Revolution, reversal, revulsion: Soulpepper’s disturbingly hilarious, brutally satirical, timely Animal Farm

Rick Roberts, Sarah Wilson & Miriam Fernandes. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper brings George Orwell’s chilling and bizarre cautionary tale of revolution, politics and corporate greed to life with its world premiere of Anthony MacMahon’s stage adaptation of Animal Farm, directed by Ravi Jain, assisted by Darwin Lyons, currently running at the Young Centre in the Distillery District.

Originally written as an allegorical representation of the rise of Stalin in Russia, Animal Farm gets a decidedly contemporary take in this stage production—it’s all too familiar and hits the mark with discomfiting accuracy.

The animals on Farmer Jones’s farm have had it with their lives and working conditions. Inspired by elder pig Old Major’s (Jennifer Villaverde) “All animals are equal” speech, they plan a revolt, resulting in casualties, including their beloved comrade Bessie the cow (Leah Cherniak). When it comes time to organize in the aftermath and make a plan to take over the farm going forward, the pigs take charge, and eventually comprise the only candidates for the leadership election. Moderated by his right-hand pig Squealer (Miriam Fernandez), the right wing, conservative Napoleon (Rick Roberts) faces off against the more progressive, liberal-minded Snowball (Sarah Wilson) in a debate—and things get ugly. Accusing Snowball of colluding with the humans, with her book learning and desire for committees and studies, Napoleon effectively bullies his way to the win, with his Doberman allies (Paolo Santalucia and Sugith Varughese)—who later become his security/muscle—chasing Snowball off.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Oliver Dennis and Guillermo Verdecchia. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Projecting an image of strength, resolve and deep caring for everyone, Napoleon is a master of providing easy answers to complex questions—and what the populace wants to hear. His promises of a better life and golden years of relaxation in a field of clover win over the exhausted and simple-minded alike, including the lovable old horse Boxer (Oliver Dennis). But the farm’s donkey Benjamin (Guillermo Verdecchia) and chicken Mercy (Raquel Duffy) aren’t so convinced. Napoleon, who prefers building fences to bridges, is highly suspicious of the neighbouring farm animals (in an insightful parody of foreign trade/relations); yet is constantly shifting position on the nature of those relationships (aptly illustrated when he blind-sides Mercy on an AFNN interview). Even worse, domestic policy makes labour conditions even worse and puts social services on life support, forcing the old and injured to continue working without proper medical care (Michaela Washburn’s Doctor is also an animal—you’ll have to go see for yourself to see what kind), medical insurance or employer support to recuperate.

Under Napoleon’s rule, the rich live a tax-cut life of comfort and leisure, while the workers put in longer hours for the same pay, and struggle with basic cost of living and services. Old Major’s original proclamation “All animals are equal” earns the addendum “but some animals are more equal than others.” Who is Napoleon really working for? Once discovered, or even hinted at, the backlash is inevitable.

Kudos to the largely multitasking cast for their solid, compelling performances in this playful but disturbing story of a society gone wrong. Roberts does a fantastic job as Napoleon, giving us an uncomfortably familiar politician; a charismatic leader who can spout whatever he needs to say to save face and maintain support, Napoleon is a dangerously bellicose man, bullying his way to status and power for the sake of the position. Wilson’s Snowball is the perfect opposite; a level-headed and intelligent, but shy opponent, Snowball just can’t muster the level of popularity she needs. The animals are tired, and feeling put-upon and cheated—and the quick, easy answers coming from Napoleon are much more attractive than the long-term, more challenging proposals she suggests. Sound familiar?

Dennis’s sweet but dim horse Boxer and Verdecchia’s sharp-witted, cynical donkey Benjamin make for a hilarious and poignant odd couple of pals. Not one to suffer fools, Benjamin is at his most patient when attempting to teach Boxer to read. And Dennis is heartbreaking as the old work horse Boxer suffers both disillusionment and injury; the policies of their leader—a leader he believed in—dashing his dreams of retiring to clover-filled fields. And the chickens are off the charts with the LOLs! Duffy is both adorable and impressively determined as feisty Mercy, the chicken’s appointed leader; and Villaverde is a laugh riot as the radical, compost-crazed Poophead.

Animal Farm, Soulpepper
Jennifer Villaverde, Raquel Duffy, Michaela Washburn & Leah Cherniak. Set and costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Big shouts to the design team for their incredible, imaginative work on this production: Ken MacKenzie (assisted by Christine Urquhart on set and costumes), André du Toit (lighting), Richard Feren (sound and music composition) and mask consultant Nicole Ratjen.

