Category Archives: Reviews of the performing arts

Sexual identity takes centre stage in Cock


By Mike Bartlett

Directed by David MacPherson

Theatre Inconnu

May 5 – May 23

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

What do you think of when you hear the word “cock?” English playwright Mike Bartlett had at least three meanings in mind when he wrote the play Cock, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009 and opened at Theatre Inconnu on May 7.

First, and perhaps not surprisingly for a young man still in his twenties when he wrote his play, Bartlett was thinking of that part of human anatomy found exclusively on the male of the species.

John, the main character (played by Robert Conway), has left his long-term gay lover, “M”, (John is the only character with a name) and has unexpectedly fallen in love with a woman, “W”, but he hasn’t lost his fascination, it seems, for that special part of the male body. As he is making love to W for the first time, he confesses: “I’m worried is there going to come a moment when I’m missing his cock.” And when he gets scared and runs back to M, he tries to assure him of his sincere desire to reconcile by saying: “I still whack off to you every night.” Charming fellow, this John!

For some inexplicable reason, both of John’s lovers want him and are prepared to fight for him. When M (played by Cam Culham) convinces John to invite W (played with delightful spunk by Melissa Blank) to dinner at their home so that they can all sit down and “talk things over,” the scene is set for the second meaning of “cock.” Bartlett explained in a published interview that, during a visit to Mexico, he discovered they still have cockfights there—“an activity where you come together for a ritualized killing of an animal—where you come because they’re going to suffer, and you’re like a mob surrounding this fight to the death.”

And that’s how this play is staged: the audience, cast as the mob, seated on four sides surrounding the action, as if to watch a fight to the death.

No one dies, as it turns out, but there is a considerable amount of suffering on all sides. John has led each of his lovers to believe he has decided in their favour and is just waiting for dessert to reveal his choice to the other. M, who knows John well, has his doubts, and has invited M’s father (“F,” played by Eric Grace) to dinner for emotional support. It soon becomes clear that John hasn’t made a choice, and despite pressure from all sides, is incapable of making one. Out of this emerges the third meaning of “cock:” “[I]n Britain, if someone’s really irritating,” the playwright explained, “you think ‘Oh, he’s a complete cock.’” John is a complete cock.

John isn’t the only irritating thing about this play. It breaks with many conventions of stage plays. For example, the playwright has dictated that it should be played without scenery, furniture or props. Even worse, it’s played without “mime,” that is, without actions that suit the dialogue. At one point, John demands that M take off his clothes. The dialogue seems to indicate that M has complied, but the actors remain clothed. At another point, the dialogue indicates that John and W are making love, but the actors aren’t even touching. According to the playwright, the intent is to place the focus entirely on the drama of the scene, but I found the discontinuity between the dialogue and the action shattered my focus and took me out of the drama of the scene.

Bartlett claims Cock is intended to be an examination of how rigid definitions of sexual identity can interfere with making a choice based on the person one is drawn to. I can think of scenarios that would explore this dilemma dramatically, but this isn’t one of them. John doesn’t experience any character development in Cock; he’s much too passive for that. As a result, the play was as frustrating for some of its viewers as John was for both M and W.

Sometimes, though, frustration can lead to passionate involvement. When I was walking back to my car after the performance, I came upon two women standing on the sidewalk talking about the play. I joined them, and the three of us hashed it over, rewrote the ending, made the choices John refused to make. We were so caught up in our heated discussion it was a long time before we noticed the chill of the cool night air.

Maybe that’s why Cock won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2010.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.  

Workman delivers in tragedy turned rock opera

The God that Comes

Co-created by Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry

Directed by Christian Barry 

Belfry Theatre Spark Festival,

March 17-22

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Five years ago, disgruntled by changes under the Harper government (“It wasn’t the Canada I’d grown up in anymore”) playwright Christian Barry chanced on a copy of The Bacchae by Euripides. He contacted Juno-winning rock musician Hawksley Workman, whom he had seen perform in Montreal, and said: “I think I’ve got something we could work on.” The God that Comes was about to be born.

In 2012, this rock-opera—then “in-progress”—was performed at the Metro Theatre. It was back in town for a short run as part of the Belfry’s Spark Festival, an annual program featuring new Canadian theatre from other regions of the country. (Barry is co-artistic director of 2b Theatre in Halifax.)

