Saturday, April 21, 2012

Let the Farce Be With You - Clybourne Park, The Game of Love and Chance, One Man Two Guvnors, Potted Potter - Play Reviews

Clybourne Park - Studio 180 and Canadian Stage Company at Berkeley Street Theatre - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars) Written by Bruce Norris, Directed by Joel Greenberg Runs until Apr 28th 2012 (Also running on Broadway in different production based on the original Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons)  

The Game of Love and Chance - Canadian Stage Company at Bluma Appel Theatre at the St. Lawrence Centre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars) Written by Marivaux, Adapted and Translated by Nicolas Billon, Directed by Matthew Jocelyn Runs until May 12th 2012
One Man, Two Guvnors - Music Box Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars) Written by Richard Bean, Directed by Nicholas Hytner 

Potted Potter - Panasonic Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars) Written by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner Begins previews Off-Broadway at the Little Shubert Theatre on May 19th 2012, Opening June 3rd, until Aug. 19th 2012

As they keep saying, dying is easy, but comedy is HARD. And Farce, a particular branch of comedy, has slowly disappeared from our stages in these contemporary times, but a few current shows are bringing what's seen as a lowbrow art to the highbrow stages. Canadian Stage is doing a new translation of Malivaux's The Game of Love and Chance while the National Theatre of Britain has found a huge hit in and updated version of The Servant of Two Masters called One Man, Two Guvnors in London, and it seems like it'll repeat its box office success on Broadway. Meanwhile, every city, including Broadway, seems to be performing last year's Pulitzer winner Clybourne Park. While not actual farce, and with the label as the Pulitzer winner for drama, a repeat viewing of Clybourne Park (in Toronto, after first seeing it at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. last year) reminded me how funny the play actually was, with it devolving into an almost farcical in the second act, all while hitting some serious issues in a very funny manner.

Then there's Potted Potter which also ran in London's West End, then Toronto, and soon opens in New York. With its premise of performing all 7 Harry Potter books in 70 minutes, its creators and performers Dan and Jeff have a magical time trying to get through the hundreds of characters re-telling J.K. Rowling's epic story in a low budget romp.

Seeing Clybourne Park for the second time in a completely different production only cemented for me how clever and genius Bruce Norris' play is. As a counterpoint to A Raisin in the Sun (which is not necessarily required to enjoy and appreciate this new play), Norris looks at the house that was being sold to the Black family in Lorraine Hansberry's play. We're in the very White neighbourhood of 1949 Clybourne Park and Karl (from A Raisin in the Sun) takes up issues he has with the sale of the house to the incoming Black family. The current homeowners Russ and Bev, their maid Francine and her husband Albert, and the neighbourhood priest Jim, weigh in on the debate. Without giving too much away, the second act fast forwards to 20009 Clybourne Park, when a White couple have purchased the same house in a now predominantly Black neighbourhood and plans to completely redo the house.

With the same cast playing two sets of folks from two different times in America, all within the same house being discussed, the play goes full force on issues of race and urban development, from architecture to the bricks to build a community. The play questions what society owes to us, and what we make of a neighbourhood. The characters questions each other's ethics, and each other's tastes. There are some serious and intellectually fascinating issues through the entire play, and yet, the play is VERY funny and almost devolves into a madcap slamdown of tasteless jokes, written purposely into the story to break down the very heart of underlying issues simmering beneath the politeness we attempt convey.

The Toronto ensemble cast is terrific, with Maria Ricossa doing a wonderful mother Bev and a hilarious lawyer Kathy. Michael Healey grunts his way while standing his ground nicely as Ross. Audrey Dwyer gets to have a lot of fun changing from the polite maid Francine to the "polite" neighbour Lena. Everyone gets to have fun with the intermission character switch up and local faves Jeff Lillico and Sterling Jarvis continue to do great work, while Mark McGrinder is perfectly slimy as Karl and Kimwun Perehinec does a complete switchover between the two acts (which I won't spoil).

