lighting, the play was a visual spectacular and every detail and movement carried such weight and purpose.

The cast was massive, with a whole host of Stratford’s best populating the stage. Helmed by Graham Abbey (Henry IV), Tom Rooney (Richard II), and Araya Mengesha (Henry V) the level of passion in these performances breathes such life into these pieces and makes them the memorable experience that they are. Richard II was such a fascinating character, the way we watch him succumb to Bolingbroke and his men, then seeing Bolingbroke, who used to wield amazing power, get so ill was heartbreaking. The whole time you’re watching their enemies try to rise against them, while others rally to their side. I had previously seen Henry V in full, and so knew of the death of Falstaff, but what I hadn’t realized was that he died of a broken heart; it broke my heart to see Hal cast off his old friends, miscreants though they may be, in favour of being the “king” he thinks he has to be. He rejects their company almost immediately instead of helping them as he’s now able to do. This deeply saddened me, and actually made me watch the second act of Redemption with a totally different gaze than I had when I saw Henry V. I was also thrilled that the Chorus in Henry V was kept, the Chorus has some of the most beautiful poetry in Shakespeare’s cannon, and the play would have felt incomplete without it.

One of the elements that was particularly interesting was how many men were portrayed by women. It brought the dynamic to a totally different level to both pieces, and seeing these women in power roles was inspiring. It confirmed the level of innovation and expertise that was poured into this show and made it an experience I’ll never forget.

I was absolutely blown away by this production. I cannot begin to recommend it enough. The plays close September 24th, so catch it before it closes!!

Stratford Festival’s “John Gabriel Borkman”

I had been greatly anticipating this show since it’s announcement. I was excited to see a new Ibsen play which I new nothing about and which starred so many of my favourite actors at the festival.  John Gabriel Borkman surpassed any and all expectations I had for the show, presenting an intriguing story beautifully told by its actors and designers.

John Gabriel Borkman is one of those shows which you carry with you once you leave, which is something that I love about theatre. You leave feeling like you’ve been affected by this piece.  It’s rather incredible really, because it is an odd premise, but it’s presented in such a way that I left the theatre mulling it over in my mind for hours.

The story itself is interesting, about a Bank Manager who looses everything and we watch how it affects his family dynamic long after the event has actually occurred. The tension between family members is palpable, and it makes for a riveting story as detail after detail is revealed about their past an how that has come to affect their present. The events of the play were eerily similar to modern cases such as that of Bernie Madoff, making the play far more relatable to our modern audiences than Ibsen could have ever anticipated. At the same time it always is a little unsettling when you see a play written 120 years ago and can find the same behaviour in the world around you; an amazing situation of how life can imitate art.

The stage and set where so whitewashed, and then when the characters enter in their jet black costumes, they seem so foreign in their environment. For me, their dark ensembles truly embodied the pain and suffering that they were enduring. From the black lace of a widow, to draping black velvet, their costumes outwardly displayed their inner torment in such a beautifully visual manner. Especially when juxtaposed against the crisp white of Frida’s dress or the light purple of Mrs. Wilton’s ensemble, all of which plays against the white stage and the snow that tumbles from the sky at the play’s end; it’s a visually stunning show which left me breathless.

Another breathless moment occurred right at the beginning of the play, as twin sisters Mrs. Borkman (Lucy Peacock) and Miss Rentheim (Seana McKenna) first see each other after years of not speaking. When Seana enters the stage, there is this amazing moment where they just stare at one another, taking each other in after so many years apart, and it’s like the theatre collectively held their breath until one of them spoke. Seana and Lucy are such incredible foils for one another in whatever show they are in, but this one was particularly impressive. The way that they are able to play off of one another and the struggle between the two which only gets deeper the more we discover about their pasts made the piece riveting. You become so invested in their lives and why they don’t get along any more and it truly makes you feel deeply for them, especially once you realize that they’ve both been hurt by the same man: John Gabriel Borkman. While I don’t want to give away the juiciest of details, it’s amazing to see how one man in his quest for greatness is able to destroy everything and everyone around him. Scott Wentworth did a phenomenal job portraying the tortured Borkman, whose dream of wealth and glory still haunts him after so many years of his scandal haunting his own family. While you want to hate him for what he’s put his family through, there’s something sympathetic in his desire for something greater than himself and wanting to be able to pick back up once he’s been knocked down. The three leads were perfectly cast, and to watch them all play so well off of one another was truly a pleasure; it’s like watching an All Star game, where the best of the best get to play together and the audience watches in awe of them.