In Euripides’ 2400 year-old Greek tragedy, a repressive king seeks to quell the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine, sexual liberation and—not to put too fine a point on it—theatre. The king fears Dionysus because the god is reputed to be able to subvert the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Disguised in women’s attire, the king makes his way to the top of a mountain where a Bacchanalia is in progress. When the women worshippers discover the king spying on them, they tear him limb-from-limb. The king’s own mother, under a spell of ritual madness, hallucinates that he is a lion and rips his head off. (Note: most of this was explained to the audience by a wine-sipping Workman in a prologue before the show at the Belfry got underway.)

And then the music began. With the ritualistic beat of drums, Workman’s signature instrument, the singer chanted “He knows what it takes to make us. He knows what it takes to break us.”

Mannequins at the rear of the stage depicted the main characters: the king sported a military hat; the god, a red feather boa; and the queen mother, a blonde wig; three characters but only one performer. Sometimes Workman donned the identifying article of a character when assuming that role; sometimes a spotlight simply illuminated that mannequin as he sang.

Moving easily from one instrument to another (Workman played several, including electric and acoustic guitars, recorder, ukulele, harmonica and keyboard) and adjusting his amazing voice (a growl through a megaphone for the king; tenor for the god; falsetto soprano for the mother), Workman sang all three of the characters, successfully making each one—even, in the end, the doomed king—sympathetic. Strobe lights, and digital delay loops playing back his just-recorded voice and music in rippling echoes, created a hypnotic effect. As the tension mounted to the moment of the king’s murder, the strobe lights became so intense I worried they might trigger an epileptic seizure in someone.

After all the atavistic violence, a quiet denouement ensued, but an electric sign in red letters proclaiming “Don’t stop love” seemed incongruous. For me, this phrase recalled the same-sex marriage struggle in the United States. In a telephone interview, Barry admitted the resonance, but deemed it coincidental: “When I saw [a sign like this] in New York, it opened my heart, and I knew I wanted that in the show.”

While a tour de force of musicianship, it’s difficult to say whether the show opened hearts or minds, either to love or to an awareness of political repression. Barry wants the show to be something that people listen to “with their muscles first and with their minds second.”

Considering the continual patter of sexual innuendo (“…and the god …came!”) and overt sexual gestures (including simulated cunnilingus with the female mannequin), it was easy to guess which muscle the men in the audience were likely listening with and hard to know whether their listening ever transitioned to their minds. It wasn’t the sex per se that was objectionable, but the attitude toward it: Hair celebrated cunnilingus back in the 1960s, but Hair was joyous; in this solo cabaret based on a Greek tragedy, the sexual references just seemed smutty.

When this run closes, it will mark the 116th performance of the show, and there is no end in sight. The two co-creators will be off to Hong Kong to spread their dual message of repression and liberation to other parts of the world. The long development period now behind them, Barry insisted the show is nevertheless a little different with each performance because Workman intuitively responds to the energy of each audience, and he concluded, like a fond papa: “I’m proud of it every night.”

Although The God that Comes concluded on March 21, The Spark Festival continues through March 22.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Patience is a virtue in theatre of the absurd

Waiting for Godot

By Samuel Beckett

Directed by Jacob Richmond

Blue Bridge at the Roxy

March 3 – 15

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

When Waiting for Godot premiered in England in 1955, the director, Peter Hall, admitted he wasn’t sure what it was about. Nor was the audience. Some people loved the play; others walked out. Critics gave it mixed reviews.

Samuel Beckett famously refused to discuss the question, but, over the years, he did drop a few hints. When Beckett directed his play in 1975, he explained to his young assistant director that everything in it was “a game in order to survive.” He also once told an actor in the cast that it was “all symbiosis.”

The primary symbiotic pair in this tragicomedy consists of Vladimir and Estragon, two aging men down on their luck, who are waiting, endlessly it seems, for the appearance of a mysterious character named Godot, who never comes. As is true in many symbiotic relationships, these characters differ markedly, but they depend on each other and their relationship is mutually beneficial. Vladimir, as played in the Blue Bridge production by Vancouver-based actor Peter Anderson, is tall and thin, and Estragon, played by Victoria’s own Brian Linds, shorter and round. Vladimir is contemplative, Estragon intuitive. Vladimir is appalled when Estragon, seemingly shameless, solicits another character for money. But they have been together for 50 years, call each other “Didi” and “Gogo,” bicker like an old married couple, and finish each other’s sentences. They turn to each other for affection and brace each other through the endless waiting with games and diversions that often echo early comedy acts such as Laurel and Hardy. (They even wear bowler hats.) Anderson and Linds may not play the roles with quite the same verve as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan did on Broadway in 2013, but their performances are nevertheless emotionally affecting.