The Game of Love and Chance over at Canadian Stage's other theatre is a cute and fun little farce about two classes of singles who mix it up to try to get the upper hand in what ends up being a comedy of love errors. When Monsieur Orgon (William Webster) gives word to his daughter Silvia (Trish Lindström) that a handsome suitor Dorante (an endearing Harry Judge) is about to visit, Silvia hatches a plan to pretend to be her servant Lisette (a positively bubbly Gemma James-Smith). Meanwhile, Dorante had the same idea to switch places with his servant Arlequino (a hilariously fit Gil Garratt) all while Orgon and Silvia's brother Mario (a sly Zach Fraser) know of both schemes.

The cast has a lot of fun with the switcheroos, with James-Smith and Garratt upping the energy with particularly winsome performances, and Fraser having a ball trying to throw the pairs of gaming lovers a wrench or two, but as they games of love and chance play out on the beautiful set by Anick La Bissonnière, Matthew Jocelyn could have upped the zaniness level that the story lends itself to. Lindström's Silvia is particularly heavy in a role that requires a cynical woman, but in such a delightful farce about love, the role could still be played with an airy lightness in keeping with the show.

One Man, Two Guvnors definitely has no problem being zany. It thrives on it. Particularly when star James Corden (Gavin & Stacey) is at centre stage of this very silly farce full of slapstick and pratfalls. While the play itself is pretty simple and almost negligible (about a large man working for two "guvnors" (employers) so that he can feed his large appetite, all while the two guvnors are unknowingly connected), the show keeps the audience grinning, when they're not howling with laughter, at every moment, including starting the show with a Beatles'ish band The Craze (featuring the talents of Jason Rabinowitz, Austin Moorhead, Charlie Rosen and Jacob Colin Cohen, all deserving of teenage fandom) who intermittently show up to entertain us with more boppy music between the boppy comedic scenes.

Oliver Chris (who's bio in the Playbill alone is worth going for) and Tom Edden are absolutely hysterical in their absurd performances (that I hope Tonys won't forget) as one of the guvnors and a new waiter, respectively. Suzie Toase and Jemima Rooper are wonderfully lovely as Dolly and the 2nd guvnor, respectively, while Claire Lams and Daniel Rigby are adorably funny as the central romance that are forced to split apart in a case of mistaken identities (of sorts). Still, this is James Corden's show and we all know it. The rest is just all set up and it's fun but then James shows up and it's f-word fun. Actually, while Bean's play is a fine template for all the shenanigans, it's the improvised stuff from James Corden that had me in stitches, particularly when our friend Rachel accidentally "stopped" the show. So not sure exactly how that scene is normally played out, but without revealing too much, even Corden broke character and added some hilarious asides that made the night.

The Potted Potter boys, Dan and Jeff, gave me the same zany farcical performance with silly jokes and antics that Corden reminded me of in One Man, Two Guvnors. While Rachel disagreed, and I agree no one is quite the expert as Corden is, Dan and Jeff have created a wonderfully silly little show that lovingly sends up Harry Potter and the gang. While I actually saw it twice, the second time with the understudies, it's really Dan and Jeff who make the show as funny as it is, including working in some hilarious improvised quips. The show goes through every book in JK Rowling's series but some abridgements are particularly funnier than others, although the biggest flaw is that the last book is slightly shortchanged. Still, if you're a Harry Potter fan, Dan and Jeff will win your hearts in an amusing whirlwind guide to Harry Potter's world.

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Saturday, April 07, 2012

Hot Summer Fights - Was Spring and Other Desert Cities - Play Reviews

Was Spring - Tarragon Theatre Extra Space - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written and Directed by Daniel MacIvor
Runs until May 6th, 2012

Other Desert Cities - Booth Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Jon Robin Baitz, Directed by Joe Mantello

Daniel MacIvor's newest play Was Spring is a beautifully poetic look at three generations of women as they spar against one another as they recount to the audience (in some hilarious asides) their feelings of one another as they struggle to deal with life and a tragic event. Without giving too much away, the brilliancy in the details of the three women's performances, Clare Coulter as the cutesy and vulgar elder woman, Caroline Gillis as the snarky and embittered middle aged one, and Jessica Moss as the young hopeless romantic, made it easy to spot MacIvor's clever framing of the play. While the play has some beautiful, thoughtful and funny insights on women, life, and their struggles, the overall play doesn't become quite as powerful as the initial set up has prepared itself for, nor does it quite give the impact the three actresses seem to be delivering.