Animal Farm continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s performance was packed, so advance booking recommended.

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Shades of red & blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Gregory Prest & Michelle Monteith in Of Human Bondage

 

It’s all in how a man carries himself.

Soulpepper opened its remount of Vern Thiessen’s stage adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage at the Young Centre on Thursday. Directed by Soulpepper A.D. Albert Schultz, this is Soulpepper’s third journey with this production—and I finally got out to see it last night, with a packed house that gave it a standing ovation.

Orphaned as a child and painfully self-conscious about his club foot, Philip Carey (Gregory Prest) is a somewhat reluctant medical student; once a painter, and with fond memories of his time in Paris, he got tired of being broke and chose to pursue a more lucrative career path. And that path takes a serious detour when he accompanies friend and classmate, the nervous virgin Dunsford (Paolo Santalucia), to a local tea shop. Dunsford hopes to woo pretty waitress Mildred (Michelle Monteith), who catches the eye of Philip and she goes with him instead.

While it’s clear to us that Mildred is game for any man of good prospect, it is sadly not to Philip, who goes from smitten to obsessed with a woman who does not share his feelings. Obsession turns to possession, turns to rage when Philip learns that she’s become engaged to Miller (Brendan Wall), another tea shop regular. Meanwhile, he’s been flunking his classes and in serious danger of washing out of med school, much to the dismay of his crusty but supportive professor Dr. Tyrell (Oliver Dennis).

With the help of artist pals, painter Lawson (Dennis) and poet Cronshaw (Stuart Hughes), Philip meets the lovely writer Norah (Sarah Wilson), who falls for him—but he not with her. He’s doing better at school, though, and befriends a patient, Thorpe Athelney (John Jarvis), who opens his home to Philip. Philip’s direction changes again upon the return of Mildred, pregnant and jilted. Leaving Norah behind to look after Mildred and her baby, he finds himself at risk of losing his place at med school due to outstanding tuition owing. Desperate to make some extra cash, he invests in the stock market, only to lose it all; then loses Mildred, again, to another classmate, the randy Griffiths (Jeff Lillico).

Hitting rock bottom, evicted from his apartment and kicked out of med school, Philip reconnects with Athelney and his family, including his sweet daughter Sally (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster). And throughout the love and loss, shifting careers—including fashion designer for New York darling of the stage Alice (Raquel Duffy)—and friends and lovers whose lives are connected with his own, he gradually comes to know himself. And finds his life.

Masterfully staged on a red square playing area, set pieces are wheeled in and out, props inventively choreographed, and sharp dramatic lighting highlights the environmental and emotional tone (Lorenzo Savoini, set and lighting design). The whole ensemble (also including Richard Lam) gets involved, portraying figures in paintings, and creating the haunting soundtrack, rollicking music hall ditties and evocative sounds of daily life (Mike Ross, composer and sound design)—all live, onstage in the wings, which are visible to the audience. And, like the Persian rug Cronshaw gives Philip, scenes and characters’ lives weave in and out of each other with beautiful, artistic precision.

Lovely, nuanced performances from the cast. Prest is both heartbreaking and heroic as the quiet, introspective Philip; childish at first in love—loving where he is not loved, and loved where he does not love back—he only comes to find real love and true meaning in life when he finds love for himself. Monteith is captivating and wily as Mildred; forced into opportunism by circumstance, as Philip is a slave to his passions, Mildred is a slave to survival. You may want to dislike Mildred for her cruel, calculated use of Philip, but then you realize that all choices are not created equal in a world divided by class and gender privilege.

Dennis and Hughes make a great pair as the cheeky Lawson and bacchanalian Cronshaw, Philip’s jovial artist friends. Dennis gives Lawson a sweet, concerned nurturing quality; and Hughes brings a gentle melancholy to Cronshaw’s party animal.

Wilson shines as the sharp-witted modern woman Norah; a lovely, supportive girlfriend to Philip, you really feel for her when you see her affections aren’t returned in kind. Lancaster is both tender and irreverent as the quiet socialist Sally; you find yourself hoping—maybe she’s the one.

Shades of red and blue in the tapestry of interwoven lives in the beautiful, theatrical Of Human Bondage.

Of Human Bondage continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District; book in advance online. Get yourself out to see it before the production heads to NYC, to The Pershing Square Signature Center in July for Soulpepper’s first New York season, along with Kim’s Convenience and Spoon River.