Though Vladimir and Estragon traditionally get top billing, there is another symbiotic pair in this tragicomedy: Pozzo and Lucky. While Vladimir and Estragon are grounded in the human condition (Vladimir suffers from prostate problems; Estragon has feet so swollen he can only remove his shoes with difficulty), Pozzo and Lucky expand into metaphor. Pozzo, played by Scott Hylands as a whip-wielding tyrant who drives Lucky by a rope around his neck, and Lucky, played by Trevor Hinton as a thoroughly beaten-down, drooling slave, nearly steal the show. Even Vladimir and Estragon can’t take their eyes off Lucky as Pozzo puts him through his paces, commanding him to dance and then to “think” aloud. It’s not until Act Two, when Pozzo and Lucky return, that the symbiotic nature of their relationship is made clear. Pozzo, now blind, and Lucky, now dumb, are still tethered together, but now the rope is shorter and Lucky uses it to guide Pozzo on their way.

And what of Godot (pronounced, we learn, “GOD-oh”)? Beckett swore he was not intended to be a God figure, despite the name. But it isn’t the name, so much as the act of waiting that is important in this play, the endless waiting in an utterly barren landscape where the only sign of natural life is five leaves that miraculously appear on a denuded tree at the beginning of Act Two. (Regrettably, the absence of a curtain in this production spoiled the miracle because a stage hand had to stick the leaves on the bare branches in plain view of the audience during intermission.)

Waiting for Godot emerged from theatre of the absurd, which posited that, while inherent meaning might very well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it and are thus doomed to the absolute absurdity of existence without intrinsic purpose—a frightful prospect. I was puzzled when the play opened to the lush strains of “Moonlight Sonata.” This music seemed so inappropriate for the sterile landscape and harsh existential theme. That it was the perfect choice became apparent as the play ended. The final tableau, a mastery of stage lighting designed by Rebekah Johnson, poses Di-Di and Go-Go silhouetted side-by-side against a full moon, reaching across the void to grasp each other’s hands. Waiting for Godot is not a play about despair; it is a play about the triumph of the human spirit.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover. 

Human nature laid bare in ambitious production

Lion In The Streets

By Judith Thompson

Directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz

Phoenix Theatre, University of Victoria

February 12-21, 2015

Reviewed by Madeline McParland

Celebrated Canadian playwright Judith Thompson’s Lion In The Streets premiered 25 years ago to immediate acclaim. Set in an ethnic Toronto neighbourhood, the play is a series of interconnected stories that explores the complexities of human nature and exposes indecent behaviors that are often ignored. Director and choreographer Conrad Alexandrowicz has brought his interpretation of Lion In The Streets to life with UVic theatre students, in one of the most ambitious productions I have seen staged at Phoenix Theatre.

Isobel (played by Lindsay Curl) is the play’s central protagonist. The lost Portuguese girl is always present on stage, sometimes as the focus and sometimes as part of the audience, watching the troubled lives of her neighbours unfold. The first half of the play examines class issues and suburban life in Canada. Some intense moments dealt with marital infidelity, but the play also touched on humourous idiosyncrasies of contemporary life, such as Zoë Wessler’s portrayal of a mother, named Laura, who had everyone laughing at her shrill scream of “Bullshit!” when she interrogated a teacher about her child’s sugar intake at daycare. Multiple storylines made the plot difficult to follow at times, but dynamic acting compelled me to stop asking questions. Instead, I was caught in each powerful moment.

At first, I thought it peculiar most actors were present on stage, whether they were involved in the scene or not. They sat upstage and stood from time to time to rearrange chairs to fit the scene. Few props were used beside the chairs; instead the actors relied on intense physicality, acting as props or performing stunts. Actors not starring in the scenes, dressed in black, flitted around the main characters, sometimes to assist in spinning the characters in the air to emulate happiness. Other times, they would act as barriers to signify when a character felt emotionally trapped. Eventually, I decided this was a beautifully intriguing aspect of the play, and I recognized this perhaps as a trait of Alexandrowicz’s, an Associate Prof. at the University of Victoria, who is also artistic director of Vancouver company Wild Excursions Performance.