Something that really strikes me is how the play bears the name of John Gabriel Borkman, and while the story is about how his decisions have affected all of the people around him, it’s truly the women who drive the play. It’s Mrs. Borkman’s need for her son to make something of the Borkman name again which drives young Erhart away, but it’s also Miss Rentheim’s total denial of Borkman’s dreams has more power than I think even she realized she could wield over him. Erhart (Antoine Yared) thinks that running off with Mrs. Wilton (Sarah Afful) and Frida (Grace Eddleston) will give him a new life, yet he’s still under the influence of a woman and her desires. In the end, it’s the reconciliation of the sisters which provides a true sense of satisfaction and closure to the piece. It was truly a marvel, one which I will not soon forget.

There’s only one week left of performances of this stunning show! It closes Sept. 23rd, so don’t miss out on your chance to take in this amazing work.

University Player’s “To Moscow”

To Moscow was certainly a play for people who love theatre, this reviewer included, and I had an amazing time watching the lives of two of the most revolutionary theatre practitioners unfold in front of me. If you haven’t seen it yet, you need to get out and see it ASAP!

Liza Balkan made an amazing decision to have the cast get ready for the show out on stage. For a play that looks at actors and acting, to have the cast talk to the audience, get ready and basically let us in on what would be going on backstage onstage was fascinating, educational and just perfect in my opinion. The seamless transition from “backstage” to the world of the play was fantastic, and it really gave an organic feel to the rest of the play.

The plot of the play itself is rather incredible considering how famous and how much work Stanislavski and Chekhov did in such a short period of time. These two men essentially created our modern notion of theatre, without them we would be still using the declamatory style of melodrama rather than Stanislavski’s more natural theatre. To watch how these two theatre giants met, developed careers, how their personal lives intertwined and developed, it made for a wonderful piece of theatre.

The actors portrayed their characters wonderfully. I was so impressed. Mauro Meo and Andrew Iles who played Stanislavski and Chekhov respectively were the centerpiece of a phenomenal cast. Gwendolyn Tofano’s performance as Masha Chekhov was powerful, and Rebecca Young as the actress Olga Knipper was enchanting. Breanna Maloney and Tamlynn Bryson embodied their characters so well, and Maloney especially made us have such empathy for her character and her situation. Robin Ross and David Hudyma rounded out this small but definitely mighty cast.

The costumes and set were amazing. It was a lot of fun getting to watch the actors get dressed. There are so many layers and the costumes are so intricate, that it makes you appreciate them even more. There was such beauty in the simplicity of the set, and the multimedia aspect of the play was awesome. To get to think about all of the amazing quotes from both the writings and plays of these two men were amazing, and set the tone for the scene very well.

When I see a play like this, which talks about the real lives of these amazing theatre artists, I wonder what they’d think of it. Would they like how we remember them? Did the events and conversations really go this way, or are we missing some unknown element to the story? To me, plays like this one are so important because they preserve in some way the amazing lives of men whose story cannot be forgotten.

Honestly, this is an amazing play. There are only two performances left, tonight at 8 and tomorrow at 2. Get there if you can! It’s definitely worth the trip and has nice romantic tones for Valentine’s Day weekend!

University Player’s “The Crucible”

I remember reading this play in Grade 11 English class and not really being a huge fan of the play; however after seeing this production I must admit my mind was changed. I thought that this production was exceptionally well cast, and most certainly well performed. It changed my perspective on the play for sure!

The play itself is a difficult read but a wonder to behold. The events of the play are so frustrating and infuriating, and yet that’s Miller’s point. His audience was in the midst of the same sort of “witch hunting” during President McCarthy’s reign and with that social injustice in mind he is able to show his audience, as well as all audiences since, the ridiculous injustice of such unfounded prying into people’s lives. I’m not sure if it moved the people then, but it certainly moved me. To watch these people being charged, and hanged, all because of the supposedly good word of a few young women was practically unbearable. It’s amazing what ignorance and fear can do to people. And yet we see it all over the world today, people who are willing to do anything in the name of the cause they believe in purely because they think it’s correct. The people of Salem believed they were in danger of witches and witchcraft; they weren’t the first town to think so and they certainly won’t be the last.

The prologue of the play, which was added in by director Gordon McCall, was fabulously done. I loved singing the hymns before the play begins; it put the audience into the proper mindset of the play. Plus it provided a huge contrast to the rest of the prologue. The part with Tituba and the girls in the woods is written in the script, and needs to be acted out for the play to truly make sense. The only issue I had was that the music got very modern the more the prologue went on; at first it was very tribal and drum based (which I really liked because the voodoo magic itself is very tribal in nature) but then it turned into a very pulsating beat like at a dance club. While it created an even more stark contrast than it already possessed, it was a choice I don’t think I would have made (although it really was the only one!)

