Short reviews from Stratford: The Changeling and Bakkhai

by Lynn on June 28, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

Two classics at the Stratford Festival about lust, desire and murder.

The Changeling

At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written Thomas Middleton and William Rowley
Directed by Jackie Maxwell
Set by Camellia Koo
Costumes by Judith Bowden
Lighting by Bonnie Beecher
Sound and composition by Debashis Sinha
Movement by Valerie Moore
Cast: Rodrigo Beilfuss
Tim Campbell
Ben Carlson
David Collings
Mikaela Davies
Ijeoma Emesowam
Jacklyn Francis
Jessica B. Hill
Zara Jestadt
Josh Johnston
Qasim Khan
Robert King
Josue Laboucane
Cyrus Lane
Mike Nadajewski
Gareth Potter
Michael Spencer Davis
Rylan Wilkie

A bracing, compelling production of and rip-roaring play.

The Story. The Changeling was written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley about 1622. It’s about lust, desire and murder. Director Jackie Maxwell has updated this to take place in Spain between 1936 and 1939 during the Spanish Civil War.

A nobleman named Alsemero has fallen in love with Beatrice-Joanna, and she with him. But her father has promised her to another man. Beatrice-Joanna is loved from afar by her father’s servant, De Flores. She knows he loves her but loathes him, first because he’s ugly, and second because she just hates him. But she ever resourceful and wanting what she wants, Beatrice-Joanna convinces De Flores to solve her problem, so De Flores kills the other guy. Beatrice-Joanna marries Alsemero, but of course De Flores wants payback.This is where things get messy.

The Production. The production works beautifully by updating it, because of course, name me a time in which lust, desire and murder aren’t timely. You have a time of uncertainty because of the Spanish Civil War and of Franco’s military presence. There is a scene in which a giant puppet figure of Franco, with his moving hands, walks through crowds on stage. Impressive. Characters in military uniforms wander around scene giving a sense of being watched.

It’s Spain so that sense of heat and heightened emotions are present as well. And there are enough weird things in real life where we know of people who coerce others into doing nasty things to get their way. It’s that whole thing of lust and passion and not thinking straight. It’s not just concerning Beatrice-Joanna. It also consumes De Flores. Under the best of times he is a clear-thinking opportunist. He is a hard-edged, bitter man. And when he gets Beatrice-Joanna to even look at him, let alone ask him to do this ‘little’ thing for her, he’s gung ho. Also the sex between them is powerful so Beatrice-Joanna is at once repelled but also enticed. I just love that panting helplessness between the two of them.

In Camellia Koo’s set here are four archways on steel rods across the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre. At first I think this might be problematic because often we are looking through the steel rods to see the characters on the other side of the stage. But in a way, that obstruction works for the secrecy and intrigue of the piece. Judith Bowden’s costumes are equally impressive. The men are in well-tailored suites often in light fabric as befitting a hot country. The dress for Beatrice-Joanna is form-fitting and flowing at the same time.

Jackie Maxwell has directed a production that is eerie in atmosphere and brimming with seething passion. The chemistry between De Flores and Beatrice-Joanna is that mix of revulsion and then a hopeless lust. Beatrice-Joanna is played by Mikaela Davies. She is confident, spoiled, seductive, coy and dangerous in her flirting. De Flores is played by Ben Carlson. This is a powerhouse actor. He is fastidious in the details of his character—De Flores is efficient, angry because of how he is treated by Beatrice-Joanna but hopelessly attracted to her against his better judgement. When they rage at each other, he is fairly bites off his words. The audience is just swept along with all this intrigue and bubbling emotions.

Comment. A terrific production that bubbles with intrigue, heightened emotions and the breathlessness of desire.

Bakkhai

At the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Euripides
Adapted by Anne Carson in a new translation.
Directed by Jillian Keiley
Designed by Shawn Kerwin
Lighting by Cimmeron Meyer
Composed by Veda Hille
Sound by Don Ellis
Intimacy choreographer, Tonia Sina
Cast: Graham Abbey
Sarah Afful
Nigel Bennett
Jasmine Chen
Laura Condlln
Rosemary Dunsmore
Mac Fyfe
Brad Hodder
Gordon S. Miller
Andre Morin
Lucy Peacock
E.B. Smith
Quelema Sparrow
Diana Tso
Bahia Watson

A production in which the director has obscured the play with her directorial excesses and not allowed the play to speak for itself.

The Story. A story about lust, desire and murder, sort of a theme with these two plays. Bakkhai was written by Euripides about 2500 years ago and adapted by Anne Carson giving it a contemporary feel to it.