The humour came to a devastating halt in the second half of the play, when heavy social issues were explored deeply. Starting with Arielle Permack’s impressively strong portrayal of a woman with cerebral palsy, each scene hit harder than the last, dealing with emotionally charged issues such as gender, marital abuse, child abuse and death.

I was unsure how the stories would tie together in the end, yet I came to realize this play was truly about surrendering assumptions about storytelling. As the young girl Isobel watched these individuals’ experiences from beyond, just as the audience did, it became less about the mystery of her presence, and more about the reality of the convoluted, and disturbing, moments life can bring us.

Madeline McParland is a UVic student and freelancer.

Belfry double bill a study in contrasts

The Best Brothers

By Daniel MacIvor

Directed by Glynis Leyshon

How to Disappear Completely

Co-created by Itai Erdal, James Long, Anita Rochon and Emelia Symington Fedy

Directed by James Long

Belfry Theatre

January 27 – March 1

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

The Best Brothers and How to Disappear Completely, a pair of one-acts currently on offer at the Belfry Theatre, share a common theme: exploring the impact of a mother’s death on her adult children. But the approach to this theme and the manner in which it is executed provide an illuminating study in contrasts.

For starters, The Best Brothers is a “text-based” play written by an award-winning Canadian playwright and acted by professional actors; How to Disappear Completely was co-created by a team and is performed by a professional lighting designer who insists he is a “performer,” not an actor.

One look at the scripts (which are available from the Belfry box office for perusal in-house) reveals a stark difference: The Best Brothers script tops 100 pages; How to Disappear Completely is only 22 pages long. And yet they clock in at close to the same length when performed. Much of The Best Brothers’ brisk pace is due to short, truncated lines which reveal the conflict between the brothers, Kyle (played by Ron Pederson) and Hamilton (played by John Ullyatt), as they blunder through the post-death rituals of writing an obituary, planning a visitation and burying their mother, while confronting their longstanding sibling rivalry. The dialogue is clever and the delivery by both actors polished, but you probably won’t remember much of it after you leave the theatre.

How to Disappear By contrast, in How to Disappear Completely, the script often just points the way forward for the long monologue directed to the audience by Etai Erdal, the solo performer. Erdal meanders from one seemingly disconnected anecdote to another, winning the audience over with his warmth and openness as he confronts mortality and discourses on lighting design in the theatre as metaphor for death. Demonstrating with hand-held controls, Erdal shows the audience how a light called a PARcan has the unique characteristic of growing warmer in tone as it diminishes in intensity. It is at its warmest at one percent, just before the subject being lit disappears completely. When you leave the theatre after this play, you are apt to perceive many things differently, both literally and philosophically, and you may find yourself pondering these new insights late into the night.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the two plays is this: The Best Brothers is a lightweight comedy about fictional characters; How to Disappear Completely is a true story about the death of Erdal’s own mother and his coming to terms with her desire that he help her end her suffering.

At the beginning of The Best Brothers, the  brothers learn that their mother, Bunny, has been killed when a hefty transvestite who calls herself Pina Colada falls off a float at a gay pride parade and squashes little Bunny flat. Hamilton, who is straight and believes, not entirely without cause, that Bunny loved his gay brother better, blames Kyle for her death. Conflict ensues, escalating into physical violence during their eulogy at her funeral. The plot is furthered, but Bunny herself is not well-served, as the brothers alternately don her gloves and hat and deliver extended monologues to the audience in her guise. The introduction of Enzo, Bunny’s nervous Italian greyhound who eats Hamilton’s $250,000 kitchen, provides the one honest moment of feeling in this contrived play. The dog is not physically present, but when Hamilton looks into its cage and asks wistfully: “Why don’t you like me?” you know it’s not really the dog he’s addressing.