The way the show looked was incredible as well. I loved how the set worked with negative space and therefore was able to be everywhere the play needed it to be. At the same time the empty beams also resembled the gallows that so many of the characters were destined for. The costumes were lovely. I was so happy that they were of the period; it made the play so much more real to me. I’m always impressed at how amazing and professional these productions are. You can tell how dedicated everyone is to their craft, and the professors that lead these talented students are certainly no exception.

This play was expertly cast. The cast itself was huge, and had students who were as young as first or second year mixed in with the fourth year students. An ensemble cast of that size is not often seen in a University Players production, so this was a real treat. With such a large ensemble it seems almost unfair to select a few to praise, especially since everyone impressed me so much. All I can say, is that there were some of them I wanted to punch, some of them I could have strangled myself, some of them I wanted to hug, and if the play had have gone on much longer, I don’t think I could have made it. I was almost crying by the end of it as it was!

So the University Players have definitely changed my opinion about The Crucible, and I am thankful for it. I felt like I really went through a very difficult experience with these characters. There’s something about seeing this raw human nature on stage that makes for an unforgettable ordeal. Plays like this are why I am so passionate about theatre.

University Player’s “Blood Relations”

The University Player’s production of Blood Relations is a perfect play for this time of year. It’s spooky, thrilling and a perfect Hallowe’en treat! I saw the show with a friend of mine on October 30th, and we both had nightmares that night about people with axes! While it’s not gory at all, it’s like an Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s not scary at the time, just later, when the lights are off and you’re all alone.

The first thing I noticed when I entered the theatre was the set. I loved all of the articles about the real Lizzie Borden that created the centerpiece of the set. It was amazing, and really made it hit home that this story was based on real events. And it helped to show the difference between the parlour and the dining room. But I loved the staircase and the couch, everything was so beautiful, and the fact that everything was black made the paper stand out all the more. The same can be said for the costumes. First of all, they were stunning. However what was interesting was the characters who wore white. It was only the real Lizzie Borden and her sister Emma who wore any hint of white, along with their Uncle, other than that everyone else was in black. I found it fascinating! Agatha Knelsen and David Court are a dream team, and the University is definitely lucky to have them!

The story itself was fascinating, with a fabulous frame narrative that makes the ending totally mind blowing (I won’t spoil, I promise). However the story would not have been nearly as entertaining if it hadn’t been acted so well. Vanessa Lancione and Breanna Maloney were particularly impressive. These two women shared the role of Lizzie Borden, and yet neither of them was off the stage for very long if at all. The amount of text and characters that they had to know for this play was amazing; their physicality was awesome, and they were truly wonderful. However this was definitely a big ensemble piece and the rest of the cast should not go without mention. Andrew Iles, Tamlynn Bryson, Duncan Rowe, Hayley Joy and Joseph Zita were all marvellous, some of them also having to inhabit multiple characters. But truly, the whole cast so expertly brought these people to life, making us try to understand the mind of the killer, and simultaneously make us feel bad for the poor woman who was driven to such desperate action.

One thing that I found particularly interesting that I wanted to analyze a little more deeply was the space itself. It’s very interesting to be in a very small theatre like the Studio for this show. The space makes a great difference in how we as the audience feel depending on the type of play. If the play is a comedy, then the audience very much so feels a part of the play, as the actors are apt to move through the audience and it feels like a very inclusive event, which is the overall goal of comedy. However, with tragedy or with a tense drama like Blood Relations, the small space has a very different effect. For me, I felt like I was trapped, especially during the second act when you know what Lizzie is going to do. With the space so small, you realize that the action of the play is merely feet away from you, which is fun…except for when someone is murdering someone else. Suddenly you realize there’s nowhere else to go, you must stay there and watch what happens, and there is not an easy way to distance yourself by saying “oh, but that’s up there, on stage, not here” when ‘here’ is only a few feet away from ‘there’.  Therefore I felt that this space worked so well for this play, and it certainly had the desired effect on me and my friend. I’ll never look at an axe the same way again!

There is still this weekend and one more weekend to catch this terrifying thriller! You can call the Box Office at 519-253-3000 x. 2808 or you can order tickets online at http://www.uwindsor.ca/universityplayers/61/box-office