Clare Coulter as the older woman, and Jessica Moss as the young naive girl, give particularly strong and satisfying performances. Coulter's delivery of the sass and wit, with the touch of dreary resolve, captures your attention right from the start and she doesn't let the audience go until she calls for the lights at the end. The sparkle in her eye shows the years of living she's letting go, just as the two younger women remind her of the good times and the bad.

Jessica Moss (Fringe's Modern Love) blends a naive youthfulness with a decisive denial that keeps her on this side of the stupidity line, making her all the more adorable and believable. As she trades barbs with Gillis, but sticks to her sunny demeanor, her hope becomes our hope.

As a character study, MacIvor's new play is fascinating and curious, and while it is never boring, I found the play to sort of float away into a dreamlike memory. Hazy, with happy memories, but with the details blurred so that you couldn't remember. Despite a clean and highly effective simple set of reflective tinted glass and three chairs (by Kimberley Purtell), MacIvor's simplicity in his production may have oversimplified the effect and left the performances to overpower the play itself.

In Jon Robin Baitz's (Brothers and Sisters) new play Other Desert Cities, a simple tale is twisted into big drama as lies and more lies entangle a rich white family (are there really any other plays on Broadway?) where the grown kids confront their Republican parents on a dark tragedy in the family's past.

The whole story is slowly revealed to us after the lies some family members have told begin to unravel. One could see it as a lot of unnecessary drama created by the characters themselves to save face, with much ado about almost nothing, but Baitz twists it all up as we follow Brooke Wyeth's, the adult daughter, wrenching return as she tries to publicly deal with her side of a family tragedy by writing a revealing book, one that the rest of the family wants to bury. If only the parents told the truth from the beginning, or sooner, none of this drama would exist, but the Broadway cast works its astounding magic to create a believable and fascinating play.

Lead by Stockard Channing and Rachel Griffiths (now replaced by Elizabeth Marvel) as mother and daughter, it's a powerhouse of raw emotions that pour onto John Lee Beatty's beautiful desert home set. Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation, The West Wing, Grease) is a hurricane of upper crust values as she vehemently defends decisions as she's backed into a corner by her daughter. Rachel Griffiths (Hilary and Jackie, Brothers & Sisters, Six Feet Under) is the liberal leaning daughter who still enjoys the luxury her conservative parents have provided her, and Griffiths slinks her way to point her buried anger towards her parents, justified or not, and Griffith's Brooke soon makes no apologies. The progression Griffith takes Brooke is so natural that you forgive a lot of the play that this drama is almost self created by these characters. (Yes I know a lot of drama is self created and there would be no stories otherwise, but this one seemed particularly so, and if it were any other actors, I probably would have screamed "just tell the truth").

Sitting on the sides is Brooke's aunt, who nudges Brooke to reveal the truth, all while always holding onto a drink glass. What easily could have been a caricature part, the side role for comic effect, is giving a full throttled no-holds-barred performance by Judith Light (Ugly Betty, Wit, Who's The Boss?). If you've only ever thought of Light as a lightweight performer on sitcoms, look again. Light is magnificent.

The men, Stacey Keach as Brooke's father, and Thomas Sadoski (now replaced by Matthew Risch) as Brooke's brother, give equally powerful performances and hold up toe to toe against the women on stage, but this play is really geared towards the three women, who overtake the beautifully lit house (lighting by Kenneth Posner).

While the two plays, Was Spring and Other Desert Cities, both written by men, aren't quite as great as they could have been, each has created three beautifully juicy roles for women. Allowing six superb actresses in Toronto and New York to fill those characters to such stunning and satisfying effect. Was Spring could have probably benefited from a plumper production to balance the simple and beautiful poetic prose and some of the stinging plain truths in the characters diatribes, but nonetheless, there's a nice calm to MacIvor's new show that you cannot dismiss. Baitz' Other Desert Cities has the plumper production and story thread that hides the simple story, but when you're distracted by the magnificent set, or the magnificent acting, I was willing to go with the narrative and simply let Griffiths, Light and Channing take me along for the sizzling night of familial fighting.

Was Spring Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Other Desert Cities Photos by Joan Marcus

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