At the beginning of How to Disappear Completely, Erdal tells the audience that when his mother, Mery, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2000 and given just nine months to live, he boarded a plane in Canada and flew back to Israel where he was born and where his mother still lived. By way of introducing himself to the audience, he confesses that he has broken every one of the Ten Commandments, then corrects himself by declaring he has never made a graven image. The implication is clear, and the scene is set for the working out of one of the heaviest moral dilemmas that life can ever impose. Mery is very present during this struggle. Erdal, who at the time was studying to become a documentary film maker, was encouraged by Mery to film her illness and death. When Erdal pushes back a curtain onstage, her image is before us, projected onto a large screen. As she speaks in Jewish, Erdal translates into English for the audience. At various times, Erdal shows footage of his sister and best friend as well, not only translating their remarks, but also copying their movements in an extraordinary shadow play of empathy. The result of this co-created performance was thought-provoking and profoundly moving.

As a text-based playwright whose little experience with co-created productions has been particularly painful, I tend to class co-creations with the making of laws and sausages: to retain respect for them, avoid watching them being made. Measuring these two plays against one another, however, has altered my opinion.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Alice sounds a haunting refrain


Co-created by Robert Wilson, Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Paul Schmidt

Based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass 

Directed by Clayton Jevne, Theatre Inconnu

Through Dec. 20

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Even before the Canadian premiere of Alice at Theatre Inconnu begins, artist Robert Randall’s illustrations of a dissolute man, a bright-eyed girl and a rabbit, projected onto a screen, undulate gently as if deep underwater.

It is an early clue about the psychological depth of this surreal musical exploration of the relationship between a Victorian-era author and the real-life child who was his muse.

In 1856, Charles Dodgson, a mathematician and Anglican deacon, befriended the family of Henry Liddell and became a particular friend of Liddell’s middle daughter, Alice. Dodgson, an amateur photographer, posed Alice in various make-believe postures, including that of a beggar-maid in torn clothing. At one point, Dodgson wrote in his diary: “I wish I could free her of all her clothes.”

In 1863, when Alice was 11 and Dodgson had just completed a draft of what he would later publish as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, Mrs. Liddell ended the relationship between her daughter and Dodgson and ordered Alice to destroy his letters. Dodgson continued to write, if not to Alice, than at least about his Alice, and later published Through the Looking Glass.

When Americans Robert Wilson, Tom Waits and Paul Schmidt began to conjure Alice in 1990, they hit on the idea of melding the Alice stories with the real-life relationship between Dodgson and Alice. Wilson, a director known for visual conception, was struck by the image of a photographer with a black cloth over his head. The image also resonated with Schmidt, who wrote the libretto. What must it have been like, he wondered, for a child to be photographed in an era when the process entailed long periods of holding perfectly still, stared at by the camera’s eye? It became his opening scene.

It fell to singer-songwriter Waits to write music and lyrics for the play. In collaboration with his wife, Kathleen Brennan, he created a haunting atmosphere as a counterpoint to the text in which sorrow and reverie, touched by obsession and insanity, rise like a mist around the characters. Theatre Inconnu musical director Donna Williams and the group, The Party on High Street, used an exotic variety of musical instruments, including a horned instrument known as a Stroh violin and the eerie theremin, to achieve an emotionally fragile mood.

Psycho-sexual allusions are never far from the surface. In the Dodgson character’s anguished opening number, “There’s Only Alice,” Graham Roebuck, in the guise of the White Rabbit, sings: “And so a secret kiss brings madness with the bliss.” Alice, played by Melissa Blank, morphs in age, but maintains a strong determination throughout to grow into her own identity. She is not untouched by Dodgson’s obsessive attention, however. In Alice’s last song, as an adult reflecting on her childhood relationship, she signals her continuing attachment when she sings: “You haven’t looked at me that way in years, but I’m still here.”

Hints of pedophilia run through the Alice stories as well. Both acts end with trial scenes in which the Black Queen demands the beheading of, first Alice, then Dodgson, because of inappropriate letters sent and received. This is a crowded tale, populated by seven supporting actors, several of whom play as many as five roles apiece. Imaginative costuming by Shayna Ward, as well as talented acting, effectively disguise this redundancy of roles. Together, the cast and production team bring to life characters from the Alice stories with an edge you’ve never seen in them before.

Despite the condemnation in the scenes derived from the mad worlds created in Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, this play as a whole is not censorious of pedophilia, but rather treats both characters involved in the relationship with sympathy and respect. In a 1993 BBC documentary, the argument was made that the intent is, rather, to see the relationship as “something complex and moving and beautiful, if troubled.” In Theatre Inconnu’s program, director Clayton Jevne advances his hope that the current production will both entertain and haunt the audience “in a way that reminds us that we are all ‘haunted’ by those who have touched our psyches.”