Check out the trailer for Of Human Bondage:

 

 

In time so long ago, adventure so passing awesome – Driftwood Theatre’s fundraiser reading of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars

So much big time awesome fun WSSW 2014 Poster Artwork webat Whistler’s Grille last night for Driftwood Theatre Group’s 20th season fundraiser reading of Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Quirk Books): Play in a Pub: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars.

Driftwood A.D. Jeremy Smith put together an incredible cast for this hilarious and engaging evening of theatrical literature/movie mash-up. Joseph Ziegler* did a marvelous job with Obi Wan Kenobi, all wry wit and wisdom. Oliver Dennis was a delight as the prissy and formal C3P0, and Melissa D’Agostino* was adorably Puck-like as R2D2. Dion Johnstone, suitably attired in a black leather vest, brought the perfect balance of cocky and charm to Han Solo. Michael Hanrahan’s smooth bass voice and gravitas were bang-on for Darth Vader. Sarah Wilson was lovely and sassy as Princess Leia. Richard Alan Campbell brought a nice Shakespearean officiousness to The Chorus. Peter van Gestel used all the colours in the box for Luke Skywalker, from the restless boy longing for adventure to resourceful, brave (and love-smitten) young warrior. Awesome voice work/mimicking from Karl Ang as Jabba the Hutt, Lori Nancy Kalamanski as Chewbacca and Helen King as Greedo (all playing multiple roles throughout); and Andy Pogson did a nice job with multiple roles, including Wedge Antilles and some hapless stormtrooper dudes. Steven Gallagher brought it sly and snake-like – was he channeling Olivier? – as Governor Tarkin. And Steven Burley was awesomesauce outstanding in his role as music and sound effects master – all done with his voice, including the Twentieth Century Fox theme music before launching into the John Williams soundtrack at the beginning of the reading!

Driftwood rounded up some excellent prizes for the evening’s auction and raffles, including a live auction for walk-on roles during the reading and a prize for the best costume.  

We did have a blast. We did feel good. And I’m hoping Mr. Doescher continues writing these Shakespeare/Star Wars mash-ups so Driftwood can do this again. I’d love to hear Burley do “Yoda’s Theme.”

*Casting change: RH Thompson was originally set to play Obi Wan Kenobi and Michael Therriault was to read R2D2.

May the force be with thee – upcoming Driftwood Theatre fundraiser is out of this world

Hey kids! Hope the weekend was good for you. Here’s another fantastic one-night only fundraiser event, and this one promises to be out of this world:

WSSW 2014 Poster Artwork webPlay in a Pub: William Shakespeare’s Star Wars: Monday, October 28 at Whistler’s Grille. Driftwood Theatre Group presents a reading of Ian Doescher’s William Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Quirk Books) for this fundraiser for their 20th season of The Bard’s Bus Tour in 2014.

Driftwood has assembled an impressive cast for this unique theatre experience, including: RH Thomson (Obi Wan Kenobi), Oliver Dennis (C3P0), Michael Therriault (R2D2), Dion Johnstone (Han Solo), Michael Hanrahan (Darth Vader), Sarah Wilson (Princess Leia), Richard Alan Campbell (The Chorus), Peter van Gestel (Luke Skywalker), Karl Ang (Jabba the Hutt), Steven Gallagher (Governor Tarkin), Lori Nancy Kalamanski (Chewbacca), Helen King (Greedo), Andy Pogson (Wedge Antilles) and Steven Burley (music and sound effects).

But wait – there’s more! There will be a live auction and a silent auction – plus the opportunity for cosplay to win a prize! Here are the details from Driftwood’s press release: Audience members will be able to get in on the action through a Live Auction offering three walk-on roles as rebels, imperials or interesting creatures. The event will also feature a Mini Silent Auction (featuring 10 boutique packages handpicked by Driftwood Theatre’s board of directors), a Getaway Raffle (win a trip for two to Montreal for some great food, entertainment and luxurious hotel stay) and Best Costume Prize (come as your favourite Star Wars character and you could win BIG).

The action starts at 6:30-8:00 p.m. with the silent auction, with the performance at 8 p.m. Tickets $25 (limited seating). Online at www.driftwoodtheatre.com/event/playinapub/ , by phone at 416-703-2773, or in person at the T.O.Tix Booth (Yonge/Dundas Square). A service charge will apply to all orders.

Seating is limited for this one, kids, so best get yourself online, on the phone or over to T.O. Tix to book yourself a seat on this stellar trip. Hope to see you at Whistler’s Grille (995 Broadview Ave., Toronto)!

You will have a blast. You will feel good. And these are not the droids you are looking for.