Monday, March 29, 2010

The Art of War - Time Stands Still and Oh What A Lovely War - Theatre Reviews

Time Stands Still - Friedman Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Donald Margulies, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Closed Mar. 27th 2010

Oh What A Lovely War - Soulpepper at Baillie Theatre in The Young Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Joan Littleton, Theatre Workshop and Charles Chilton, Directed by Albert Schultz, Choreography by Candace Jennings
Closes Apr. 10th 2010

Yes, we know War is harsh and brutal. But how does it REALLY affect people?

I saw Oh What A Lovely War 12 years ago when London's National Theatre presented a superb and thrilling revival at the Roundhouse Theatre. It's an absurb musical about WWI and when done right, can be wild yet haunting. An absurd musical that accounted for those in the trenches of the First World War and all of wars absurdities. Soulpepper is currently presenting the show with a great young cast and some clever staging but ultimately misses the silly absurdist viewpoint Joan Littleton and the Theatre Workshop intended the show to be.

Donald Margulies' latest new play follows a war photographer (Laura Linney) returning to her Brooklyn home after a landmine nearly kills her. Her job, her relationship, and her entire being comes into examination when her writer boyfriend (Brian d'Arcy James), her editor (Eric Begosian) and her editor's new naive girlfriend (Alicia Silverstone) tries to welcome her back to a more regular daily existence. It's a sobering look at the shock of returning to regular society, and one's place in the affects of war.

Time Stands Still is a fascinating play where nothing much seems to happen, but a few reveals are made and there are lots of discussions about war, politics, love, and ones human existence and it just gets more interesting as the show goes along as the characters make realizations in their own lives.

Of course, it always helps when Laura Linney, Eric Begosian and Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek) are speaking those discussions and particularly Linney, in the central role, easily commands the stage without resorting to overdramatic flair. Linney's rapport with James as partners, in both work and life, is easily accepting, even as troubles begin to shatter their comfortable partnership when they actually find themselves dealing with each other without a war as a backdrop.

Begosian, who can at times come off as abrasive in film and on television, is simply charming and believable as the understanding editor who is now in love with his much younger lover.

The younger lover is played by Alicia Silverstone in her Broadway debut and while she is easily the weakest of the actors and the one not belonging to the others, her part is exactly that, the unworldly pretty girl amongst a group of worldly intellectuals, so it seemed to work for the play and I wasn't that distracted by Silverstone's performance. Silverstone does a comparable job and she has an innate likability that endears her loving character that interludes Linney's shock filled return. In fact, the opposing styles with Linney only heightens the differences in their characters, making it all the more amusing and affective.

In fact, it's probably Silverstone's character that challenges Linney's photographer to self-examination as the idea of ones level of participation in war, in any capacity, reveals ones true self. It's only too bad the play was set for a limited run and has since closed (I saw it during its final week) but with the need for only 4 actors and one set (beautifully done on Broadway by John Lee Beatty), hopefully it will be performed on many regional stages.

Oh What A Lovely War at Soulpepper is a lovely and proper account of the history of WWI, but the musical really should be wild and absurd, reflecting the absurdity of war itself (just look at the name of the show itself), and the bigger the laughs, the lower the emotional fallout would be when the real tragedies occur. Instead we get facts slowly recounted through projections and our MC (a mumbly and dry Michael Hanrahan) but it's all too staid and historically stodgy and thus there's less an emotional impact than the piece should have.

The musical itself is a terrific show about WWI played as a performance piece (the London version I saw heightened the circus element the MC as the ringmaster) with the actors in clown suits and rotating roles in vignettes about the war. While I'd like to think I'm not trying to compare productions, the National Theatre's production simply blew me away with its stunning use of circus acts, superb choreography, a ring circus set, smart projections and some haunting performances.

The young Soulpepper cast (mostly from Soulpepper's Academy) are a talented bunch, and they do what they can to liven up the vaudeville show within the show, but while the actors are lovely singers, they are actors first, singers second and their voices can't carry through the (small) theatre and the poor sound mix fails the actors who are overtaken by the musical instruments (which the talented actors themselves play, much like John Doyle's Sweeney Todd and Company, but to less imaginative effect). I was sitting near the middle of the theatre and the people around me and myself all had trouble hearing a lot of the words, which wasn't helped by the fact that there WAS a mic used for certain instances. (In this instance, I blame poor sound design over the performers).

Oliver Dennis does a terrific job as one the more senior officers, particularly as the truly incoherent English officer training a new batch of soldiers. In the same scene, there's a moment of brilliance when Jason Patrick Rothery's soldier is short on a weapon and finds a pink umbrella from a previous scene as his gun. Doug Price and Ryan Field are priceless in their roles, while Gregory Prest is a particular standout in his multiple roles.

Alison Jutzi has a loveliness in her singing, while Raquel Duffy, Karen Rae and Tatjana Cornij are wonderful.

However, Albert Schultz's direction is uneven. There are some brilliant moments in staging, particularly the finale songs in both acts, and the use of 4 pianos as instruments and set pieces, but the entire show misses the spark of silliness the title implies and that Joan Littleton and the Theatre Workshop had written in (and they had written in for a relaxed, improved feel). The show is far too serious and somber and while Ken Mackenzie's Set and Video design, and Lorenzo Savoini's Lighting is particularly amazing, the practically non-existent choreography and Schultz's poor pacing drag the show down and loses all the brilliancy of Oh What A Lovely War.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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