Jevne’s hope is realized. Alice is a play that risks much and touches deeply.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Joan of Arc character study seen in its cultural context

Saint Joan

By George Bernard Shaw

Directed by Kim Collier

Arts Club Theatre Company, Vancouver

Playing through Nov. 23

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Before the audience ever sees Joan of Arc in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, we learn some things about her. The best hens in Champagne have stopped laying while she is kept waiting in the courtyard below and she won’t go away. Why hasn’t she been thrown out, the squire wants to know; are the servants afraid of her? “She is so positive, sir,” replies his steward, enigmatically.

When we finally see her, the steward’s meaning becomes clear. Joan, a mere slip of a girl, a farmer’s daughter who by her own admission “doesn’t know A from B,” converses with her elders and her social and gender betters as an equal. Oh, she’s polite and genuinely warm, but not shy about ordering them around:  “Captain,” she tells the squire, “you are to give me a horse and armour and some soldiers and send me to the Dauphin. Those are your orders from my Lord.” Her Lord, it turns out, is God.

The squire thinks she’s mad, but in the end he does her bidding. Thus begins Joan’s campaign to oust the English “goddams” from France and crown the Dauphin King in Rheims cathedral. She succeeds, at least in part, but by 1431, victory has turned to tragedy: Joan is burned at the stake as a heretic and not one of her former comrades will intervene to save her. How can this be? Well, for one thing, her temerity has become insufferable.

Catching the right tone (sincere friendliness combined with unconscious presumptuousness) was complicated, but Vancouver actor Meg Roe proved herself equal to the task. A slip of a woman like Joan herself, Roe had early on been convinced by her father that Joan was the part to play if she wanted to be a “real” actress. She enlisted the assistance of director Kim Collier and the two of them eventually persuaded the Arts Club Theatre Company to take on the project. “It was fun to play a strong woman,” Roe said in a promotional video, and challenging to inhabit Shaw’s “big ideas.”

Unlike Shakespeare, Shaw places his characters in their cultural contexts. It wasn’t just Joan’s character flaws that doomed her, but also her insistence on a direct relationship with God – a heretical idea in the eyes of the Church hierarchy; her budding nationalism, which challenged the unity of the Holy Roman Empire; and her notions about the divine right of kings, which threatened the feudal lords. Then, of course, there was her rejection of woman’s traditional role and her insistence on wearing men’s clothing. Some dislike Shaw’s “big ideas” and think they make his plays wordy, but, for others – and I am one – the context adds texture and depth.

To make time to explicate his “big ideas,” Shaw eschews pomp and circumstance. Battles are fought off-stage; the king is crowned off-stage; Joan is burned off-stage. Nevertheless, there was no absence of “theatricality” in this production. Soldiers mingled with the audience (at one point, Joan climbed into the balcony to urge her men onward into battle); singers provided her saints’ voices in ecclesiastical music composed by Alessandro Juliani; and an elegantly simple set with a revolving stage designed by Pam Johnson accommodated scenes as diverse as the countryside above the Loire river and the interior of Rheims cathedral.

This is a big show in every sense of the word. Eleven actors took to the boards, most of them double-cast, some even triple-cast, and the production lasted in excess of three hours, including two intermissions. The director cut most of Shaw’s epilogue, but fortunately retained his final line, which resonates today as strongly as ever: “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”

Shaw completed this play in 1924, four years after Joan was canonized. In 1925, Shaw received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

For Victoria residents who want to check into this play more deeply before spending  hard-earned dollars on an overnight trip to Vancouver, there’s a link to Shaw’s preface and the script through Project Gutenberg.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright who wishes she could write like George Bernard Shaw.

Gaslight illuminates psychological abuse


By Patrick Hamilton


Directed by Brian Richmond

Blue Bridge at the Roxy

October 21 to November 2

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

Thankfully, I have never been involved in a psychologically abusive relationship, but, as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I saw it – and heard it – last week at the Roxy Theatre.

If you think Gaslight, set in the London of the 1880s, has no relevance in today’s world, I urge you to catch this Blue Bridge production directed by Brian Richmond. Five minutes into the play, you will be disabused of that silly notion as Mr. Manningham, the abusive husband, played by Vancouver actor Adrian Hough, sets out to undermine his wife’s sanity. Hough’s demeaning tone rings with authenticity and pierces like an ice pick through the heart.