Pentheus is the King of Thebes. He’s upset that many of the women of the city have come under the spell of Dionysus, the god of wine, sexual liberation and hedonism. The women have left the confines of their homes and husbands to follow the ways of Dionysus. Pentheus declares war on such behaviour. He even criticizes Dionysus and questions if he is a god or not.

Dionysus tricks Pentheus into dressing as a woman and spying on this group of women in the forest, just so he can get a good idea of the kind of behaviour to which he is objecting. Dionysus gets the last laugh. The women in the forest see a stranger looking at them (never mind in drag and a lousy wig) and they attack him and rip him to shreds, not knowing it was Pentheus. This was particularly brutal because one of the women ripping him to shreds was his own mother Agave. The message is clear: don’t mess with the gods or they will get you.

The Production. You would think that with all this heightened emotion in the play, the production would have captured it. But alas, no.

It’s directed by Jillian Keiley. When she is creating her own productions of original plays created with her own company, Artistic Fraud, she’s terrific. I think of such wonderful work as Oil and Water and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, as beautiful examples of this cohesive effort. She has created a structured way of moving, involving lights, sound, music, sets and sound etc. to work for the whole idea of the show.

But when a story already exists as Bakkhai does along with As You Like It, last year at Stratford and The Diary of Anne Frank, the year before that, then her structured techniques and ‘concept’ don’t work, try as she does to force them on the story. That’s what we have here.

Shawn Kerwin’s evocative set design, which could be the suggestion of genitalia, and her free-flowing costumes for the women and Dionysius, and a suit for Pentheus work nicely.

Cimmeron Meyer’s lighting is initially impressive and atmospheric. I say ‘initially’ impressive because then the lighting seems to take on a life of its own. The Bakkhai (Chorus) are flashed with dazzling light, then dappled with it so that the Bakkhai as people are unrecognizable. The lighting effect seems to be all here, and not illuminating the Bakkhai for us to see them.

Veda Hille has composed an almost pop-music sounding score for the Bakkhai with lots of percussion and throbbing sounds. One of the many problems is that with all that ambient sound the words the Bakkhai sing are often unintelligible. Considering the Bakkhai comment on the play and their words are important, not being able to actually hear them is not a good thing.

There’s so much swaying and writhing of the Bakkhai to form pretty images it often doesn’t serve the story. Interestingly when a character is on stage alone with only the words to say, this is when Jillian Keiley cannot upstage the scene with visual stuff or cluttered sound. It’s almost as if the actors are left to their own devices and this is where the production shines because this is a cast of accomplished actors.

E.B. Smith as the Herdsman is quite emotional describing seeing the women on a mountain. Gordon S. Miller as Pentheus is hot-headed and short-tempered but easily seduced by Dionysus. And I mean that both literally and figuratively. Tonia Sina is listed as an Intimacy choreographer to help in ‘creating’ orgasms. Pity no one from this production saw John Neumeier’s erotic production of A Streetcar Named Desire for the National Ballet. Mr. Neumeier is known simply as a choreographer.

Mac Fyfe as Dionysus is sensual, seductive and almost androgynous which makes him even more mysterious. Also stellar is Lucy Peacock as Agave, certainly when she rushes on, in a frenzy with the head of her dead son (Pentheus), and she isn’t aware it’s him.

Agave arrives with his head in a dark plastic bag she just seems to have found on the way down the mountain of hedonism. She pulls out the head, seemingly wrapped is some blond curly stuff. It certainly does not look like the wig that Pentheus wore to spy on the women so confusion is justified. Surely when his head was ripped off the wig would have come off too. That whole thing seems a bit silly.

What isn’t silly is Lucy Peacock’s gripping, emotional performance. When she is forced to strip off her flowing robes and put on her confining girdle and then her form-fitting tight clothing she was used to wearing she then becomes a woman again confined to a rigid code (smart touch by Jillian Keiley here and Shawn Kerwin). Her grief at what she’s done is heart-squeezing.

Good acting aside, this production is a disappointment.

Comment. A clue to the initial problem lies in Jillian Keiley’s program note. She says that she thought Bakkhai was a feminist tract and forced this concept on the production, until Anne Carson told her that was not the case. Keiley then changed her idea to something else and said she tried to ‘force’ that concept on the production and that failed. Then she decided to let the play speak for itself and all sorts of themes appeared! What an idea: “When in doubt, read the play for the clues, information, instructions about what it’s about!” But then there is Keiley’s need to ‘force’ all the other stuff on the production.

It seems that Jillian Keiley is so intent on forcing her concept on a play that she can’t see it won’t/can’t support the concept. If you don’t trust the material to speak for itself (with mindful direction) then you shouldn’t direct the play. Frustrating.

The Changeling plays at the Stratford Festival until Sept. 23.

Bakkhai plays at the Stratford Festival also until Sept. 23.

www.stratfordfestival.ca

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