Saturday, October 28, 2017

Theatre 2018: Picture This, North By NorthWest, Life After

We are so lucky to have so many options for good live theatre in Toronto.  Over the past month, my husband Rich and I watched three plays from three different theatre companies, including a comedy, a thriller and a musical.

Playing at Soulpepper, Picture This is translated from "The Battle of Waterloo", a Hungarian comedy written in 1924 by playwright Melchior Lengyel.  Picture This is directed by Morris Panych  whose previous production of another Hungarian comedy called Parfumerie was such an overwhelming success that we were excited to watch this one as well.  The comedy opens in the lobby of a grand hotel in Budapest where a group comprised of several actors, a producer, director and composer, all mill around in hopes of meeting and being discovered by Red, a big-time Hollywood film producer.  Through a series of misunderstandings, pretty actress Milli and down-on-his luck producer Romberg assume that Red's friend, the meek, henpecked salesman Mr. Brown, is also a rich movie financier.  Smitten by Milli and excited at the prospect of rebelling against his controlling wife, Mr. Brown agrees to finance a production of a Napoleonic epic called The Battle of Waterloo, putting up his life savings of $5000 to get the film started.  

Although the premise sounded promising, unfortunately Picture This does not come close to the endearing charm of Parfumerie.  The first act in the hotel is played out like a farce with guests and bellhops entering and exiting stage left and right, with a continuous mix up and interchange of luggage which I thought would play into the plot, but ended up to just be a big distraction.  Their initial interchanges set up Milli and Romberg to become a romantic pairing, but this never really comes to fruition and there is not much chemistry between them.

The second act deals with the filming of the movie, culminating in the big reveal that Brown is a fraud. In addition to Milli as Josephine, the cast of the film includes a portly, diva-esque and lecherous actor Boleslav playing Napoleon and a ham actor Hudasek who has to change costumes and portray soldiers on both sides of the battle due to insufficient funding to cast more actors.  Boleslav's temperamental demands include sexual favours from Milli, which are meant to be funny but fall flat completely, especially in light of all the sexual harassment and casting couch scandals currently in the news.  While there were some humorous moments in this play, they were not sustained enough and the characters were not developed enough for you to actually care what happens to them.

As part of our Mirvish theatre subscription, we watched North By NorthWest, based on the classic Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller, once again employing the plot device of mistaken identity. Assumed to be American spy George Caplan, ad man Roger Thornhill is kidnapped by Russian spies.  This leads to multiple chase scenes and attempts on Thornhill's life that involve intricate action sequences including a high-speed car careening down a steep path, the iconic attack by a crop duster plane and the climatic chase atop Mount Rushmore.  One might be skeptical about how all that action could be recreated live on stage, but the imaginative creators of this show were up to the challenge with some ingenious use of pre-taped background video overlaid with live video of miniatures being manipulated by props-men standing in metal cages on either side of the stage.  To simulate car scenes, the protagonists sit on a bench seat that is physically propelled around the stage while the scenery whizzes by on the video screen behind them.  Video is also used to highlight important plot points such as displaying the secret message that Thornhill reads off a piece of paper, newspaper headlines or showing the liquor being poured by the spies that Thornhill is forced to drink as part of the plan to stage his drunken fatal car crash.  It took a while for us to realize what was happening but once we did, it was fascinating to watch.  In a scene on a moving train, the props operator manipulated a cutout of trees in a circular motion, which made it seem like the train was passing through the countryside.

The big payoff in this digital wizardry came in the famous crop duster scene which generated all the tension and excitement as the scene from the movie.  The prop man even left his cage, forming a wide arc with the miniature plane to simulate its path on the video screen.  It felt like catching a glimpse of the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain.  The simulation of Mount Rushmore was planned more as a joke, using closeup shots of the faces of four cast members to represent the iconic mountain.  The actual chase scene was simulated with the use of moving boxes and tables which did not work quite as well in terms of stagecraft.  The one disappointment for us was that sitting in our subscription seats in the upper balcony of the Royal Alexandra, the top part of the screen was cut off from view, which diminished the impact of the special effects.  I wish that Mirvish would take this into consideration when selecting a theatre to stage their plays, or that at least they would warn us so that we could have upgraded our seats prior to the show.  Nevertheless, we really enjoyed watching this faithful live reproduction of a Hitchcock masterpiece that included the pre-requisite "Hitchcock cameo". 

Finally, we watched a new, original Canadian musical called Life After at the Canstage Berkeley Theatre.  It is written by Britta Johnson, who also wrote the delightfully ghoulish musical Blood Ties that was featured on the TV show Orphan Black before being staged at the 2017 Next Stage Fringe Festival.  Life After deals with the exploration of grief, guilt and forgiveness in face of a tragedy that is couched in a mystery.  Alice, her sister Kate, and her mother Beth deal with the aftermath when her father Frank dies in a car accident en route to a business trip.  Alice in particular is wracked with guilt since she had a major unresolved argument with her father prior to his leaving, and ignored his voice message asking her to call him so that they could make peace.  Alice becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of where and when he died, since he should have been on a flight out of town by then.  As it turns out, the mystery is a red herring since solving it doesn't change anything.  Only after working through the stages of grief, forgiveness and acceptance can Alice start to move on.  

This is an extremely ambitious and emotional show that somehow cuts through the melodrama with snippets of humour, mostly supplied by the inane chattering of Alice's best friend Hannah, and from the social commentary provided by a trio who play the role of the "Greek Chorus" as well as ensemble.  Britta Johnson wrote some of the songs years ago when she was only 18, tapping into her own personal grief after her father died of cancer.  Her sister and collaborator Anika Johnson performs in the show as one of members of the chorus.  The frequent repetition of lyrics and high soprano voices make this show feel more like light opera than the typical musical fare.  I can certainly admire and appreciate the powerful, touching story and intricate songs, but I must admit that since I don't particularly like opera or soprano voices, I enjoyed Johnson's Blood Ties much more.  I do look forward to watching future works by the extremely talented Britta Johnson, who is the inaugural recipient of a 3-year residency to produce 3 original musicals for The Musical Stage Company.