Hough wasn’t solely responsible for this chilling effect. He was given his lines by playwright Patrick Hamilton, who wrote Gaslight in 1938. Hamilton, whose father was a financially inept drunk, was raised in relative poverty (and, one suspects, abuse). His formal education ended in 1919 when he was just 15, but he published his first poem that year and kept on writing. Gaslight made him rich. After six months at the Apollo Theatre in London, the play went on to a four-year run on Broadway. In 1940, it was made into a film in England, and in 1944, MGM released the Hollywood version starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotton. Bergman won her first Oscar for her nuanced performance as the abused wife.

Thea Gill, who plays Mrs. Manningham in the Blue Bridge production, does not, unfortunately, follow Bergman’s fine example. Gill’s interpretation seemed stuck in the high hysterical range. Still, when she got her revenge at the end of the play, it was a satisfying denouement.

Wes Borg, who plays Rough, the retired detective who solves the case of the husband’s long-ago murder of another woman in the same house, provided welcome comic relief as he bustled loquaciously through the mystery with a Scottish accent. (Iris Macgregor Bannerman, who played Elizabeth the maid, doubled as dialect coach.) When he handed Mrs. Manningham a flask of Scotch whiskey and said “It’ll give you faith in your reason like nothing else,” I couldn’t help but laugh.

The technical aspects of the production were mixed. The hiss of the gaslights when first lit provided an ominous touch, and the rise and fall of their light as the mystery progressed was timed to perfection. The blurred black-and-white film of a pianist projected onto the piano at the beginning of both acts puzzled me until I watched the 1944 film and discovered that the husband was a pianist. The film projection coupled with recorded music set a sinister mood and eliminated the need to have a live actor playing. Attention to these technical aspects enhanced the play’s theatricality. The sound design, however, was flawed, or else the microphones were faulty. Volume fluctuated distractingly as the actors crossed from one side of the stage to the other.

When the actors took their final bows on the night I saw the play, Hough seemed momentarily shocked as he was roundly booed. He needn’t have been. The boos were not directed at him but at his character. Booing the villain in early melodrama has a long tradition. Although the practice was less common in later, psychological melodramas like this one, Hough’s superb depiction of the quintessential abusive husband earned him this tribute.

If you need to be reminded that psychological abuse is still a problem; if you want to see an abused wife get revenge; if you want to let off some steam by booing a villain, go see this production of Gaslight at the Roxy through Nov. 2.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover. 

Alumni production packed with energy

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe

Adapted by Ron Reed from C.S Lewis’ Novel

Starring Mark Gordon and Kaitlin Williams

The Phoenix Theatre

Two added shows: Oct. 24 and 25 

Reviewed by Madeline McParland

Phoenix Theatre alumni Mark Gordon and Kaitlin Williams have been touring The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the past two years and now have brought it to the theatre that shaped their careers. The first book of the Narnia adventures is compressed into a famous two-hander play, but for me, C.S. Lewis’s hearty narrative is not well served by the play’s format.

The story is told in retrospect on behalf of brother and sister characters Peter and Lucy, who are revisiting the Wardrobe eight years after leaving home. The two actors recreate 10 different characters between them, including Mr Tumnus, Mr and Mrs. Beaver, the Queen and Aslan the lion. They did an impressive job navigating the play’s entire dialogue  — not an easy feat.

A simple set keeps the characters reminiscing in one room furnished by a chair, a lamp and a wardrobe, with a few fur coats for costume. Minimal props and lighting are used to indicate shifts in character or scenes. However, I found the constant switching back and forth between characters to be underwhelming. Peter and Lucy would talk — and with only a small accent adjustment and a white fur coat they’d become brother Edmund and the Queen.

The first half of the play had a steady pace — Narnia was nicely introduced and all the familiar references were there. Gordon’s portrayal of the Beavers was my favorite, as he hunched and waddled with vigour. I found Williams’s portrayal of the Queen to be her best character: she had the perfect cackle and looked just as irritated with Edmund as the rest of us felt.

Unfortunately, the second half of the play seemed rushed: all the best action was funneled into a whirlwind of shifting characters. Some of the best moments, the battle or the stone table, were undercut with overwhelming narration mixed with hurried dialogue. I was most looking forward to seeing the great lion, Aslan, but alas, he was only portrayed with a small throw blanket the actors passed back and forth.

The book has many beloved magical elements that create its fantastical narrative, and although I admire the play for taking on such an endeavor, the story calls for a performance that is a little more larger than life.

Madeline McParland is a UVic student and freelancer.

Hush Little Daisy

Baby with the Bathwater

By Christopher Durang

Directed by Clayton Jevne

at Theatre Inconnu

Until October 18

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Welcome into the cozy crib of the Dingleberries, the most dysfunctional couple on the block. In this dark parody on parenting, Helen and John start out terrified of raising their child the wrong way. But not to worry. Very quickly, the Nyquil and Quaaludes take over as they relax and ruin him in innovative ways. Though family tension is nothing new in storytelling, Baby with the Bathwater certainly serenades the audience with an unexpected lullaby as we follow Daisy’s life, from his first moments to his 30th birthday. Baby Daisy somehow grows into both the centre of their world and a painful afterthought as his parents switch moods faster than the settings on a blender.

Things complicate further when Nanny marches uninvited into their home– a scary Mary Poppins who is part “Auntie Mame” and part “antichrist.” Lorene Cammiade delivers the character’s warped lines with such a cheerful English accent that I couldn’t help cracking up. The surprise Nanny and her startling antics subvert the saccharin stereotype, and she seems to chastise parents for hiring strangers to raise their children.

This hyperfamily is hilarious. To pull off a hundred-minute play whose entire plot spotlights a baby doll is quite a theatrical victory for both playwright and production. And the audience laughs all the way through. It’s fitting that the baby is a physical prop since the child in the story is treated as more silent prop than person. Durang’s witty dialogue is anything but clichéd as one character reads Mommie Dearest to the poor thing as a bedtime story. And speaking of props, a great one was the red rattle that comes with a warning label: made with lead, asbestos, and red dye no.2. It sums up the toxic love in this story and the universal risks of naïve parenting.

As Daisy ages and sprawls unresponsively on the playground in existential malaise and his neurotic mother goes into passive-aggressive catatonia on the floor at the feet of her drugged-up husband, one can’t help wondering who drove whom crazy – the baby or the parents? The psychology of child development around early trauma and learned behaviours gets fully exploited here. This is a love/ hate relationship as illustrated when Helen yells “I love you. I hate you!” at Nanny before they all go to bed. In the same bed. Ahem. Since Helen always yearned for either “a baby girl or a bestseller” and her writing career never surpasses Spark Notes, Daisy is raised as a girl until 15 years old when his masculinity can no longer be denied.

The ’80s flavour this play, yet it still rings true for today. Sometimes the tragic bolts that strike border on being too random. Strangers run in and out of their lives with disturbing intimacy at first sight. People just happen to be run over by buses. And characters can seem a tad one dimensional at times. But, this is a satirical tribute to all the magical nannies and fairy godmothers of childhood fiction. Instead of a big bad wolf, you get the baby-eating German Shepherd. So it makes strange sense.

Tea Siskin was fabulously funny to watch as a designer mother at the playground. She was Marisa Tomei meets Snow White on valium, as sweet and flaky as homemade apple pie. As Helen and John, Rebecca Waitt and Jack Hayes unravel comically before our eyes, from uptight and spring-loaded to loaded with amphetamines and ambivalence. Still, somehow these extreme characters represent the fumbling of every family with every child.

The giant baby blocks that make up the set spell out small, subtextual words during the play like die and def, and add an increasingly menacing tension between innocence and pain. One can’t help feeling these grown adults raising this child have all the common sense of a baby themselves.

This play arcs beautifully from the absurd to sane. Matthew McLaren plays adult Daisy and brings a needed counterpoint to all the outrageous chaos. When he appears, it’s a wonderful turning point in the play where reality bleeds through and we feel the darkness of the irony – comedy melts into tragedy.

But just when it could sink too deep, the end is a relief, the proverbial diamond ring that should come since the mockingbird refused to sing throughout Daisy’s unfortunate childhood. Despite the traditional lullaby being perverted in every possible way, it somehow ends on a final note of hope and that is so rewarding after the emotional mess that poor Daisy endures. This ending is earned. Normal has never been so refreshing. If there is one positive message you can take home with you from Baby with the Bathwater, it is this: you can survive your childhood and rewrite its song.

Leah Callen is completing her MFA in playwriting at the University of Victoria.